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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