Making distance learning work for all

David Briggs
Teachers at West Marin School handed out lunches and packets of homework to families last Monday. Now, the school is assigning work online, settling into a new normal of distance learning for the rest of the year.  

With campuses closed for the rest of the school year, West Marin educators are grappling with how to deliver meaningful instruction to students without leaving anyone behind. Internet access is key in the effort.

Districts are working to secure and distribute Google Chromebooks and internet hotspots to students who need them, and teachers are adapting their curriculum to online platforms. It’s been a steep learning curve.

“The metaphor about school reform is that it’s like trying to repair a car while you’re driving down the freeway,” said Bob Raines, the superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District. “This is like that on steroids.”

The Marin County Free Library has played a huge role in leveling the digital divide by lending out hotspots that provide internet as long as they have a cell signal. Already, the library loaned hotspots to Lagunitas and Nicasio Schools for students to take home; Bolinas-Stinson Union and Shoreline Unified School Districts are waiting.

“We know other locations need them, and we’re working really hard to get them,” said Bonny White, the senior librarian branch manager.

About 30 Shoreline students have absolutely no cell service or internet; for the rest, access varies. Some students have intermittent service or a cell phone, but they can’t stream video or do much more than text and call. Their parents may also be worried about paying the phone bill. 

Then there are students who can easily stream a video from a teacher while their parents are watching Netflix. Accommodating every student is essential, Mr. Raines said. 

Schools got word on Friday, March 13, that a closure was imminent. Teachers at Shoreline scrambled to get materials—from Chromebooks to crayons, scissors and glue, along with paper packets—into the hands of 520 students. “One of the key things there was we wanted to make sure we were sending home authentic work, and not just busy work,” Mr. Raines said.

Schools have been assigning work online or distributing packets since then. The work so far is focused on reviewing topics that classes have already covered, said Julie Cassel, an eighth-grade teacher at West Marin School. Teaching new material will be a challenge that is sure to exacerbate the achievement gap between the district’s white and Latino students.

“The thing that’s been weighing really heavily on me, and I know on other teachers, is: We have inequities in our district, just as we do in the county, the state and the nation. And these disparities that our families face every day, they’re really highlighted in all of this,” Ms. Cassel said. “Whether its access to quality internet, how much support students have at home or how much they are expected to help out—there are massive disparities, and that’s been weighing on me. How do we teach well when a percentage of our students don’t have access to it?”

At Tomales High, teachers have presented online material with varying success. Classes with juniors and seniors have been more successful, principal Adam Jennings said. In the core sophomore classes, all 48 students were invited to a class held over Zoom, a video conferencing platform, but it was difficult with so many people. Now, they are breaking out into six-person groups. Some teachers are also posting lectures on YouTube.

“There’s a lot of different things that people are trying to do with virtual instruction, and so this week we’re kind of in the experimental phase,” Mr. Jennings said.

For smaller school districts, it’s easier for teachers to find time for small-group and one-on-one instruction. At Lagunitas School, teachers provide regular instruction Monday through Thursday, with meetings on Zoom each morning. Friday class focuses on electives while teachers prepare for the coming week. The school distributed 60 Chromebooks and 15 hotspots. 

Anita Collison, who teaches 23 students between fourth and sixth grade at the school’s Open Classroom program, said that teaching from a distance gets easier every day. During morning meetings, students discuss their jobs and choices for the day. Some of the jobs involve online research, writing or math that can be submitted through Google Classroom. Other jobs are meant to get kids away from their devices and into the natural world. 

For example, Ms. Collison asked her students to look at videos of Rube Goldberg machines, in which an overly complicated contraption performs a simple task using chain reactions. After getting ideas, students are supposed to try to create one themselves. They’re also asked to draw, journal and practice fractions.

Her school benefits from having engaged families, Ms. Collison said. She’s constantly texting with and calling parents and students.

Cindy Demchuck, who teaches third, fourth and fifth grades at Laguna School in Chileno Valley, is also using a hands-on approach. In the first week of the shutdown, students solved a three-dimensional animal puzzle. Last week they smashed geodes, this week they are growing crystals. These activities make it easier for parents because their kids are less likely to complain, Ms. Demchuck said. 

Laguna, which has just 10 students, will have to merge with a larger district to stay financially viable if enrollment does not increase by five students by the end of next school year. Without tours and open houses, this plan is becoming increasingly likely.

More broadly, school funding is not expected to be heavily impacted by the shutdown. Employees are still being paid, although some are working in modified roles. School boards are meeting virtually, with links to meetings posted on districts’ websites. 

Bolinas-Stinson School purchased online curriculum software, IXL, immediately after the closure. The software aligns with state education standards and adapts as students work on new skills. It also allows parents to track progress, giving them a window into their children’s learning. Other online software programs are also being relied on more heavily.

To ensure that every student could access online learning, the school expedited a plan to distribute devices next year to every student. Kids below third grade received iPads, and the third through eighth graders checked out Chromebooks. 

“This is a gamechanger,” principal Michelle Stephens said. “It really is, because it’s making us better at what we do.”

It was announced on Tuesday that all schools in the Bay Area would be closed for in-person instruction. Districts will provide families with information regarding how grades, graduation, transcripts and scholarships will be handled in the coming days and weeks, according to Mary Jane Burke, Marin’s superintendent of schools.

Grading practices are likely to change so students aren’t hurt by their physical absence. While an official decision hasn’t been made because colleges are still determining what is acceptable, the initial plan at Shoreline is for students to receive the grade they had before the closure, unless they can improve their grade before the end of the school year. Standardized testing has been cancelled for the year.

Beyond virtual instruction, schools are providing lunches to those who normally receive free or reduced lunch. Staff members are exploring how to support families emotionally, too, but this comes with the realization that as long as classes are virtual, something will be missing from kids’ lives.

“Families are struggling,” said Norma Oregon-Santarelli, the principal of Tomales and Bodega Bay Elementary Schools. “We have a lot of realities that our families are losing their jobs, and they are really stressed right now.”