Trial and error for Sonoma County teachers adapting to distance learning
Kindergarten teacher Ryan Kurada hit the record button on his iPhone and walked across a makeshift studio inside the garage of his Rohnert Park home.
“Hello my wonderful students,” the University Elementary School teacher said, donning brown bear pajamas to enhance his reading of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
Kurada sat in front of a bed sheet with a poster pinned to it. He used the sheet later to explain an engineering activity for the students, taking household items to build a “just right” bed for Goldilocks.
It represented one of an untold number of distance learning classes conducted last week in Sonoma County, where thousands of teachers were given one week over spring break to modify lesson plans for 70,000 public school students moved from classrooms to at-home instruction. After a recommendation from Gov. Gavin Newsom, county school district superintendents extended school closures for the rest of the semester to prevent further spread of the new coronavirus.
The pivot to distance learning has put new stresses on the county's 40 public school districts. Local schools, many of them with lean budgets, are scrambling to acquire technological resources to get every student online. More than two weeks into remote instruction, some children still need a computer and reliable internet access.
For Kurada, who works in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, it's meant unexpectedly becoming a YouTube teacher overnight.
“My goal is to sustain learning, but also bring them joy,” he said. “It's really hard. But if I can make them smile, I know I'm doing my due diligence at this time.”
Teachers have had to rethink their roles and how they approach teaching in this new environment. Each is weighing how much they force the issue of education with families experiencing compounding hardships, like job losses, as they remain mostly at home under a county public health emergency order.
Most school districts are measuring online class attendance through student participation. Santa Rosa, the county's largest district with 16,000 students, and others have adopted emergency policies that prevent a child's grades from slipping during distance learning. As a result, teachers have few levers to compel cooperation and daily student attendance.
Some educators fear students could fall through the cracks during the absence of a daily school routine with in-person instruction.
“It's a humongous shift in the way we operate a school system,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura said.
Getting every student the tools they need for long-term remote learning has required a herculean effort, forcing districts around the county to make unanticipated purchases and then figure out how to distribute the gear to students.
For example, the Santa Rosa school district has spent $1.5 million on about 5,000 Google Chromebook laptops and 2,000 mobile hot spots to provide internet access to students who lack them, district spokeswoman Beth Berk said.
The extra expenses come as numerous county school districts face shrinking budgets. In Santa Rosa alone, officials have been working to close a nearly $13 million deficit, and state financial assistance for distance learning has so far been “small in comparison to what we are spending on technology,” Berk said.
Some districts, like Petaluma City Schools, already had made great progress to incorporate technology into the classroom. All students have either an iPad or Chromebook thanks to a series of bond measures approved by voters in 2014.
Most complications with distance learning for the county's second-largest school district have been logistical, or with its drive-thru meal service, Petaluma Assistant Superintendent Cliff DeGraw said. Petaluma teachers now are applying years of professional development with a purpose.
“I think we're in a unique position,” DeGraw said. “We've been practicing for this for four or five years. We just didn't know it.”
Still, for every school district the biggest hurdle has been reliable internet access for students, especially in rural parts of the county like Two Rock and Cazadero where there is no cell signal or an obsolete telecommunications network, said Matt O'Donnell, technology and innovation specialist for the Sonoma County Office of Education.
Companies like Sonic, Comcast and Google have offered free internet or increased broadband capacities to help remote instruction. But that does little for communities that have lacked connection to the internet because they fall outside existing networks of digital providers, O'Donnell said.