Funk: How to support distance learning after schools fully reopen
Chris Funk, superintendent for East Side Union High School District, says more support is needed for students who continue distance learning. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    As the last few school districts in San Jose are finishing the pandemic school year and beginning their summer breaks, school districts across the state are planning for and collectively committing to ensuring that reopening of schools this fall means in-person instruction is the default education program for the 2021-22 school year.

    Taking the complex structures of the school day and transforming it to an online experience simply could not be duplicated and school districts had to respond overnight to try to make it happen.  To say that the past year put a strain on schools, teachers, students and families is an understatement. We know that for nearly all students, nothing could replace the support structures and the quality and experience of in-person learning.

    However, we do know that for some students, distance learning lowered the anxiety levels in terms of the social pressures in-person learning has and the ability to move at a pace better suited for their learning style. In addition, we know that not all students are vaccinated or have access to vaccines. Some families are still hesitant to send their children back to school.

    As an educational leader, it is critical that we provide a world class education to all students. In particular, to students who learn differently, have mental health issues and/or are not ready to return back to “normal” school as we come out of this pandemic.

    We need direction from Sacramento on how best to offer virtual learning to support the group of students who are not ready to return to in-person or learn better in a virtual environment. We need to take the best practices and the flexibility that was allotted to us from Sacramento during the pandemic and leverage it moving forward. One size does not meet the needs of K-12 education.

    In the current May Revise, the governor suggested that families that remain hesitant to send their children back to school for in-person instruction can be served through the traditional independent study framework with a few additional requirements, which include providing access to technology, internet connectivity and a dedicated rigorous curriculum, developing a framework for tiered re-engagement if independent study is not working and tracking daily student participation and interaction with teachers.

    The additional requirements are good recommendations as guardrails to help keep students engaged and to ensure that each student has the right tools to work independently and virtually.  However, the needs of high school students are much different than the needs of students in the primary grades as they are different for students attending middle school.

    All school districts have independent study programs. They have been around forever. As we ask teachers to become more facilitators of learning and requiring students to demonstrate their learning in new ways, we need to have more flexibility to support individualized learning programs that offer carefully guided, but self-directed, work when students need or want a more flexible option.

    To achieve these important objectives, Sacramento needs to provide the following guidelines immediately:

    • Clear expectations that the curriculum is as rigorous as in-person
    • Maintain the integrity of independent study programs for students with various and unique needs who need and want the flexibility of a teacher-guided, but self-directed, educational program.
    • Daily live interaction and weekly synchronous instruction as the default for all independent study programs.
    • Allow for reasonable accommodations to the daily/weekly default if either is not feasible or not in the student’s best interest.
    • Provide flexibility for short-term independent study (less than 5 days).

    Lawmakers cannot fall into the virtual learning fatigue from the past fourteen months and place restrictions on the independent study program that ties the hands of educators. Educators need time to thoughtfully plan for virtual learning. We need Sacramento to act now.

    Last column

    On another note, it has been a complete honor to write a monthly education column for San José Spotlight. I have attempted to take complex issues and lay them out in user-friendly terms while stressing the importance of addressing inequities that are ingrained into the educational system.

    I hope that on some level, I was able to shine a light on some of the most critical issues facing public education. I have spent the last thirty years serving our public schools in San Jose. It has been extremely rewarding.

    I hope everyone stays well and remains healthy.

    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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