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Trial and error for Sonoma County teachers adapting to distance learning

Digital Divide In Sonoma County Schools

Here is a sampling where there are gaps in internet connections and slow broadband service:

Bellevue Union School District, Santa Rosa

400 students (25% of enrollment) have no internet access.

Horicon School District, Annapolis

Most students have no internet access. Those who do have limited data and cannot access most online platforms.

Montgomery Elementary School District, Cazadero

Majority of students and teachers don't have much, if any, internet access.

Two Rock Union School District, Petaluma

42 students (25% of enrollment) lack an internet connection. Students without access are from Spanish-speaking families.

West Sonoma County Union High School District, Sebastopol

75 students without internet access

Windsor Unified School District, Windsor

125 students without internet connection and for 750 broadband service too slow to stream video.

Source: Sonoma County Office of Education

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world

here.

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.

Broadband's reach

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.

Digital Divide In Sonoma County Schools

Here is a sampling where there are gaps in internet connections and slow broadband service:

Bellevue Union School District, Santa Rosa

400 students (25% of enrollment) have no internet access.

Horicon School District, Annapolis

Most students have no internet access. Those who do have limited data and cannot access most online platforms.

Montgomery Elementary School District, Cazadero

Majority of students and teachers don't have much, if any, internet access.

Two Rock Union School District, Petaluma

42 students (25% of enrollment) lack an internet connection. Students without access are from Spanish-speaking families.

West Sonoma County Union High School District, Sebastopol

75 students without internet access

Windsor Unified School District, Windsor

125 students without internet connection and for 750 broadband service too slow to stream video.

Source: Sonoma County Office of Education

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world

here.

In populated areas, socioeconomic status can dictate who gets online. Roughly 400 Bellevue Union School District students in south Santa Rosa have no access to the internet, according to a survey last month by the county education office.

About 85% of the district's 1,621 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches or have parents with no high school diploma.

“I don't think it's really a school problem; it's a societal problem,” O'Donnell said. “The digital divide has been around for a long time and the county has been working on getting broadband to all areas for several years. This just shows how real that problem is.”

Inconsistent approaches

Every teacher has taken an individual approach to distance instruction, depending on their knowledge and comfort level using technology, and how much screen time they want to encourage students.

Digital applications like Zoom, Google Classroom, Seesaw and ClassDojo have been lifelines for teachers, offering ways to interact with students, administer schoolwork and manage classes.

Jefferson Elementary School teacher Cori Shea has started recording video lessons for her Cloverdale third-grade students. So far, she has either pointed the camera at herself, or placed audio on a live recording of her computer screen.

“We're working to find that balance of, ‘Here's what we want your student to do,' and if they're focused on just surviving, how to do that best,” Shea said. “We don't want to add any burden, but we want to make sure they're getting the education they need.”

However, remote instruction has caught older or more traditional teachers flat-footed. The county education office has held several webinars and professional development training sessions for teachers, but in many school districts tech-savvy teachers have had to step in to help their colleagues.

Jerod Brown, a Spanish teacher at El Molino High School in Forestville, has been a well of information for his fellow teachers in the West County Union High School District, holding tutorials via online video conference on Zoom and simply making himself available to answer questions.

“I'm fortunate to be a younger teacher that's generally grown up with tech,” said Brown, who also coaches the school's varsity football team. “But we have some teachers that are 35 years into their career that have never set up a Google Classroom or used tech, and it's no fault of theirs. They've been asked overnight to overhaul what they do and how they do it.”

Teachers say finding the right approach to virtual classes has required a fair amount of trial and error, and falls short for the nearly 11,000 county students with special needs or the 14,000 children still learning English who heavily rely on face-to-face instruction.

Brown said while he is still giving assignments, his focus is being a support system for his students. He has taken an independent study approach, and provided regular virtual office hours every week so students have one-on-one time, especially his English-language learners who used to take sanctuary in his classroom.

“I don't foresee students getting on during (office hours) and having a whole lot of questions about content,” Brown said. “But I want to provide the same structure they would get in a typical school week, so they know for three days they'll still see Señor Brown.”

Participation struggles

As teachers work tirelessly to meet the extraordinary moment of the global pandemic that has upended much of daily life, many also struggle to get every student to participate each school day.

Miwok Elementary teacher Lindsay Misakian connected with each Petaluma family in her sixth-grade class when distance learning began. Yet, one of four students are not participating regularly, she said.

“Where I lose sleep at night is the students who don't have the support, either the material, money, tech, or parental support to engage at all,” said Misakian, a teacher in the Old Adobe Union School District. “They can slip through the cracks now because they're not required to be there every day.”

The traditional sense of taking attendance looks very different in virtual classrooms, and disciplinary measures for missed assignments are difficult to enforce with districts shielding falling grades during distance learning.

New guidance from the California Department of Education last week said school districts should be flexible with students and “weigh their policies with the lens of equity and with the primary goal of first, doing no harm to students.”

DeGraw, the assistant superintendent in Petaluma, said most districts are working to align with the state guidance. But if a student has the wherewithal and teachers have exhausted every avenue to encourage at-home participation, a student's grade could be lowered in rare instances, he said.

Before the pandemic, roughly 12% of Sonoma County students were chronically absent during the 2018-19 school year. Shea said some of the same student behavior has carried over to remote learning, forcing teachers to find creative ways to get students more involved.

“The kids who have a hard time getting to school are the same kids who aren't logging in,” Shea said. “They're the ones who need the most support right now.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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