Back-to-school season is always a time of excitement and uncertainty about the year ahead. But the coronavirus pandemic has led to new challenges and questions about how to continue education while school campuses across California are closed.
On Wednesday, more than 300 guests tuned in to a virtual town hall where EdSource reporters answered readers’ questions about what school will look like this fall, from what happens if a student tests positive for the virus, to campus housing for college students, to teacher preparedness for the year ahead.
Viewers submitted more than 200 questions beforehand and EdSource will be publishing a back-to-school FAQ document in the coming days answering questions not addressed in the live discussion.
“Across California students are already starting school — but back to school looks very different this year. Most districts are resuming with distance learning, though a few have been planning to bring at least some students back in person,” said Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource.
This year, nearly 97% of California’s 6 million students will start the school year off with distance learning. One common question that readers asked is why some districts are offering child care on their campuses when school buildings must be closed?
According to EdSource early education reporter Zaidee Stavely, some schools are offering child care because there will be fewer students than there would be with a fully open campus. While there are risks with bringing any number of children back on campus, schools can more easily social distance if they are only bringing back a small handful of children rather than implementing a full in-person or hybrid schedule.
“School districts are trying to help parents who have to go back to work or really need supervision who don’t have any help at all,” Stavely said.
On campus or online, California students and teachers face many uncertainties ahead as it relates to instruction. Maryam Qudrat from Los Angeles asked if core academic subjects will be given more instructional minutes than electives.
California passed Senate Bill 98 this summer, adjusting the minimum instructional time for students during the school day. The required time is 3 hours per day for kindergartners, 3 hours, 50 minutes for grades 1 to 3 and 4 hours for grades 4 to 12.
While there are no set requirements for specific subjects established in SB 98, many districts are using block scheduling at the middle and high school levels, which provides the same allocation of minutes across core subjects and electives, similar to the traditional school day.
Once schools do eventually reopen for in-person instruction, they will have to closely monitor for symptoms and potential outbreaks. If a student or staff member tests positive for Covid-19, they must immediately isolate on campus until they can go home, said reporter Diana Lambert.
The school would then need to notify all staff and families, and they must disinfect the entire campus. The person who tested positive can’t return for 10 days, and anyone who has had contact with the infected person must quarantine for 14 days.
Students enrolled in California’s public colleges and universities will largely be taking all classes online this fall. Some campuses will offer in-person instruction if needed, such as for applied health courses, said reporter Ashley A. Smith.
To help engage with families who don’t speak English, Stavely pointed out examples where districts are building parent networks to build trust and relationships in their communities, like a program in Oxnard that recruits parents who are already engaged with their child’s school and connects them with other parents who might be struggling.
“Parents have a real trust with other parents,” Stavely said. “Districts can really use this to engage and reach out to parents that might work better” than district or school officials trying to contact them.
One common question from attendees was what high school juniors and seniors should do to prepare for and apply to college during the coronavirus pandemic?
One important tip is to check whether students are fulfilling A-G courses required for entrance to California’s public universities, said EdSource higher education reporter Larry Gordon, especially since students may have less contact with school counselors who can help them navigate those requirements.
But the simplest thing to do, Gordon said, “is to not treat this school year as a vacation. Take it seriously. Whether it’s online or in person it’s going to count.”
The 29-minute mini-documentary examined the education needs of students in rural school districts throughout California and the extraordinary challenges they face. It highlighted the impact of chronic absenteeism, a lack of internet service and barriers to going to college.
These barriers are similar to those in urban areas but get far less public attention. The mini-documentary, which drew on EdSource’s multimedia reporting on the topic, describes this education divide and the efforts underway to help students earn college degrees and other post-secondary credentials.
A notable feature of the project was that it called on students and teachers in rural areas to help shape the project as it was getting off the ground by sharing their experiences and ideas.
Judges praised the documentary “as doing an exemplary job of finding students, teachers and visuals to humanize these issues with depth.”
The mini-documentary was produced by videographer Jennifer Molina drawing on reporting by David Washburn, Carolyn Jones, Sydney Johnson and Larry Gordon. Anne Vasquez was the executive producer; Rose Ciotta, project editor and Denise Zapata, co-editor.
The full year-long project was a collaboration of many EdSource staffers including: Daniel Willis, Yuxuan Xie, Justin Allen, Andrew Reed, Lee Romney and photographer, Julie Leopo.
Leopo’s photo of a child riding on a school bus entitled, “The Long Bus Ride,” won first place in feature photography in the California News Publishers Association awards. The project won a total of six awards including video journalism-news for a segment on chronic absenteeism, interactive graphics, layout and design and public service.
The project also received support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and from the Education Writers Association in the form of fellowships to Washburn.
In announcing the launch of the project in January 2019, EdSource asked our readers to help us tell about the needs of students and educators in rural areas. Many reached out to help us.
“California is a big place, and we are a small newsroom,” EdSource explained. “We need eyes and ears on the ground — students, parents, teachers, administrators and community members whose real experiences can help us make a difference.”
The inspiration for the project came from examining data on chronic absenteeism and from Carl Cohn, the former Long Beach Unified superintendent who wrote a commentary for EdSource in which he described the dire needs of students in the state’s rural areas after visiting Modoc County in his position then as head of a new state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.
“Right here in our own state we have places that we need to do a better job of listening to and showing up in if we’re going to come together around the rescue of all school children,” Cohn wrote.
Cohn recently launched a podcast series titled “Schools on the Frontlines” on how school districts are coping with the pandemic, including looking at the Victor Valley Union High School District in the High Desert in Southern California.
Within five days of school closure in March, Pajaro Valley Unified in Watsonville successfully implemented distance learning that included distributing 15,000 Chromebooks and 1,000 hot spots so that all 20,000 students had a device.
In this webinar, Supt. Michelle Rodriguez and Rolling Hills Middle School Principal Ivan Alcaraz speak to EdSource’s John Fensterwald about how the district has provided social and emotional supports to students and staff during this transition, their preparations for the fall and their plans to help the students farthest behind get a jump-start on the new year.
Click here to view the slide presentation and resources for this webinar.
Federal stimulus funding is coming to the aid of California’s school districts. An EdSource analysis projects that of the 897 districts that receive their funding through the state’s education funding formula, 60.4 percent would get more in stimulus funding than they’d lose in state cuts.
Quality early care and education are critical to prepare California children for school and their lives in general. But a large percentage of children do not have access to high quality early childhood education programs. The coronavirus pandemic has eliminated most hope of expanding preschool to more low-income 4-year-olds in the near future and has caused financial strife for early learning programs trying to meet health and safety guidelines and keep staff and children safe.