Photo: Jina Jackson
Jina Jackson, a math teacher and coach in Fullerton Joint Union High, teaches a math lesson with her students online.

Never in his 25-year teaching career did Greg Platt imagine he would someday be working full-time through a computer screen. But much has changed in the last few weeks as schools around California closed their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I never thought a switch would be flipped one day, and we would be doing this,” said Platt, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton. “It’s extremely painful for teachers. It’s so difficult not seeing students every day.”

Across California, schools are rushing to put together plans to continue to deliver education to students during a statewide stay-at-home order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. But in Fullerton Joint Union High School District in Orange County, where Platt works, schools are more than a month into virtual classes with few issues.

For many districts across the state, obtaining funding and resources, such as laptops and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, is one of many barriers to implementing distance learning. Key to the success in Fullerton Joint Union was early preparation, quick decision-making to move learning online and frequent check-ins with students to identify needs.

In fact, the district very early on purchased 500 Wi-Fi hotspots for students without internet access at home, which students picked up at their school on March 16, two days before distance learning would officially start.

The fact that the majority of students in the district already have internet at home helped ease the transition also. About half of the 13,695 students enrolled in the district are low-income, according to data from the California Department of Education. Overall district enrollment is 57% Latino, 15% white, 19% Asian and 2% black.

The district began providing Chromebooks for home use to every student about five years ago. Although teachers were using online educational tools already, many were not prepared to do so full-time. So workshops to help teachers make the transition started as soon as word began spreading of a possible closure. At the same time, the district began assessing which students required internet hotspots to continue learning from home.

“The important thing here is that our teachers were incorporating these applications in their lessons already,” said Sylvia Kaufman, assistant superintendent of the education and assessment division in Fullerton Joint Union. “We never anticipated going fully online with it. But teachers had been exploring these tools for homework and things like that already.”

Jesse Knowles, a career and technical education teacher focusing on broadcast media at Troy, led the workshops for teachers at his school. In addition to talking about how to screen share, send digital assignments and other nuts and bolts of tools like Google Classroom a free tool that allows teachers to create, share and grade digital assignments and the video conferencing app Zoom, he underscored that students’ well-being should be the top priority.

“Students are at home, maybe by themselves, maybe don’t have meals, maybe have to take care of a sibling,” he said.

Plans for what distance learning would look like evolved as they were rolling out, said Knowles, who is the school’s tech lead. The district originally planned to have live virtual lessons during each class period. But after hearing from students how difficult that would be, the plan switched to give teachers flexibility to decide the time frame and mode of instruction that works best. Many are now doing a mix of live video sessions, pre-recorded lectures, hands-on projects and other ideas as they come up.

Even as distance learning plans pushed forward, the thought of postponing school dances, graduation and an entire sports season in a district with multiple championships was hard to accept for many teachers and students.

“We were thinking, there’s no way the school would shut down,” said Stephanie Duan, a junior at Troy High School and member of the school’s associated student body, which was in the middle of planning for prom when the school closed.

For Platt, the English teacher at Troy, classes are looking a lot different now. He starts his morning at 5 a.m. by preparing assignments and finding a quote to help his students get through the day. Then he moves on to posting feedback on previous assignments, such as a short response to a reading.

“I find it my obligation to respond personally to everyone every day, which is tough,” he said, adding that attendance has been high and nearly all of his students are logging in and completing work. “During the week I’ll do a Zoom call to discuss the readings and check in, just how are you doing? I want to see their faces and let them see mine.”

Platt and other teachers in the district don’t require students to be on live video every day. He offers two live sessions a week, and said nearly every student checks in to at least one of those. And he records the sessions for students who can’t make it. Many of his students are competing for bandwidth or a quiet spot in their homes, while others, like Duan, the junior at Troy High, also have to help take care of younger siblings.

“After the morning, I take some time to help my sisters with their schoolwork,” Duan said. “They have a bunch of project-based assignments. My sister, who is in fourth grade, has to build a Native American village, so I’m helping her with that.”

Teachers are also being more lenient with due dates.

“I will always take it,” even when assignments are late, Platt said. “Every teacher I talk to is trying to be really flexible. We’re trying to walk the line of delivering a curriculum but there are struggles out there that we just don’t know.”

Another important direction teachers were given: Reduce the curriculum to only the most essential parts that students need to know for the following school year.

In her Algebra foundations class, Jina Jackson, a math teacher at Fullerton Union High School, is focusing on helping students master systems of equations, which she said touches on “all of the key essential skills for Algebra,” such as graphing, solving equations and working with multiple variables.

Jackson hosts live sessions twice a week on Zoom, in addition to using a tool called GoFormative where she posts assignments, videos and photos of notes for students.

“During the live session, I do a few problems with students and then have them work on some,” Jackson said. “While I’m in the Zoom session, I can see their screen and I can give them live feedback in the moment.”

Even with flexibility and devices for students, the transition has been difficult for many.

“One of the things that is really a big misconception about online school is that this should be easier, but for some students they are in a harder situation now,” Duan said. “You’re looking at a group of students who may not have a safe home environment.”

Attendance has been perhaps the biggest challenge for Jackson, who is also the math curriculum specialist for the district. Only about a third of her students have regularly attended live sessions, she said.

“Last week, I got on the phone and called every one of my students who weren’t participating or doing the work for attendance,” Jackson said. Some students slept in late; a few had trouble logging in. “I’m going to do it again this week,” she said.

But most students are turning in their work, Jackson said, and she’s working with students who struggled before the shutdown to improve their grades.

Across the state, whether schools should issue grades at the end of the semester is an ongoing debate. The Fullerton Union High School District school board decided that its schools will issue grades, with the understanding that there are many obstacles students may face now and teachers should be more flexible with students and create opportunities for them to improve grades. Duan said there are still concerns.

“People with borderline grades are worried: How will we raise this? No teacher wants to create an assignment that’s a huge amount of points and high-stakes, so it’s hard to make up the credit,” she said.

For Duan, the future has never looked more uncertain. College still feels far off, but she’s focused on what’s immediate. She’s started learning how to cook with her mom. She’s watching movies with her friends via FaceTime at night.

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Duan said. “Especially at this time in our lives, we are just trying to be open-minded with what the process will be like.”

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  1. Jayana Patel 2 months ago2 months ago

    I am a proud Warrior parent. Both of my children have Mr Platt and are students at Troy. The school has done a tremendous job in an extraordinary time. it is both the teachers and the students that work tirelessly to give our children the best education possible. Kudos to FJUHSD!

  2. dylan name 3 months ago3 months ago

    I’m a senior here. i hate this stuff and just wanna graduate already.

  3. Gabby 3 months ago3 months ago

    I am very proud of Sunny Hills High School. My daughters kept the same schedule and teachers were ready. I congratulate teachers at Sunny Hills, their response to this situation was amazing. They were ready. Thank you Sunny Hills teachers and administrators!!!

  4. Laura Riffel 3 months ago3 months ago

    I have to respectfully disagree. My son is a senior at Troy. I went to Troy, graduated in 1986, the year they indicated they became a tech school, which is wishful thinking at best. There is absolutely no instruction happening. None. My son's Macroeconomics class consisted of a very high level PowerPoint and then issued a bunch of questions and tests around the skeletal info provided. His English teacher doesn't issue normal assignments but expects … Read More

    I have to respectfully disagree. My son is a senior at Troy. I went to Troy, graduated in 1986, the year they indicated they became a tech school, which is wishful thinking at best. There is absolutely no instruction happening. None. My son’s Macroeconomics class consisted of a very high level PowerPoint and then issued a bunch of questions and tests around the skeletal info provided. His English teacher doesn’t issue normal assignments but expects students to intuit when an assignment is due. Real instruction would include video, conferencing, participation and engagement.

    There is zero engagement from a single teacher in his curriculum. All they have managed to teach is how to do the bare minimum to pass. He is getting better grades because he does the assignment in real time and doesn’t have any time to forget to turn anything in. The quality of his work is substandard yet no feedback. I know this is unusual and no one was prepared, but they are failing if they are really trying. I am hoping that this gets better and instruction is something that comes back to remote learning.

  5. Bo Loney 3 months ago3 months ago

    Troy High School is an extremely academically rigorous magnet school. Extremely in depth curricula and a really high curve in the classroom. This is a school that is pulling and concentrating gifted students from many different counties. I am not surprised at all to hear the Troy teachers are having no problems with their students. Some kids start their high school career waking up and being on the road before 5 to … Read More

    Troy High School is an extremely academically rigorous magnet school. Extremely in depth curricula and a really high curve in the classroom. This is a school that is pulling and concentrating gifted students from many different counties.

    I am not surprised at all to hear the Troy teachers are having no problems with their students. Some kids start their high school career waking up and being on the road before 5 to make it to school. Their GPA and class placement is not the same as other schools and universities need to start recognizing and giving due credit to the students’ abilities and hard work during entrance evaluation. These kids work so hard.

  6. Staci Johnson 3 months ago3 months ago

    Now this is a district that had some out of the box thinkers making decisions. I just wish other districts like my own had out of the box thinkers. My child was home a whole 5 weeks before starting any type of formal learning and when the teachers tried to give work before official launch they were told not to in Elk Grove USD. Let's make sure teachers are just as willing … Read More

    Now this is a district that had some out of the box thinkers making decisions. I just wish other districts like my own had out of the box thinkers. My child was home a whole 5 weeks before starting any type of formal learning and when the teachers tried to give work before official launch they were told not to in Elk Grove USD. Let’s make sure teachers are just as willing to learn new things as students.

  7. Virginia Reynolds 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great article! I did wonder where the information on how it was working to implement distance learning with students with IEPs. I look forward to update on what has worked well for all students! Thanks in advance.

  8. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great Fullerton. I tried to promote online for 25 years . I succeeded very little . But this corona made whole world online in 1 week. But let us provide the best online. Motivate students particularly. Provide the best knowledge, skills, experience, knowhow.

  9. Todd Maddison 3 months ago3 months ago

    In this article Jina Jackson (math teacher) discusses the difficulty getting students to participate. “Last week, I got on the phone and called every one of my students who weren’t participating or doing the work for attendance,” Jackson said. Some students slept in late; a few had trouble logging in. “I’m going to do it again this week,” she said. One of the flaws I’ve been seeing, here as well as in my own district, … Read More

    In this article Jina Jackson (math teacher) discusses the difficulty getting students to participate.

    “Last week, I got on the phone and called every one of my students who weren’t participating or doing the work for attendance,” Jackson said. Some students slept in late; a few had trouble logging in. “I’m going to do it again this week,” she said.

    One of the flaws I’ve been seeing, here as well as in my own district, is the fact that school districts are not using the systems they already have to help with that.

    In my own district, they have a system for taking attendance (“Aeries”) and it automatically notifies parents when their child misses a class. It also collects that data, which could then be analyzed and used at the district level – perhaps to contact those parents, find out why their child is missing, and help them by steering them in the direction of appropriate resources.

    But they don’t do that. Why not?

    Teachers have always been very much “in the loop” on attendance and parent contact, but without making use of the systems we already have that automate a lot of that, we’re now expecting them to do it all?

    Why not leverage the systems we have, and with that use support and administrative staff at the district who may not have so much to do to find out what the hurdles are, and learn from that to be better prepared for the fall?

    I trust many schools have front desk staff, attendance clerks, custodial staff, etc. – who could all be involved in calling the parents of missing children and finding out what the district can do to help. It doesn’t have to be all about the teacher.

    And, while we’re at it, the note at the end of the article on whether to issue grades or not feeds right into that. Obviously if there are no stakes, then it’s going to be harder to make sure kids are attending, which again makes the teacher’s job harder.

    Whether we should grade or not is a bigger issue than just that, but it certainly does not help incentivize kids to do their distance learning.

    Replies

    • Leigh 3 months ago3 months ago

      I teach in this district and the usual communication tools (e.g., AERIES notifications, automated calls, contact from office staff) ARE in place and happening now. But those things should never replace personal contact from the student’s teacher.

    • Jina Jackson 3 months ago3 months ago

      Todd, I really appreciate your concern for us teachers. Teaching remotely has definitely been a lot more work. The "normal" work hours at school with evening prep and grading has changed. I work many more hours because the work I am assigning my students is more 'show your work' and I want to see their work to make sure they understand how to do the problems. I also want to be available for my students … Read More

      Todd, I really appreciate your concern for us teachers. Teaching remotely has definitely been a lot more work. The “normal” work hours at school with evening prep and grading has changed. I work many more hours because the work I am assigning my students is more ‘show your work’ and I want to see their work to make sure they understand how to do the problems. I also want to be available for my students via Zoom, email and Google Classroom in case they have questions or need help.

      As far as support, I am have very impressed by Fullerton High School where I teach. It is definitely a team approach to supporting our students. The teachers, counselors, SPED case carriers, community liaison and administration are working together to identify students who are logging in for attendance but not completing assignments and those not logging in at all. Those students have been contacted by counselors, admin, SPED case carriers or the community liaison in addition to the phone calls that I am making.

      I am calling students because I think the personal phone call from me lets my students know that I really care about them and how they are doing in school. And, I get to hear from them why they are not participating. Some of my students are helping around the house with siblings and cooking while others are now working with a parent. With this knowledge, I can set up individual plans for students to help them be successful.

      This team approach is imperative to helping our students feel a part of school even if they are not at school. Our ASB has continued doing spirit weeks virtually and even had ASB elections virtually. Our theater program has help virtual events and our speech and debate team had virtual competition. And those are just a few of them.

      This is why I hold live math Zoom sessions giving students a chance to interact with each other and me. Not all students can attend the live sessions but I post a video of my live session so students can watch them later. Most of my students are doing their work even if they can’t attend the live session. Yes I’d love for more to attend the live sessions but if they are able to watch my videos and complete the work with understanding then I am ok with that too. My students are very familiar and comfortable doing math online. Our district adopted new math curriculum this year that is online, all of our district math benchmarks are online and a lot of my assignments were online prior to distant learning. Envision A/G/A Pearson, Khan Academy, ALEKS and Go Formative give me a variety of ways to assess my students. I even do my lessons on Go Formative and can give feedback in real time to them.

      As the district Math Curriculum Specialist (Math TOSA), I get the privilege of working with all math teachers district-wide. I meet with teachers regularly; I have been very impressed by their ability to become online teacher. Some teachers were already very tech savvy and others learned real quick. Their willingness to ask for help and learn new things and our teach savvy teachers who have stepped in to other help has made me proud to work in FJUHSD.

      Flexibility is the key to making this work; flexibility for all. Not only are students at home with multiple responsibilities but our teachers are too. I can honestly say that the teachers I work with are doing everything they can to be flexible and provide instruction to help their students be successful in learning new curriculum and reviewing the key topics necessary for the next class.

  10. Brian Ausland 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is one of just a handful of articles I've seen that starts to outline what a given district is doing that seems to be working. Like the other 3 (yes only 3) that I've read over the last month, some strategies taken up in Fullerton were pretty time-sensitive or centric to their district, but many are readily transferrable to other districts and school sites once documented and shared. What is baffling however is, once … Read More

    This is one of just a handful of articles I’ve seen that starts to outline what a given district is doing that seems to be working. Like the other 3 (yes only 3) that I’ve read over the last month, some strategies taken up in Fullerton were pretty time-sensitive or centric to their district, but many are readily transferrable to other districts and school sites once documented and shared.

    What is baffling however is, once again, while all districts across California (and the nation for that matter) are struggling with simultaneously similar obstacles and challenges, most are formulating responses independently of one another, with little to no unified cross-sharing of information, approaches, resources, successes, pitfalls, etc.

    And in a state such as CA that can boast having the most advanced technology industry hubs in the nation, it is amazing that our education system does not have a platform to capture and disseminate the work going on from district to district, but instead are all left to figure it out independently.

    Thank goodness the medical system isn’t responding to the virus in this manner with every town’s hospital just going at it independently of any information and coordination with other practitioner groups and agencies. Not a perfect comparison, but still kind of illuminates how little common instructional strategy, learning design process, and organizational response is captured and shared in education compared to other sectors. Thanks for the article, now just to figure out where to post it to get it out to districts…

  11. John Baker 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you for recognizing us. I really appreciate this.

  12. Cynthia Rachel 3 months ago3 months ago

    It is great to see districts making progress with distance learning.
    I would love to see an article highlighting the personalized learning public charter schools that have remaining open and serving students seamlessly during the “stay at home orders.”
    Feel free to contact me for more information about schools like this.
    http://www.ieminc.org