Santa Clara County schools leader talks transition, barriers to online learning

    California’s nearly 6.3 million students and 300,000 teachers officially learned April 1 they wouldn’t return to physical classrooms this year, due to shelter in place orders mitigating the spread of the contagious coronavirus.

    “The decision to close schools is a painful one,” said Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, Santa Clara County’s Office of Education Superintendent, who oversees the county’s 260,000 students across 31 school districts. “We have a lot of families who rely on the schools for many essential services, not just education – supervision, child care, meals and social emotional support – for their children.”

    During an hourlong online discussion hosted by the Silicon Valley Organization, San Jose District 10 Councilmember-Elect and former public school teacher Matt Mahan, Dewan discussed the county’s COVID-19 response, what the future of schooling could look like and ways the community can help.

    Distance learning: evolution and barriers

    Dewan said administrators’ thinking has evolved since schools first closed in March. The situation rapidly changed from initial beliefs the virus didn’t severely impact young people to realizations districts don’t have enough sanitation supplies and protective equipment.

    But one unchanged priority of the transition is ramping up nutrition services to ensure students’ access to meals. Dewan said schools countywide are now producing 410,000 meals a week, which provide breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner in some cases. Families can find a list of all locations and times online at

    During the first few weeks, teachers provided online tools and assignments. But shortages of devices, especially for multi-child families, and unreliable internet connections were quickly highlighted. Some families lacked the expertise and ability to use the devices they have, requiring outside tech support.

    Dewan said an additional 15,000 devices and 15,000 hotspots are still needed across districts – despite donations from companies like Google and Comcast at the beginning of April – and that number may grow as some devices already distributed are substandard for students’ needs.

    “We’re very grateful and appreciative that we do have so much technology available,” Dewan said, “and yet we also know that dependence on technology and online learning is exacerbating some of the inequities that exist in our community, not just here in Santa Clara County but throughout the state and throughout the country as well.”

    In addition to the digital divide, Dewan said it’s an uncertain time for special education services, because those programs require federal government involvement. She said the district is in various stages of ensuring those students have access to a plan.

    The future of school

    Parents should expect sheltering in place to exist in some form for the rest of the school year as teachers across the county work to evolve and expand their skills and experiences, Dewan said.

    In the future, there may be virtual, one-on-one or small group learning opportunities through extended school years, compensatory special education or staggered schedules. Resources for parents like webinars, chat rooms and help sessions will continue to grow, she said.

    California Gov. Gavin Newsom has also started imagining how existing school spaces – often constrained, crowded environments – could be modified.

    “Can you stagger the times that our students come in so you can appropriate yourself differently within the existing physical environment by reducing the physical contact if possible, reducing the congregate meals, addressing issues related to PE and recess?” Newsom asked in his daily briefing Tuesday. “Those are the conversations that we all are going to be having.”

    Originally from the Midwest, Dewan said she envisions a future where distance learning is incorporated in the school routine, much like built-in plans for snow days and cancellations. “I think California needs to tool our schooling system in a similar way, so that we could be more ready to adjust if we need to close for a day or two, or a few weeks in response to COVID-19,” she said.

    No matter what happens, Dewan assuaged some fears, saying the county does not support holding any student back a grade due to the coronavirus response, aside from isolated cases where that action was already being considered. Attendance is being taken based on independent study and participation, but will not affect “Average Daily Attendance,” which is how the state funds school districts.

    Ways to help

    The extensive list of changes needed to support schools districts, students and teachers goes beyond any funds county districts already have. So, a COVID-19 Education Partnership fund is now up and running to help cover costs of the revamp into distance learning.

    Officially launching next week, Dewan said these immediate response grants will go directly to schools and districts to help provide devices, hotspots and increased connectivity, as well as connect families to tele-health services to address social emotional health. The fund has already received $2 million in seed funding from The Silicon Valley Community Foundation and biotechnology company Genentech.

    Additionally, the Office of Education has partnered with Silicon Valley Strong to supplement the increased level of meals provided.

    Questions can be directed to the Office of Education’s new warm line at (408) 453-6651 or emailing [email protected] The service is available for 16 hours a day in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin and Korean.

    Follow along with San José Spotlight’s real-time coronavirus coverage on our LIVE BLOG here.

    Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

    Comment Policy (updated 11/1/2021): We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by administrators.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.