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Reexamining Distance Learning

 January 27, 2021 at 1:42 PM PST

ANDREW BRACKEN (00:06): Like so many families in the San Diego region, as well as across the country. This has been a daily ritual in my house for pushing a year now. ANDREW BRACKEN (00:17): Okay. ANDREW BRACKEN (00:19): My kids haven't seen the inside of a classroom since a rainy day in March of 2020 fittingly. It was Friday the 13th. And with soon introduced me to a term I'd never heard before distance learning. I'm Andrew Bracken. And this is San Diego conversations. ANDREW BRACKEN (00:47): San Diego conversations is a collaboration between KPBS and the national conflict resolution center covering important issues affecting the San Diego region. We'll get started right after the break. The original event called a closeup on distance learning took place on June 9th, 2020, and was moderated by former KPBS producer, Pat Finn. Richard Barrera (01:30): We cannot go forward with another year of distance learning for all or most students that just simply does not work. ANDREW BRACKEN (01:40): That's Richard Barrera from the event back in June, he's now president of the San Diego unified school board, the second largest school district in California, serving more than a hundred thousand students. Richard Barrera (01:50): We are very concerned about learning loss. That's been taking place. And we're frankly, as concerned about the social and emotional issues that our students are experiencing. We definitely have approached this first thinking about the needs of our most vulnerable students. And we know that we couldn't simply, I, you know, spend three months shutting down with no learning options available. So our goal has been to provide, you know, uh, as much learning as possible in a very, very difficult situation. So the conversion to distance learning was something that had to be done quickly. And at a scale that I think nobody could have ever anticipated. I mean, this is the largest, you know, adaptive challenge that schools public schools in the United States really have gone through and maybe ever, you know, certainly in our lifetimes. ANDREW BRACKEN (02:45): Parent, Ashley Lewis also participated in the event. Ashley Lewis (02:49): You know, I know this is an extremely challenging puzzle for the school board to have to solve, but I just have to put out a plea for parents. Like you need to let us know what's happening as soon as possible because we need to plan our lives. I mean, I need to know if I'm going to have childcare in the fall. People are going to be leaving the district in droves. If you don't let people know. ANDREW BRACKEN (03:08): At the time of the event, Frank Granda was finishing his junior year at Serra high school. Also part of the San Diego unified school district. Frank Granda (03:16): Distance learning works but something's off. ANDREW BRACKEN (03:21): We followed up with the panelists from the original event to ask about the current state of distance learning. Here's Richard Barrera. Richard Barrera (03:28): We are now in our ninth month, uh, since the pandemic, uh, forced the shutdown of all of our schools and for the huge majority of our students, uh, students are continuing to learn online. I would say that what the spring could be characterized as, you know, people trying very hard, but a lot of, um, you know, shortcomings in terms of the quality of instruction that as students were getting and they, the amount of instruction that students were getting, you know, we've, um, put significantly more time across the board that, uh, teachers are spending in live instruction with their students that kind of set the foundation for us to be able to improve over, you know, the time that students have continued to be in online learning, Ashley Lewis (04:24): I can't wait for schools to come back. ANDREW BRACKEN (04:27): Ashley Lewis is the parent of two elementary school children in the San Diego unified district. One of whom has special needs. Ashley Lewis (04:34): I just need schools to reopen for life, to return to any kind of normalcy for me. Like it is such an important part of our lives. I mean, it's going better now than it did in the spring when they had to learn how to do everything on the fly and they weren't set up at all for distance learning, like things are certainly much more routine and there's a better system for everything now, but it's still, I mean, it's not great. You know, I don't think anybody going through this experience would say that it is, you know, equivalent to in-person school. It's, it's a poor substitute for, for in-person learning, you know, when you're trying to work and like I'm stressed out about my own stuff that I have to get done. And then as soon as I'm done with my stuff, I have to stress out about my kids' stuff and then I have to make dinner. And then it's like, then the day is over and that's that's your entire day. And then you just repeat it tomorrow. You know, we're just kind of enduring it. ANDREW BRACKEN (05:41): Following up with him mid senior year, Frank Granda sounded like he was doing pretty well with distance learning. His grades were high and it seemed like he had adapted to his regimen of daily zoom meetings. Not all those classmates, those seem to be faring as well. New Speaker (05:55): It's a bit interesting. Because to see the thing about it, the thing is that a lot of students are disengaged and distance learning. Like there's mostly like black screens. And at the same time, very few in my class, like in any class are very few of them are engaged or at least be interactive. Andrew Bracken (06:12): To illustrate a bit of the weirdness Frank finds in his current school life, he describes an email his parents received from one of his teachers. Frank Granda (06:20): He actually sent an email to my parents and myself commending me because he basically said, congratulations, Frank's parents. Your son is one of the few students who kept his camera on and is engaged. And I found it to be a very weird thing to be commended for. ANDREW BRACKEN (06:40): During the original conversation in June. One point of concern was the possibility of families leaving the school district altogether in favor of private or homeschooling options. I too had wondered about this as a few families, I knew changed schools, moved out of state or went with the homeschool option. But Richard Berrera says that fear may be a little overblown, at least for now. Richard Barrera (07:01): I think the idea that mass numbers of, you know, parents are leaving the district is not born out by the data, but there are parents who have chosen to not enroll, you know, beyond what we, the numbers that we had expected. We definitely have parents of kindergarteners who have decided not to enroll their students this year. So about 3% of what we projected the number of students to be is not enrolled in our district this year. Ashley Lewis (07:30): It is just really disappointing. So I feel like San Diego unified has not prioritized getting kids back in class to the same extent. And I feel like we're just powerless at this point, because I can't believe that this is the position we're in that like lifetime educators are trying to argue that the best situation for our kids is to be getting this watered down version of school. That's having these, like long-term social, emotional impacts. That's like leaving this generational scar on this huge number of children. And somehow that's the position we're in. That that's the best thing for everybody because I don't think it is, you know, I think, and I know like right now, I don't think it makes sense to reopen schools with the virus surging and we're coming up on Christmas and it's going to get crazy. But I think we could have reopened in August. I really think we could have. And I think we could had kids in classrooms for at least a couple months before maybe we had to dial it back again. And that would have been a huge benefit. I don't know why we weren't more creative and trying to come up with solutions to get people back in person, because that is absolutely what is needed. ANDREW BRACKEN (08:45): So why didn't San Diego public schools open their doors? We asked those and other questions after the break. Simone Arias (09:05): My first teaching job was way back on 1979 with the refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And so that's my orientation to being a teacher, ANDREW BRACKEN (09:16): Former teacher, Simone Arias watched the original event in June and participated in the discussion directly after we wanted to follow up with her to get her impressions on distance learning. Simone Arias (09:26): As a teacher, I walked around the classroom. I wasn't one that always just sat at my desk and said, do this. And then hope they did. I, you know, I walked around to see if it looked like they were getting it. And if they have questions and kind of monitored things and you can't do that in the same way when you are doing it, you know, uh, on online this way. So, um, I see it's a whole different way of teaching and interacting. If someone is, is struggling, if the person's right in front of me, I can see if they're, you know, writing or reading or something in a way that I can't, if they're on computer miles away and as a teacher, how do you monitor and then address and hold them accountable and stimulate and answer their questions. When you've got 30 kids out there, somewhere out there, I just feel you're not able to provide the kind of support that we normally can give. ANDREW BRACKEN (11:01): High school, senior Frank Granda is at a crossroads in his Scholastic career with an eye towards college and going through the college application process with all its twists and turns has been particularly challenging for him in the midst of the pandemic. Frank Granda (11:14): When you're a senior. You have all these traditional rituals. One must partake to go into college, but because of the pandemic, the rule book, like the guide book, the guide book has gone. You want to show you have a good GPA, okay? I'll show you a good GPA. Oh, wait, you can't because the grades are now confusing and muddled because of the pandemic in a school's attempt to try to fix it. You want to show them extracurricular activities. Oh, wait, you can't. Because all those opportunities of leadership and all those little camps and stuff, like all these offers are gone because pandemic has made them irrelevant. Frank Granda (11:54): How would I do standardized testing? Maybe he could prove to them, Oh, wait, you cannot do that because now it's because now do the pandemic. You cannot do standardized testing. Kennedy's testing is now gone. How do I prove to the UCS? Did like the colleges? How do I prove to them? But I am good enough for your institution. ANDREW BRACKEN (12:27): For Simone Arias, the question of whether or not to reopen schools during the pandemic is not easy to answer. She's no doubt concerned about the dangers of the virus spreading in schools, but also acknowledges how devastating keeping schools closed is. Simone Arias (12:41): It is being spread. That's very real at the same time, uh, in talking to some family members, they're just saying, we need to get these kids back to school. We have to do it carefully. We have to do it thoughtfully. I have family members in another state. Those people are at school and they've been at school a long time. You know, so far they've been saved. Now are the situations the same? I don't know. I'd have to see. I have no idea what the right thing to do is because in one way, I understand how these kids need to be back at school. Cause I know what they're missing. And we're talking about some kids missing a year and a half of school by the end of the school year. Simone Arias: (13:22) And we're talking about some kids missing a year and a half of school by the end of the school year, should we be just getting creative and saying, do we spread them out? Do we have people in a cafeteria and in a gym and whatever, just spreading people out, but having them there so that there is a regular accountability, but also support of these students. And I just feel, you know, the more this goes on, the more it's important. ANDREW BRACKEN (13:50): Again, San Diego board, president Richard Barrera- Richard Barrera (14:06): We are very concerned about not wanting to reopen and then closed again because we think what that really does is it just creates instability for our schools and detracts from our ability to provide consistent and improving distance learning. You know? So we are concerned that, you know, if we put schools on this kind of rollercoaster of opening up in some sort of hybrid model, that includes in-person and distance at the same time. And then closing back down as the virus surges. One of the consequences of that we think is that distance learning would not be as strong. You know, I think the decision to hold off on, uh, you know, expanding reopening in September and October was the correct decision for us. ANDREW BRACKEN (15:00): In the fall of 2020, the San Diego unified school district started phase one, which would allow limited. In-person learning for students with the greatest needs. Ashley Lewis' son was able to attend a few sessions, giving them a small taste of what school used to be like. Ashley Lewis (16:06): He got to do three separate times once a week, where he would go in for occupational therapy for an hour each time. And it was great. Actually. He was like excited to be there. And like there was another boy that he knew from class who was there at the same time. And so they got to do like group things together. So it was just so nice for him to have like that little bit of normalcy to be back on campus and see people he knew and like, not be looking at a screen for an hour. I mean, it happened three times and now we're on winter break and now they've told us that they're anticipating a big surge in the virus. And so they're going to put all of the in-person stuff on hold for at least two weeks after winter break. At least we got three days in person or not even three days, like three hours in person. And then I'm not really sure when that will resume again, but when it does, we'll be there. ANDREW BRACKEN (15:50): So when will San Diego public schools return to normal? Like so many things having to do with the pandemic, there are many tough questions yet few easy answers. Frank Granda is currently waiting to hear back from colleges, but he hopes to attend a university of California school and stay close to home. San Diego Conversations is a collaboration between KPBS and the national conflict resolution center to learn more, visit our website at ANDREW BRACKEN (16:55): This program is produced by me, Andrew Bracken for KPBS Linda Ball and Tricia Richter are coordinators. Pat Finn produced the original event. Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsey Moreland's podcast coordinator. Lisa Jane Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is director of program. Thank you also to Ashley McGuire from the NCRC as well as all the other participants. Please join us again for our next San Diego conversation.

Last spring, COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench in pretty much every aspect of life, including K-12 education. By the end of school last year, many agreed online classes weren’t cutting it. Have things improved? Find out in this podcast episode, a follow-up to “Close-Up on Distance Learning,” a Community Conversation hosted by KPBS and the National Conflict Resolution Center.