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AUSD Board Gets Update on Gains, Challenges in Distance Learning Environment

Photo by David Muñoz.

Location

Alhambra , CA

The Alhambra Unified School District Board of Education meeting Tuesday night was business not quite as usual. The meeting was by teleconference with all five members participating and perhaps a dozen more people tuning in by various teleconferencing methods. 

The agenda looked much like any meeting and included the approval of the minutes of previous meetings and consent votes on a series of procedural items. 

The main event was a presentation of an update and overview on the district’s Distance Learning initiative in response to the COVID-19 emergency. On the recommendation of Superintendent Denise R. Jaramillo, the board voted on March 13 to dismiss all schools in the district. That decision has been amended on a couple of occasions to shut the schools entirely through the end of the academic year in May.

Janet Lees, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services, offered the power-point presentation on Distance Learning that those in virtual attendance could assess through Zoom.

She called the rapid-response Distance Learning program “uncharted territory” for us “with not a whole lot of time to plan.”

The baseline of the program is a continuation of the underpinnings that guide AUSD’s classroom learning. And that baseline is called BACE or Building a Culture of Equity in developing students using accessible tools and instruction.

In terms of equity and tools since March 13, the district has distributed more than 2,900 devices, mostly Chromebooks, to families who requested them on a loan basis. That initiative continues but those seeking devices must fill out a technology request form on the district’s web site. The link to that site is here. Links to access affordable wi-fi service are also on the district’s site, as listed here, but there seems to be some backup from individual providers in getting those services up and running.

With tools come instruction, and Lees noted the recommendations of the National Board of Teaching Standards is being used as a guide in thinking about online instruction per day.

  • Elementary students: 1-2 hours of online instruction per day
  • Middle school students: 2-3 hours of online instruction per day
  • High School students: 3-4 hours of online instruction per day

The online instruction may come in a variety of ways including lesson plans from teachers or lesson plans and supplementary online assignments from teachers or simply accessing the online portals the district has recommended. Zoom meetings and Google Classroom sessions are also used to connect, motivate and instruct.

Lees also pointed out that Distance Learning is not a fully online endeavor. Assignments or suggested work may came through a variety of sources including text books or in some instances learning from experiences around the home. That would be, perhaps, cooking or child care or gardening or other endeavors that might develop life skills.

Students “learn through their families, they learn through cooking and they learn simply by living through a global pandemic,” Lees said.

In all of this, teachers seem to have been given wide latitude to best determine how to direct and motivate their classrooms.

“We have gone from homework to working at home,” Lees said, and that is a complex transition.

(More information on Distance Learning may be found by clicking this link. Links to sites offering Distance Learning curriculum tailored to parents may be found here. Sites designed directly for students may be found here. In addition, the district is maintaining its Monday and Wednesday free food distribution program. Information and applications can be found at this link to the district’s site.)

Lees talked about grading and said there would be a temporary pause in formal grading until access to distance learning is fully verified. She noted that both the University of California and the Cal State systems are accepting pass/fail grades for the current semester.

She also said that she and her colleagues were working on a smorgasbord of grading options, taking into account the views of various stakeholders. She said she hoped to present to the board at the next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, April 28.

Lees also spoke of the issue of keeping in touch with families and that the district’s goal was to connect with every family and work collaboratively to make Distance Learning work.

The subtext seemed to be this is a new frontier and that parents, who may not be used to doing so, need to help recognize the challenges their students face and join with the district in solving problems, be they technological or instructional. The best way to do that, district officials say, is to contact the district directly either by email or phone. 

She also spoke of attendance said that the most recent figures, compiled at the end of last week, indicated that the district was still trying to connect with 2,144 students or 13% of the district’s enrollment since offsite learning began.

High school students posed a complex challenge in getting an accurate headcount and not always from their fault. When students attend schools they may be counted several times a day by a variety of teachers but how to  best do that in an offsite environment?

Toward the end of the public session, Jaramillo noted the obvious disappointment some students are feeling about graduation and advancement ceremonies being cancelled. She said the district is working with student leaders to try to find some way to honor graduates and mark their advancements.

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