State superintendent of learning, others discuss virtual learning
With the ongoing pandemic forcing the shutdown of the majority of schools across the state, Assemblymember Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, hosted a virtual meeting Wednesday with California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to provide an update on what is being done to make sure the virtual learning process is as smooth as possible.
Assemblymember Limón was joined by State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson as well as Rep. Salud Carbajal. Also on the call were Santa Barbara County Superintendent of School Dr. Susan Salcido and Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Stan Mantooth.
“We wanted to provide to you answers from the individuals who are making it happen not just at the state level, but also here locally,” Ms. Limón said.
The biggest issues schools face as they move to remote learning for at least fall instruction is that not every student has access to the internet or the proper devices.
Mr. Thurmond cited that about 700,000 students across the state are without a device, prompting him to create a task force to “close the digital divide.”
This includes raising money through donations and also arranging a deal with internet service providers to provide free or low-cost internet in places where it is available.
“That means if you’re a family that wants to use the reduced cost internet, you don’t have to give your social security number, you don’t have to give anything about your financial history. If anybody asks you for that you tell him the state superintendent said you didn’t have to give that because that’s what our task force negotiated,” Mr. Thurmond said.
“We didn’t want anybody being given any fuss, any muss, about applications. If you want it, you should get it.”
Currently, Mr. Thurmond says he has distributed about 100,000 computing devices and more than 150,000 hotspots, but acknowledged that is not enough.
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Additionally, Mr. Thurmond said as the state moves to go into remote learning, family development programs and more mental health programs are being initiated to help students and families adapt to the new normal.
“Every school district got a letter from me this week letting them know that there’s $5.2 billion to use for distance learning to purchase devices, to support social and emotional learning programs, and to support professional development for educators,” Mr. Thurmond said.
He added that he has created a counseling coalition and has spoken with social workers, school psychologists and others to build a network for students so they have the support needed.
Mr. Mantooth agreed, adding that it is equally important to provide these services on top of the normal learning environment.
“In the realm of social and emotional development and providing those supports, I would argue that that is equally as important if not more important than academic achievement. Our world will always have their geniuses but we need to build great citizens,” Mr. Mantooth said.
Mr. Thurmond added that the state has tried to make deals with tech companies to buy more devices and work is underway to provide the necessary infrastructure to places across the state that don’t have internet access, despite pushback from ISPs.
“We had to force some of the internet service providers to apply for that money. They did not want to apply for the money for infrastructure because they don’t want to have responsibility for the maintenance costs, ongoing, and especially in rural communities. We’ve told them that’s unacceptable,” Mr. Thurmond said.
Dr. Salcido confirmed that while the work to get technology is important, so is building the infrastructure for families to have access to the internet.
“I have to say that there are some areas in Santa Barbara County that just do not have access to connectivity at all, hotspots are very hard, and we’ve had many creative approaches to ensuring that there can be connectivity, but it has been a challenge so we’re working on that,” Dr. Salcido said.
She also spoke on the role schools will play in serving students with intellectual disabilities.
“I know that in speaking with special educators, administrators today, they are very focused on how we can ensure that every student with an IEP is served and served very well,” Dr. Salcido said.
“Some of our services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Speech and Language occupational therapy, these are areas that are very hard to do remotely and so we are working on creative approaches.”
One thing under consideration is providing one-on-one, in-person support, as long as it is socially distanced and all proper protocols are followed.
“I just want to acknowledge that that’s an area that needs support and focus. English learners, students who are foster youth, students who are currently homeless, I mean there’s a real need for these students,” Dr. Salcido said.
Mr. Mantooth said that in Ventura County, they will attempt to check in with the students every day and may consider adopting a small classroom size of about five students at a time.
Mr. Thurmond also acknowledged the turmoil many students faced trying to support their families in the spring.
“We know that many students didn’t check in the spring during the pandemic (because) they were scrambling for basic needs. This week I’ve been sending letters to the Secretary of USDA saying we need more flexibility for how California provides meals not less,” Mr. Thurmond said.
Mr. Thurmond says that the California State of Education has also provided educators with more than 60 webinars to try to help them through the pandemic as they transition to remote learning.
They included conversations about serving students with disabilities and serving English learners.
“We are working right now with some foundations to see how we can build out more professional development opportunities for educators,” Mr. Thurmond said.
At the end of the meeting, Sen. Jackson said the most important thing was helping to make sure kids could get back to meeting in person in the near future. Mr. Thurmond shared a similar sentiment.
“We can do something about that, each and every single one of us has the ability to help us get back to flattening that curve” Mr. Thurmond said. “It’s the most important thing that we can do to help get our kids back in school for in class instruction. It’s what we do in the community. I’m grateful for all of you, I thank you for your resilience.”