Funk: Distance learning amid COVID-19 crisis explained
The East Side Union High School District office is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

As we all adjust to the new normal, while fighting the spread of COVID-19, the impacts on educators, students and families has increased the fear and anxiety among all of us.

Although schools across the Bay Area have been closed, we are thankful for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-26-20 to continue funding schools at current levels this year, reduce the instructional calendar and keep public employees on paid status, which is critical to deliver ongoing educational opportunities for all students in Santa Clara County and the greater Bay Area.

There has been a push by many to move straight into distance or online learning. Each district is responsible for providing resources, digital platforms and opportunities to learn while schools are closed.

The California Department of Education defines “distance learning” as instruction in which the student and instructor are in different locations. This may include interacting through the use of computer and communications technology, as well as delivering instruction and check-in time with their teacher. Distance learning may include video or audio instruction in which the primary mode of communication between the student and instructor is online interaction, instructional television, video, telecourses, or other instruction that relies on computer or communications technology.

It may also include the use of print materials incorporating assignments that are the subject of written or oral feedback.

Taking the complex structures of the school day and transforming it to an online experience simply cannot be duplicated nor can it happen overnight. East Side Union High School District (ESUHSD) took the first two weeks of school closures to take a more balanced approach to distance learning in order to complete the spring semester of the 2019-2020 school year.

Like any organization, we have staff who are early adopters with digital platforms and others who are digital immigrants, less savvy tech enthusiasts. Our teachers have been involved in online professional development using digital platforms such as Google Classroom, Google Hangouts, Zoom and School Loop. As educators, it is important we provide support to all technology users in order to not further the opportunity gaps that exists in education.

It is important to remember that while students are not physically in the classroom, school is still in session and we expect students to engage in their coursework.

ESUHSD officially launched its distance learning on March 31. Each teacher will provide a Distance Learning Green Sheet (syllabus) and will communicate, post assignments, resources and grades internally through School Loop or Canvas.

All classes have a designated time for students to engage with their teacher for that specific period. These are dedicated times for students to connect with their teacher to review content and assignments, have small group discussions, and/or interact with their classmates. Each teacher will be able to conduct class check-ins through an online meeting using  Zoom, Google Hangout, School Loop, Google Docs, an email exchange, or some other method the teacher has specified to demonstrate that students are engaged in the class (ESUHSD Distance Learning Plan).

How does grading work with distance learning? Some districts are taking the approach of eliminating grades for the spring semester and moving toward a pass/fail grade.

In ESUHSD, grades are to be formative and not punitive. During these times, we must allow for flexibility and to a certain degree leniency given the various factors that are currently out of our control. We must take a culturally, trauma-informed lens as we shift to distance learning as we determine how our students will be graded and/or assessed. We recognize that this learning environment cannot replace the in person experience, yet our goal is to maintain a level of learning to prevent regression or loss of learning. Students can only improve their grades moving forward.

This is a new paradigm facing all educators: K-12, community colleges and four-year universities. We must allow for a learning curve to take place for both educators and students. Moving forward, distance learning will become more of a hybrid approach to everyday learning for schools.

Another key component to the governor’s order is to provide free lunches to students during the closure period. All public schools across the Bay Area are participating in the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option to provide meals to students.

In East Side, we are providing a hot, brown bag lunch five days per week to any student who is 18 years or younger, regardless if they attend one of our high schools. For many of our students, they depend on the meals they receive at school for their main source of food. During this COVID-19 crisis, providing these meals is critical to support our community.

I want to personally acknowledge the amazing staff at all our schools in Santa Clara County who are working diligently to provide meals to our communities and for continuing to provide ongoing, meaningful learning opportunities to our students. I appreciate the shared, coordinated leadership from the 31 Santa Clara County district superintendents and from Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, our Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools, for her facilitated leadership.

We are all in this together and we will get through this period together.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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