Alex Jackson is an English teacher at Indio High School. He is using virtual learning as an opportunity to connect with his students.
Palm Springs Desert Sun
Desert schools have been in session for more than a month now, so the early technical issues have mostly been ironed out and a sort of rhythm has been established to the distance-learning model they are required to use.
As Scott Bailey, the superintendent of Desert Sands Unified School District said, the number of calls they are getting to the technical support hotline they established “have reduced to a simmer after being heavy the first week, week and a half.”
As all three school districts continue with their distance-learning approach, a possible change in the landscape happened Sept. 22 as Riverside County moved from the restrictive “purple tier” into the less-restrictive “red tier.” What that means for schools is that if the county can remain “red” for 14 days, they would have the option of beginning some limited in-class learning with certain safety protocols in place without having to ask for a waiver.
The hybrid model — allowing in-person schooling for a limited number of students each day while the rest join virtually — would be an option at that point, but don’t expect school districts to be in position to flip the switch quickly on a return to even partial in-class learning.
David Hopkins, seventh grader at Cielo Vista Charter, looks for the Zoom link to his second-period class as his mom, Candiss Ashley, tries to help from inside their home in Cathedral City, Calif. on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. “I’m excited about school, ” said Hopkins. (Photo: Taya Gray/The Desert Sun)
Discussions with school boards, various pertinent associations and certain technological considerations will be part of any school district’s re-opening plan.
We checked in with each school district to see how distance-learning has been going so far, what the future may hold as far as a hybrid model and what timetable might be in place for a transition.
Desert Sands Unified
DSUSD has had about 27 days of instruction since opening Aug. 19, and Bailey said he feels like they’ve settled into a solid groove after some first-week hurdles, mostly of the technological variety. He said they expected some bumps at the start, but they didn’t know where those bumps would come from until they popped up.
“This whole pandemic has shaken the landscape of educators to where we all feel like it’s our first year in a way, and we’re all learning new things,” Bailey said. “Long-distance relationships are hard and that applies to this situation as well. You’re blazing a trail, and it takes extra effort from everyone involved, especially not knowing what’s in front of you as you blaze that trail. I appreciate the way that teachers, students and parents have been flexible along with us so far.”
As the public comments at school board meetings show, there is a desire from many parents to return to some sort of in-person learning. Now that the county has moved into the red tier, the interest in putting into place a hybrid model has heightened.
Bailey said that DSUSD has its hybrid model pretty well mapped out, but that doesn’t mean that if the county stays “red” for 14 days they’ll be able to implement it right away. The analogy he used was a unique, but appropriate one.
“It’s like trying to make a U-turn on Las Vegas Boulevard in a stretch limo, you’re not going to be able to turn on a dime, it will take time and patience,” he said. “And you want to make sure your passengers are safe and comfortable in the process.”
Bailey didn’t want to speculate on an actual timeline, because there is so much to consider and so many entities that need to be involved.
“It’s a complex problem, one that we’ve never been confronted with prior, so given that, we will be engaging the board in the coming weeks to determine our next steps,” he said. “We have the plan built and we are continuing to collaborate with our employee associations on what the transition looks like.”
The school district has sent out a survey to parents and will rely heavily on the feedback. Bailey said they’ve received roughly 11,000 responses so far, which is just under half of the total they sent out. So far what he’s found is approximately a 60-40 split with 60 percent of the respondents favoring moving to a hybrid model and 40 percent on the side of continuing with the current distance-learning model until it’s safe for a full return.
He said the district’s hybrid model will accommodate both options.
“You can stay on distance learning even after we transition, or you can partake in the hybrid model,” he said. “The hybrid model is a step toward full physical attendance in a brick and mortar situation, but we have to have the hybrid model, quite frankly, because no matter what model we pursue in a return to school buildings, we have to abide by the state and county public health guidelines.”
Bailey used the example of a 24-person classroom. For there to be the proper 6-foot distance between teacher and student, and also student-to-student, you might only be able to have 12 students a day. So the hybrid model would have, for example, half the students attend in person Monday and Tuesday and then the other half attend in person Thursday and Friday, and on the days a student is not physically in class, they would participate via distance-learning.
Bailey said that he and his staff also have been keeping an eye on other states that have attempted a return to schools to see what’s working and what’s not. Just like many of the parents in the DSUSD system, he wants a return to in-person learning as quickly as possible while remaining safe. As an educator for 31 years, he believes in it.
“Educators, we are in a human interaction business, so we thrive off those interactions,” he said. “You can better develop relationships, you can better understand their body language and facial expressions and so forth in that face-to-face environment. So the fact that we’re absent that physical environment between teachers and students, which helps build that positive relationship where the magic happens, is tough. It’s difficult to do that online.”
But in the spirit of looking for silver linings, Bailey believes the changes necessitated by the pandemic may lead to a better overall product.
“We’ve done the education 1.0 model for many, many, many years,” he said. “Now we’ve been forced into education model 2.0, which has been difficult. So we might be able to learn from the experience and land on a 1.5 model that makes education even better.”
Palm Springs Unified
Sandra Lyon says she believes the remote learning model in the Palm Springs Unified School District has gone well for the first six weeks of the school year. Then again, she doesn’t have much to compare it to.
“Really, what I have to say, it has gone far better than I would have expected,” said Lyon, superintendent for PSUSD. “In some ways, we didn’t know what to hope for. But I have watched teachers deliver lessons and been blown away by what they are able to do online.”
Starting school Aug. 5, Palm Springs Unified’s 21 schools have been in session longer than the schools in other desert districts. What Lyon is hearing from the community and from the members of the school board is that, while there are issues, the online learning programs are doing well.
“(The board members) are the connectors with the community, and they are saying things are going better than expected,” Lyon said. “Teachers have stepped up, all the staff has stepped up. I can’t think of a department where folks haven’t stepped up and been problem solvers as we have changed 180 degrees, as we have changed everything.”
Lyon admits that what the district might be comfortable with today is far from what the normal school year would have been one year ago. Inevitably, the learning process is not what is was for children during in-classroom teaching and with normal social activities at schools. But just how difficult things have been is tough to say, Lyon said.
“I don’t know yet. It is premature to say where and what the gaps will be,” she said. “With any luck, we will be able to move through the (state’s COVID-19 opening) tiers, and we can bring more kids back on campus and as quickly as we can fill those holes.”
The county moved to a less-restrictive red tier Tuesday because of improving COVID-19 numbers on new cases and positivity rates for those tested. Lyon said the district is still focused on a January return to in-class learning in some hybrid form. But some students could return as early as November.
“That is really what the state and county guidelines allow us to do,” Lyon said. “Now that we are able to move forward, we can work to identify targeted students.”
Those students might be from households with internet connectivity issues or learning environments that are clogged by too many people trying to learn and work in one household.
Some things in the district could have been better if the district had an idea of what was to come in the pandemic and the remote learning model, Lyon said.
“We could have gone in and helped out the parents be better prepared and said this is what’s going to happen,” Lyon said. “But we were kind of flying the plane and designing it at the same time.”
To help parents with their own steep learning curve, Lyon said parents are being provided with more course work for themselves.
Another issue is addressing just how the pandemic and remote learning is impacting the emotional and mental health of students.
“We are very concerned and we do reach out,” she said. “We are still doing mental health support for our students and families.”
After-school programs, provided in the district by non-profit Think Together, are emphasizing emotional support more and more. But the support may have to continue even when kids return to schools, because those schools will be changed by protocols and procedures and even the physical makeup of classrooms.
“We have known that one of the things we are going to have to have is a bridging approach,” she said. “School is not going to be what it was when they were here back then, March 12 or 13. How do we prepare them for what it will be?”
Coachella Valley Unified
There have been significant connectivity issues for distance learning in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, superintendent Maria Gandera said Wednesday in a Zoom meeting, and as a result the district is committing more than $1 million to addressing the issue.
That money, which has been provided by the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) as part of Cares Act funding, will go toward purchasing hundreds of new iPads and digital hotspots for families who have had issues logging on and staying connected to educators as part of the distance learning that has been ongoing since school started Aug. 13.
The district will receive $1.25 million from RCOE, more than any school district in the county, as a commitment to improve distance learning in the rural areas of Thermal, Mecca, Salton City and everywhere in between.
Carissa Carrera, president of the Coachella Valley Teacher’s Association, said that the plan is to use additional funding to eventually replace all of the 17,600 iPads the district issued to students last month.
Gandera said that she anticipates those efforts will help students “find it a little bit easier to connect to the internet, hopefully, and do what they are doing with distance learning.”
That won’t entirely solve the connectivity issue, Carrera said, because hotspots don’t necessarily work where there are no cellular towers. To solve that, the district has proposed building two towers in the district that will take 30-60 days to build. The cost is estimated to be $60,000 for each tower, according to the Sept. 10 school board meeting agenda.
“The major bump is that many of our students don’t have internet access,” Carrera said. “That’s obviously a major speed bump to get over. But what I’m hearing is that our students are really excited when they are in class and they’re positive and want to be there, and the parents are super supportive. It’s just that technology piece.”
Carrera said that the district has not yet broached the topic of a full return to on-campus learning but is starting to discuss an eventual hybrid schedule that would likely include having half the students at a school attend two days a week, and the other half for two other days.
As of Sept. 25, Coachella had reported 2,661 coronavirus cases, which is the second-most among incorporated cities in the Coachella Valley.
“It’s just too early in our district,” Carrera said. “As far as I know, nobody’s talking about it.”
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