How distance learning could change the education system for the better

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For more stories on how Sonoma County educators are making a difference during the coronavirus crisis, go here.

When Sonoma County schools shut their doors March 16, it threw the region’s educators and school-age population into turmoil. Teachers, many of them with a modest grasp of technology, were forced to move instruction online. Guardians had to make accommodations for kids who could no longer leave the house for classes, and students had to adapt to a new way of processing information while isolated from their peers.

It has been the greatest disruption of the education system any of us have faced in our lifetimes.

As schools and families have found their footing, a question has emerged. It’s the same question that often forms in times of distress and upheaval: Can something good come of this?

A lot of those affected believe it’s possible. They are convinced this tear in the educational fabric can lead to a deeper appreciation of the system and the people who make it hum, to a clearer understanding of technology’s possibilities and limitations, to better preparedness for future calamities.

“We are in a time of uncertainty. And we all crave clarity,” Santa Rosa High School Principal Kimberly Clissold said. “As adults, we can’t always expect to have all the answers. But what I hope for myself, and what I hope for my teachers and all my staff members and my parents and my students, is that we remain open to listen and learn from one another. And at its heart, that is education.”

If nothing else, the closed campuses are giving districts and individual schools a reason to pause and reevaluate their mission. The move to distance learning has exposed flaws and inefficiencies. For Margie BradyLong, a math teacher at Maria Carrillo High School, that includes an overreliance on testing and other methods of assessment — measures that have been relaxed to some extent.

“We’ve lived underneath a bunch of constraints,” BradyLong said. “Right now, those have been lifted. We’re being asked to rethink what we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it. Those are really great questions.”

She acknowledges that schools currently don’t have the means to offer well-developed alternatives. But she believes this “timeout” can renew the discussion.

“I’m a huge optimist,” BradyLong said. “This is a pivot point. Things have changed.”

BradyLong is among the hundreds of local teachers who suddenly find themselves dependent on technology to carry out their curricula. Some of them have smoothly transitioned to the online classroom. Others have struggled to be effective.

BradyLong said her subject is especially hard to teach over the internet. Mathematical formulas don’t type out well. Yet she has found platforms that work for her, now and perhaps beyond. One of them allows her to project a slide and tell her students, “Graph this line.” She sends a copy to each kid, who takes a stab at graphing it. BradyLong can give them instant feedback.

“That’s been way more effective than whiteboards,” she said. “It makes me want to do that in the classroom. But if I don’t have a set of Chromebooks, I’m not gonna do it anymore.”

Teachers also are being reminded of the importance of their work colleagues. As part of a recent roundtable for Inside Higher Ed, UC Santa Cruz literature professor Jody Greene wrote that the “single genuinely revolutionary effect of the Great Remote Learning Hack of 2020” will be educators seeing their efforts as a collective activity.

For more stories on how Sonoma County educators are making a difference during the coronavirus crisis, go here.

Clissold identified the same trend in Santa Rosa. “I see a lot of collaboration going on between teachers, sharing helpful hints,” she said. “I see almost team-teaching approaches, where one person can do this and then we share this with everybody.”

There are lessons to be learned, so to speak, on the receiving end of online classes, too. The school schedule is less rigid now than it was in early March, with more unstructured time. That presents challenges.

“Now that we have nothing to do, it’s not generally spent doing the most productive things,” said Liz Estupiñan, a senior at Elsie Allen High School whose AP classes are already winding down. “Like, you can spend just hours and hours mindlessly wandering through the internet.”

We’ve all been there. For Estupiñan, though, it’s a good practice run for college. She has enrolled at UC Berkeley for the fall. Assuming there is such a thing as in-person classes, she’ll be there, and this foray into distance learning has been like a crash course in time management.

There may be something deeper to gain here. Every parent is thankful for the work done at their local schools. But in the rush of normal life, it’s easy to forget that you send your children into the care of others for at least 35 hours a week, and those kids return home a little bit smarter, a little better prepared for the world than when they left.

The value of that service has been thrown into relief as parents are forced to manage their children’s daily moods and conflicts, keep them equipped with office supplies and drop the disciplinary hammer when necessary.

“There is a greater understanding,” Crissold said. “Maybe appreciation isn’t quite the right word. I think that’s a product of greater understanding that we are really all in the same boat.”

Estupiñan fully admits a new appreciation of her high school and the humdrum comfort it offers. She lives in the Elsie Allen neighborhood and walks past it all the time. The emptiness still looks strange to her.

“One of my friends reminded me last week, she’s like, ‘I miss hanging out in Mr. Petty’s room,’ ” Estupiñan said, referring to Elsie Allen history teacher Alan Petty. “He has a couch, and during breaks he’d hang out and a bunch of us would do crazy things like all pile onto it. My friend said that, and all of a sudden, I started crying.”

Estupiñan misses face-to-face encounters with friends. She misses her club advisors. She misses school, as strange as that sounds.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or

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