School to start at home while cases climb

07/22/2020

Marin schools will not reopen for in-person instruction next month as planned, following orders from the governor last week that counties on the Covid-19 watch list must offer rigorous distance learning instead.

The change comes amid a summer of heavy planning by local school leaders operating under county guidance to bring students back to campus. Face coverings, physical distancing, symptom checks and bimonthly staff testing will still be required once schools reopen. But with teachers pushing back on reopening plans while cases and hospitalizations surge, the county health department and office of education changed their recommendations to encourage a phased-in approach. Two days later, the governor made it an order.

“We recognize the concerns and anxiety surrounding the return to the classroom and believe that a transitional approach will allow staff and students to feel more comfortable in this new environment,” said Mary Jane Burke, the county superintendent of schools.

To be removed from the state’s watch list, Marin must maintain a case rate of fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks. The current rate is more than twice that, at around 235.

The focus is now on distance learning, as schools aim to improve last year’s on-the-go approach that left some kids behind. 

Although online learning has many challenges, the governor’s order comes as a relief for school employees who were worried about having to supervise kids under a strict set of rules.

“A weight has been lifted now that we know we are not going to have kids in person, and all of the energy we were spending on traffic routes for school, taking temperatures of kids, all of that stuff, can now be spent on teachers making distance learning the best it can be,” said John Carroll, the superintendent of Bolinas-Stinson Union and Lagunitas School Districts.

More than four months have passed since students were in classrooms. Back on March 13, schools got word that classroom instruction would be suspended for two weeks, and teachers scrambled to send devices and materials home. The closure was subsequently extended through April, then May, then the end of the school year.

Distance learning was difficult. Some students were hard to reach and became disengaged; others had poor internet access or took on new responsibilities at home that prevented them from learning. Technical difficulties were common, and the hours spent teaching over a computer did not measure up to in-class time.

Now, with time to plan, the approach has changed. Rather than simply trying to get to the end of the school year with everyone safe and healthy, the goal is to offer rigorous instruction, with every student attending and live interaction each day.

School districts are digesting the new edicts individually. Shoreline Unified School District, the largest in West Marin with five campuses and 500 students, was aiming to open for in-person instruction based on surveys that found the majority of families wanted kids at school if it was safe to do so. A task force created a plan to return to school on Aug. 19 and sent a draft to families; three days later, the county issued new guidance.

In response, Shoreline is now presenting two options for families: distance learning that will transition to in-person learning when safe, and a remote-learning-only plan. Students on the transition plan will be divided into cohorts smaller than 18 students, and each cohort will have daily group and individual instruction from their assigned teacher. Those cohorts will transition to in-person learning as soon as possible after the district receives approval from public health officials. The district may have an intermediate step of first bringing back targeted groups of kids, like kindergartners, freshmen or special education students.

The other track will consist of daily virtual instruction for students whose parents do not wish them to return to in-person instruction until January at the earliest. Depending on how many students choose the remote option, cohorts will likely be multi-graded, and therefore students will not have as many group lessons. 

Congenial negotiations between the teachers’ union and the district are underway, with the aim of a memorandum of understanding describing how teacher assignments are handled. Teachers with a medical reason to stay home will be the first assigned to a remote-only cohort.

Shoreline operates the only high school on the coast, which presents challenges because students receive instruction in specific subject areas to fulfill graduation and college requirements. The initial plan at Tomales High is to break the usual six-class schedule in half, with three 80-minute classes on alternating days. This will limit screen time, so students don’t have to meet with six different teachers online each day.

Eventually, small cohorts could return to campus, so students who need consistent internet access, a quiet place to work or support with motivation or understanding can get coaching from a teacher.

By creating a steady schedule, expectations will be clearer, teachers will be able to track attendance and students will do their work with webcams on. Last spring, direct instruction was delivered inconsistently, and students were told to complete assignments independently after meeting with their teachers. Many students didn’t show up or do their work. But a stricter virtual schedule was tested in summer school on kids who struggled, and it worked well, principal Adam Jennings said.

The Lagunitas School District board will vote this week to delay the start of the school year by one week and begin with distance learning, based on the recommendation of an 85-person task force. The extra time will give teachers and administrators time for training and to find online learning systems that work well. This year, teachers will be allowed to instruct alone from their classrooms rather than from their homes.

Anita Collison, the president of the teachers’ union at Lagunitas, said staff members are relieved. The Open Classroom program gives students a lot of freedom, and classes frequently play together. The feeling is that the school is one big family, so bringing students back in a sterile environment, facing forward in desks with face coverings and physical distancing, was hard to digest.

“It’s not the school we want to see,” Ms. Collison said. “Being able to do distance learning is going to be more free and allow us more opportunity to collaborate with the kids and work with them in a way we wouldn’t be able to do in that environment.”

Despite every student having an internet hot spot within two weeks last spring, a number of students didn’t check in to their virtual classes. Reasons varied: Some didn’t have a family member to tell them to get online, while others got in the habit of skipping school because they thought the closure was short-term, Mr. Carroll said. If it’s allowed, the school may let struggling students come in one at a time for office hours. 

At the Bolinas-Stinson School District, technology is at the forefront of distance learning. Teachers used whatever online software they preferred in the spring, but this fall, the start of school has been pushed back two weeks so that teachers and families can be trained in all of the same platforms. The school purchased different online learning software for English and math, and different learning management systems for the younger and older grades. The curriculum will consist of teacher-led mini-lessons followed by independent student work on the online software, principal Michelle Stephens said.

The school recently ordered equipment from Swivl, which will allow students to watch their teacher as they move around the classroom. A device and camera are placed on a tripod and teachers wear a tracker; as they move around, the device follows them. The technology will be especially useful for physical education teachers.

The Bolinas-Stinson board has yet to approve starting the year with distance learning. Last week, the board’s vote was split 2-2 on conducting school through distance learning to start the year, with one board member absent, so the proposal did not pass. The board asked the reopening task force to return with an option to allow some students to be on campus.

“We certainly have to be able to accommodate those families for whom distance learning was not working,” trustee Jennie Pfeiffer told the Light, explaining her no vote. Emblematic of the issues with distance learning, Ms. Pfeiffer said that at the very meeting where the board voted, the computers and internet were glitching.

The Bolinas School is offering an outdoor summer program that could serve as a model for in-person instruction; three students sit at distanced picnic tables while a teacher instructs.

The reopening task force has explored constructing outdoor classrooms, and the board moved $228,000 from a reserve to the general fund for the project. But the momentum was slowed last week when the Division of State Architects told Mr. Carroll that the project would not be exempt from approval, so the district would need to hire a licensed architect or structural engineer to develop designs. Construction would not be feasible before the start of the school year. The facilities subcommittee is investigating outdoor alternatives.