The transition to distance learning has been a huge undertaking, and especially difficult for small districts. The Office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools in California’s San Joaquin Valley has coordinated a common approach. All teachers and their students in participating districts — 22 out of 47 districts so far — will sign onto the same platform. There will be activities and lessons to choose from in every grade and every subject. The districts have helped shape the system over the past month. Lisa Gilbert, deputy superintendent of instructional services with the office of the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, who is leading the effort, spoke about the effort with John Fensterwald for EdSource’s podcast This Week in California Education. John then spoke with Anthony Davis, the office’s chief technology officer, about the county’s goal of helping to see that every student has a Chromebook and an internet connection. You can listen to the podcast here. The interviews have been lightly edited.
Lisa Gilbert, deputy superintendent, instructional services
EdSource: Why does the county’s approach toward distance learning system make sense, and what are the advantages and disadvantages?
Gilbert: This has been a very abrupt and daunting issue for all of us and so immediately we saw our role as a county office to do what we could to transition to distance learning and to create kind of a one-stop shop so that teachers and districts felt confident to start with some ready-made lessons. And we are transitioning to teaching teachers how to create their own lessons.
EdSource: If I’m a student or a parent, what will I see when I log in?
Gilbert: Typically districts are using a single sign-on. They will have access to over 360 educational applications that are integrated into the system. But what is most important is that students logging in will be immediately connected with their own teachers. They will have been placed in their teacher’s classroom and they will have ready-made lessons ready to go for them in English language arts, mathematics and English language development. We are working also on science, history, social studies and social emotional learning.
EdSource: So will everybody be working in lockstep at the same time? It’s hard to imagine you could get all districts to agree.
Gilbert: There’s always context that occurs within a school district that is really important to consider. So it is not a lockstep approach. It is instead an approach to say, here is what we are offering as a resource. We are co-learning with our districts; 17 districts have allowed staff members to assist us in curriculum development.
EdSource: So if I’m a teacher, maybe I want to do a Zoom lesson and watch my students and another teacher wants to do a Google chat or something like that. Is that possible?
Gilbert: Absolutely. Zoom and Google Classroom are both examples of integrated applications within Canvas.
EdSource: So what is Canvas?
Gilbert: It’s a learning management system. It really allows for a more robust communication system. You basically can set up a virtual school or a virtual district. It allows for collaboration among the teachers. It allows for communication tools such as schoolwide or districtwide announcements.
EdSource: So it sounds like one of the big advantages is that districts, particularly small districts, are inundated with so many options and choices. It looks like you have created a simpler way for districts and cutting a lot of time.
Gilbert: We hope so. That was our goal.
EdSource: This is a different approach. Have other counties expressed interest in what you’re doing?
Gilbert: Yes, and we’re very excited. We are beginning conversations with the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which has also been in contact with other county offices. We are talking with a few larger county offices who have expressed interest in partnering.
Anthony Davis, chief technology officer
EdSource: Tell us a little bit about Kern County.
Davis: Kern County is different than a lot of other counties. We’re 8,100 square miles. We have a very diverse county when it comes to geography, which creates complexities when you talk about getting connectivity to every home. On top of the geographic challenges, we also have the 190,000 students. We know that about 40 percent of our households live in poverty, so that can be up to 76,000 students not having connectivity.
EdSource: What is your role in working with the districts in getting computers and internet connections? What hurdles are you facing?
Davis: My role is really to provide support to districts in any way that we can. Many districts have their own staff and so in that case we will just help by advising — and providing devices where they are needed for other smaller districts. Our first and primary responsibility for this pandemic was to acquire Chromebooks. After inventorying what districts had, I sourced a little over 20,000 Chromebooks, and have deployed almost two-thirds of what we have to districts. The other big part of that was the connectivity.
EdSource: Do you know roughly the percentage of households that are not connected? How do you reach remote areas as well as sections of Bakersfield where many parents aren’t connected?
Davis: We’ve been asking the districts to survey parents. The good news is that we’re finding that not all of the 76,000 students that live in poverty need connectivity. So our task isn’t as big as we initially were expecting. But it still does mean we have a lot of households without connectivity, and no one way is going to meet all parents’ needs.
So obviously hotspots are a good way to do that, but we can’t source enough hotspots to put one in every household that needs it. So we have a couple of other methods. We created a countywide WiFi that we have deployed in over 180 sites across our county. Students can go to any school that has WiFi, drive into the parking lot while they’’e picking up food if need be and can get their learning materials.
The other way is through buses. Over 150 buses have been equipped, not just through the county office, but districts that already had connectivity and buses. We’re rolling those out to apartment complexes that have a high count of socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
How does it work? With a high school district, they’re going through their normal routes. They roll to a bus stop. They’ll sit there for half hour. Students can socially distance themselves, sync their Chromebook that’s been deployed, get their curriculum for the week or for the day and then go back home. With Bakersfield City School District, we’ve been a little bit more targeted. We’re working with them to provide very dense populations of students where buses can roll into an apartment complex or a neighborhood, and students can do the same type of thing: social distance, get some connectivity, download and return. We’re not having them get on the buses. We’re not having them congregate. It’s really a drive through.
EdSource: So I guess the teachers need to be aware then that although eventually most students will be connected, it may be for a very short time so they won’t be able necessarily to go through a live instruction. Am I right?
Davis: Yeah. So one of the reasons for choosing Canvas as our learning management system is that it has an offline mode. Say you have internet on a phone, but you don’t have WiFi for your household. What we’re doing is building into the curriculum barcodes that they can scan with a parent’s smartphone and watch the video or the content associated with the course. So I’m trying to think of every different possibility of connectivity that could be done.
EdSource: How can the state help you?
Davis: Very early on, our superintendent was very adamant that we weren’t going to let students go without devices. So she authorized me to spend county money to get the devices we need, get connectivity, regardless of whether we were going to get reimbursed from the state or get philanthropic assistance. Now we’re hearing word that we may get some help from the state. And so that’s great because we’ve gone to our reserves to spend the money we have, so the state can really help counter some of those costs.
EdSource: You’re doing some terrific work. Is this a solution for an immediate crisis or is this a long-term connectivity approach?
Davis: I would love to see a long-term approach where we put connectivity in every home, but I understand we’re a big state. We have a lot of issues to deal with. So I would like to see us move that way, but obviously our immediate response is to get through the pandemic.