Most schools in Santa Cruz and Monterey County start in August. Classes will begin online as districts grapple with how to teach in a pandemic. The decision to open with distance learning favors student and teacher safety, but comes with challenges and sacrifice.
Salinas High School teacher Kelsey Beall says the first day of class is the most important day of the school year. It is an opportunity to meet the students for the first time.
This year, she will meet them in a virtual classroom, which means she can’t walk around and introduce herself.
“I am doing a lot of looking at my curriculum and figuring out how I can make this interactive,” said Beall.
In effect, she is taking her seven years of classroom teaching experience and trying to reimagine her ninth grade English classes as a series of one hour educational television programs. She knows from experience that keeping her students involved in an online class is a major challenge.
“I hate to say it, it's super easy for students to click mute and turn off their monitor and check out,” said Beall.
When her district switched to distance learning in March, it wanted to assure the students their grades wouldn’t be harmed under the new system. So, for the rest of the school year, students’ grades could go up, but could not go down. The result, says Beall, was that 3 out of 4 students stopped coming to class.
The Superintendent of the Salinas Union High School District, Dan Burns, vows that won’t happen in the fall. This school year, teachers will take attendance, students will be tested, and the grades are not locked in.
“Students have to be accountable to daily attendance and they have to be accountable to completion of their work in order to earn the grades,” Burns said.
Still, he is concerned that the high school students will be missing the education that takes place outside the classroom. High school students learn to socialize through activities, dances and first dates.
It’s what Burns calls, “All the pomp and circumstance of high school.”
The superintendent of the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, PK Diffenbaugh, said his biggest concern is what is called “learning loss.” It happens when students who face challenges during classroom education now face even bigger hurdles with online learning.
Diffenbaugh envisions what he calls “learning hubs,” places where some students could access computers and the internet and receive in-person support in a safe environment. Community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club are working with the district to provide that help.
He decided to reopen schools with online classes even before Governor Gavin Newsom outlined his plan to open schools. Under Newson’s order, schools may only choose to offer in-person instruction once their county has been off the state's monitoring list for two weeks. Monterey County and Santa Cruz County are both on the watchlist.
Diffenbaugh agrees with those who say the best place for students is in school. But, he says, “Schools can't be thought of as an isolated island. They have to be considered within the local context.”
Reliable testing isn’t available, and without it, said Diffenbaugh, any attempt at classroom education, even part-time, is doomed to fail.
Ashley Croci is well aware of the dangers around sending kids back to school during a pandemic. She is a nurse and works at several local hospitals. But she is also a mother with two young children. Charlotte is three years old and Austin is seven.
Croci says the chaos of raising two young children while both parents work is challenging. When their local school district in Spreckels sent out a survey, the Crocis responded saying they preferred a hybrid system -- some days in class and some days online.
“We thought, OK, this is great. Both kids are going to be able to go back to school, at least part time. But, now, we found out that that's not going to happen. I'm not sure what we're going to do.”
As a challenging school year begins, Salinas High English teacher Kelsey Beall is asking parents to join her in working through how to educate students online.
“We're on the same team. We want the best for our students. That's the bottom line,” said Beall.
And her message to her students is, “We can’t wait to see you in class,” even if that class is on a computer screen.