More than 123,000 schools, 54.8 million students.
The growing health crisis has presented educators with a painful choice. Widespread closures – as has been done, so far, in China, Japan, Italy, and now the U.S – have been shown to slow the spread of disease. But the cost of these life-saving measures is economic and social disruption, especially for children.
Of the institutions the coronavirus pandemic has swept up in its turmoil, K-12 education has taken an unprecedented hit. As of Monday, district closures have touched almost every area of the country, with 46 states demanding complete shutdown, according to an analysis by Education Week.
With most schools locking their doors for who knows how long, students, teachers, parents and administrators have been left wondering what that means for learning. And it seems like the overwhelming answer to that inquiry is something educators have often decried as a distraction – technology.
Starting March 16, Santa Barbara County schools cancelled in-person classes through at least April 3. Some instructors continued with remote instruction before the start of spring break this week while others resolved to reconvene when school resumes next Monday. Nonetheless, educators across the county now must reconfigure their classrooms to an online setting.
Of course, e-learning brings with it some unavoidable consequences. Questions of equity, health and safety come to mind in sending millions of kids away from their eight hours of stability – a particularly unsettling reality for those lacking encouragement at home or even a home at all.
Yet the teachers of Santa Barbara County are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. No matter the setbacks, they’re resolved to provide their students with not just an education but a support system.
At Franklin Elementary, third-grade teacher Leon Lewandowski has toyed with the idea of a nightly “social hour,” where his students can meet up every day from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Zoom, a common cloud platform for video conferencing. And after his first trial social hour last Sunday, Mr. Lewandowski is feeling a little better about staying connected from home.
“They were a little shy at first, but it was really great to see them all talking with each other,” he said. “Emotionally, it’s really important that we all stay connected.”
Mr. Lewandowski anticipated the district’s order to close long before it went into effect last week. As a precaution, he sent kids home with their report cards and a summary of what he planned to cover before Spring Break. Now, as Spring Break sets in, he hopes to remain a step ahead.
“This is officially the time when we don’t need to worry about classes and take time off, but I’d like to get my feet under me,” he said. “I’m just working out the bugs so we can jump in and start lessons the first day.”
Using Zoom during his actual class time, which runs from morning to mid-afternoon on a regular day, and Google classroom for outside assignments, Mr. Lewandowski imagines his students’ schedule to look like it usually does – just mediated through a screen.
To break up the subjects he typically covers like math, reading, and writing, Mr. Lewandowski will play a short video. These could include quick science experiments or reminders to move around, but a chance to relax in any case, much like recess.
After formal instruction is over, Mr. Lewandowski plans on leaving his Zoom session open for an hour, so any kids left with questions or who want to do homework have an easily accessible resource right in front of them.
As an added bonus, Mr. Lewandowski wants to incorporate elements into his virtual classroom that weren’t possible before – like theme days. Pajamas, funny hats, show and tell, and even magic tricks are just a few of the ideas he spouted as he imagined the possibilities an online world opens up.
Yet as much as the teacher has planned, he knows what’s to come is uncharted territory. With this being his first attempt at online instruction, Mr. Lewandowski is expecting the unexpected, hoping other teachers can fill in the blanks.
“It’s really the blind leading the blind,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll share ideas. Teachers as a group of people figure something out when we need to. We’re realizing that we all need to work together to make this happen for everyone.”
And Mr. Lewandowski is looking for all the help he can get.
“I don’t know these programs well enough,” he said. “I’m not seeing what my students are using. They’re all operating on a different device than me. That’s why it’s so important for them to help each other online with the things I can’t see.”
Though platforms like Zoom may not be widely accessible, there’s one thing that gives e-learners in Santa Barbara a leg up in their education – iPads.
Thanks to the techEQUITY program, every SBUSD student in grades four through 12 has a district-managed iPad. While not individually designated to students in K-3, iPads and Chromebooks are also provided in their classrooms.
Cox and Comcast have also announced they will provide 60 days of free internet services to low-income households. Likewise, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon have promised to not terminate services to any customers for the next 60 days and to open WiFi hotspots to anyone who needs them.
But there are some supplies that can’t be brought home. For classes in the arts, whether that’s choir, band or basic pottery, the opportunity to play in an ensemble or fire work in a kiln is inherently harder with remote instruction. This leaves some instructors to rethink not just their method of teaching but their original lesson plans.
Hallie Silva, an art teacher at La Colina Junior High, is taking a different approach altogether.
“I’m not worried about the arts curriculum,” she said. “I’m going to use my virtual class time to ask students, ‘Are you okay? How are your other classes? Are you all right?’ I want to provide a support space. I don’t care about the other stuff. As long as we come out of this in one piece.”
Lesson-wise, Ms. Silva expects to focus more on projects that can be completed with objects typically found at home, like paper and pencils. This means foregoing more elaborate lessons including screen printing and sculpture. Nevertheless, she believes peer-to-peer discussion is what her and her students need most in the midst of a pandemic.
“At least for me and those in education, we love human interaction,” said Ms. Silva. “My roommates working from home say this isn’t any different than being in the office. But this has been a huge transition for me. I miss my students, my staff, my morning check-ins with the custodian that cleans my room. Interaction is important, and that’s gone now. Now I need to figure out how to do that in the transitional period.”
Ms. Silva is nervous about what that limbo could bring. She voiced concerns over kids who may have to take care of their younger siblings while their parents go into work, leaving little time for their own studies.
There are also students who have a tougher time paying attention from their desks, let alone from their bedrooms. In person, Ms. Silva could give someone like this a material to play around with, funneling their distraction into art. Remotely, there’s other things going on she can’t see or even hope to divert from her side of the screen.
Helen Daniel from Santa Barbara High School echoed similar fears. Apart from being a math teacher, Ms. Daniel is also an elective AVID instructor. AVID is a college readiness system that helps students prepare for higher education. The program particularly serves to level the playing field for minority, low-income, and first generation students.
In this way, many of Ms. Daniel’s students may be going home to an atmosphere AVID sought to help them rise above. But the barrier isn’t insurmountable. Ms. Daniel believes as long as she maintains a strong connection with her students, she can still be a source of support and guidance, even from miles away.
“Everyone is so disconnected right now, so it’s going to take a minute to put that back together,” said Ms. Daniel. “We’ll spend three or four assignments sending our favorite memes or putting a photo of our favorite place up on the screen. That will do two things: show me who is connected and also remind us of the funny happy things. We need to be able to share and laugh with each other still.”
Ice breakers will help get over the initial awkwardness of conversing over video chat. Normally, AVID students work together to help one another complete assignments. Ms. Daniel hopes to support those relationships as much as she can in a mediated space. This means additional resources – and a lot of them.
“I’m learning about so many apps and different ways to teach or put information out there,” said Ms. Daniel. “I wouldn’t have reached out to these resources otherwise.”
Ms. Daniel chooses to look at the next few weeks as an opportunity. There’s no question that remote instruction is unfamiliar, but what will come out of the hiatus is up in the air and possibly a step towards expanding education.
“This could be super good,” said Ms. Daniel. “I also think this will help teach students how to access resources better. Now it’s not just me telling them, but (a chance) for them to find information on Khan Academy or some of these other apps. That will be something important for kids to learn as they go to college.”