On March 13, as my student teacher was taking attendance and checking work email, I saw her freeze. She showed me the message and then I froze, too. First, we got our students’ attention, and then we gave them the news: they would be going home to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Thomas Courtney

With elbow bumps and any last-minute books and journals I could think to send, we watched them walk out of the classroom.

By March 19, we knew there was a possibility schools might be out until fall. Now, more than a week into school closure, I’ve learned two things: we need to make technology available to every child, and we need to be more consistent in how we communicate with parents.

At first, to establish some kind of online classroom, I communicated in various ways with every one of my 32 students’ families. I used Google Classroom, texted and called, and even started a Facebook page. As the reality of the yawning technology gaps among my students sank in, I wondered how I was going to help when I couldn’t be where the kids are.

How much could I ask of them remotely? How much would families be willing to do? How much could they handle in these uncertain times? And how would I keep the learning community I had nurtured since the first day of school alive?

My classroom has computers but students were not allowed to take them home. That mattered, as most of my students would be without one at home. As we worked to make the transition to distance learning, I realized the programs and online activities we run every day in class are not available to most of my students. Beyond the sad thought that I hadn’t recognized this discrepancy in resources on a good day, I know the consequence of it is far more devastating now.

The parents were all very interested in getting their students online at Google Classroom and using our reading programs. But that would require electronic devices from which they could upload PDFs or Word documents and reliable Wi-Fi, which not all have.

Twenty-first century students deserve online access whenever they need it. But what to do now?

To mitigate this, I have been teaching through videos I created on YouTube, giving two-minute conference calls several times a week per child and even posting videos to Facebook. I do not consider these electronic avenues secure, nor are they places I feel comfortable with as an educator. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and my learning community is on life support.

Yet it is alive.

Checking my email today, I received a much happier message. Our school district, San Diego Unified, is considering making the laptops already in our classrooms available to students for distance learning. Now we’re talking … but we have too long ignored another obstacle to distance learning: communicating effectively with parents.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times shared the ways educators are finding out what parents need beyond hardware. One particular need came home to me on a recent check-in call with a parent of several school-age children who said, “It seems like every teacher has their own way of doing this. It’s a bit like running an obstacle course here!” As a parent with two kids home myself, I got it.

Each conversation has made me understand what parents have been telling us in surveys for years: They need a more streamlined way to contact teachers, see posted grades, ask questions and participate in their child’s assignments.

It has become obvious that — without realizing it — schools haven’t instituted a proper way to communicate in the digital age. We’ve exhibited what we would never allow in our students’ conduct — inconsistency.

As Kisha Borden of the San Diego Education Association said in our superintendent’s recent press release, “Partnership and engagement between educators, parents and students will be the key to the success of this transition period.” I think it will be key long after this crisis ends, too.

And it looks like I’m not alone. In just days, I’ll be joined by many of my colleagues in online training sessions, the first of which is called communication tools for collaboration. I can’t wait to share with my parents some good news in all this chaos; that we’ve got something — consistent and accessible on available technology — for them all.

•••

Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource is interested in hearing from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning and rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Thomas O Courtney 2 months ago2 months ago

    SD Parent, I wanted you to know that I hear you and I understand the frustration. As I referenced in the article, I am a parent myself with two children. One of whom attends my school and has an amazing teacher who misses her dearly. This incredible situation has put us all in a tough spot. For my part, I wish to be a part of the change. I hope to join you sometime, voicing … Read More

    SD Parent, I wanted you to know that I hear you and I understand the frustration. As I referenced in the article, I am a parent myself with two children. One of whom attends my school and has an amazing teacher who misses her dearly. This incredible situation has put us all in a tough spot. For my part, I wish to be a part of the change. I hope to join you sometime, voicing our thoughts to our district and to all districts.

    Education should be a place that encompasses all the various voices from all the stakeholders involved. If I may repay the favor, you sound like an amazing parent, and I encourage you to continue to make your voice heard. I know how hard it is, and I validate that. In terms of listening to parents, I wrote an oped for Voice of San Diego last week about my belief that this was an opportunity for educators to listen to parents. I think you may support that view. My best to you and your children. https://www.voiceofsandiego.org/topics/opinion/coronavirus-closures-drive-home-what-parents-really-want-out-of-schools/

  2. SD Parent 2 months ago2 months ago

    Mr. Courtney sounds like an amazing teacher who has taken this opportunity to be creative with how he engages with all parties, and his students are lucky to have him. But to be honest, not all teachers are as prepared with technology or as motivated, and San Diego Unified School District isn't really doing that much to support teachers and, especially, students. Schools closed at end of business on March 13, with starting … Read More

    Mr. Courtney sounds like an amazing teacher who has taken this opportunity to be creative with how he engages with all parties, and his students are lucky to have him. But to be honest, not all teachers are as prepared with technology or as motivated, and San Diego Unified School District isn’t really doing that much to support teachers and, especially, students.

    Schools closed at end of business on March 13, with starting some teacher PD and a “soft launch” of “distance learning” with “student enrichment” on April 6th, and returning to actual instruction (online) on April 27th. So formal instruction for students takes a 3-week break and then is haphazard for another 3 weeks as every teacher figures out how to make it work by April 27–that’s five weeks of lost instruction for students.

    Then again, the MOU that SDUSD signed with the teachers’ union is all about teacher pay and benefits, with just one sentence that references student instruction: “The parties agree to continue discussions related to Article 12 Transfers and Distance learning.” Where is the MOU for students with respect to their learning?

    As for district leadership believing that partnership with parents is part of the key to success, that would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. Since taking over as Superintendent and the mandates of LCFF, Cindy Marten has not only not supported parent engagement but has actually worked against it. For example, she declines meetings with the chairs of parent advisory committees (including those for Compensatory Education and English Learners), has over-ruled parent advisory committee recommendations, has actively discouraged staff from meeting with parent leaders, and has weakened parent engagement by creating, then dismantling, the cabinet-level Family and Community Engagement department, etc. She and district leadership treat parents like children – talking at them – and believe Parent Engagement means giving parents fliers on how to do “High Impact Home Strategies” with their children and how to monitor their children on the online grading software, and to post parent engagement opportunities on a Facebook page. With that history, parents believe that the “partnership” the district wants will be for parents to help their children log into the online classrooms, keep their children on task, and make sure they do their assignments.

    Parents will step up because it’s for their children, but with parent frustration and distrust for the district (which routinely prioritizes employees over students) at an all-time high, it will be an interesting “partnership.” Now parents will effectively be watching all of their children’s instruction, so it will be abundantly clear to them just how effective this distance instruction is and how well teachers and other district employees listen to both students and parents. For the sake of the roughly 100,000 students in SDUSD, I truly hope that teachers step up like Mr. Courtney and that it works.