Education in a Pandemic: La Jolla schools begin distance learning

In anticipation of the Easter holiday break, Stella Maris Academy teachers and staff created this electronic greeting card for both students and parents to congratulate them for adjusting to remote learning.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, San Diego Unified School District is transitioning this month to online “distance learning.” The soft launch to at-home instruction via a computer took place April 6.

Those in need of a laptop cautiously lined up April 10 to receive one from the district.

According to press material, for the three-week period between April 6 and April 24, students will be given credit for work that is done, although material will not be graded. On April 27, graded instruction will resume for traditional schools (May 11 for year-round schools), for the remainder of the academic year.

“This emergency may change the way we operate, but it will not change who we are as educators or who we are as a district,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten. “Our commitment from the beginning of the health crisis was to find a way to keep students safe, while still providing them the opportunity to continue their education. We made the decision to close schools to protect students — before the state required us to do so — and from that moment forward, thousands of dedicated professionals have been working nonstop to come up with a plan to connect students with their teachers.”

One week into distance learning, students and parents from La Jolla’s public schools were resiliently settling into their new academic normal, some of whom admit to having “mixed feelings” about at-home learning.

In the Lopez-Vargas household, Alicia is a 10-year-old student at La Jolla Elementary School and her brother Gabriel is a 12-year-old student at Muirlands Middle School.

“I like that I can wake up and start the day a little later, and not go all the way to school; but I don’t like it because I’m locked up in my house and can’t see my friends,” Gabriel told the Light. “When they announced they were going to cancel school, I thought we weren’t going to learn anything. But the teachers are posting work (to our digital classrooms) every day. It’s just like being in class, you’re just not with the teacher.”

For Alicia, not having her teachers available to immediately answer questions has been a challenge. But, she noted: “We can ask them questions (when we have them) on Google Hangouts. So, it’s a little harder, but it’s mostly the same.”

As a fifth-grader, Alicia will finish elementary school in June, but from behind a computer screen. “I feel annoyed that we don’t get to have a graduation (ceremony), and I’m sad we don’t get to go back and see our friends and teachers, but I’m excited to start middle school and I’m looking forward to making new friends.”

Similarly, Tiana Mehdizadeh is a fifth-grader at La Jolla Elementary and shares the sentiment of missing a graduation ceremony. “I was looking forward to it, so now I’m a little scared to go to middle school,” she said. “I don’t want to take that step without graduating.”

As for distance learning, she added: “I don’t really like it, I like being able to interact with my classmates at actual school. I sign on when I feel like it, but sometimes it’s hard to do because I don’t always feel like doing it. I tell myself I have to get the assignments done, and if I do it, I’ll be free for the day.”

Tiana’s mother Rana admits time management has been a crucial lesson.

“This has taken a bit of adjusting,” Rana said. “First, you have a child on your hands to keep busy at home. You have to come up with different activities and their education being done at home. Time management is key to handling that.”

Some of the challenges she’s faced this far include technical difficulties with the digital classrooms, and keeping Tiana active indoors. “But on the upside, this experience has made us appreciate the small things in life. This has been an eye-opener.”

The Bishop’s School

While following many of the same protocols of its public-school counterparts, The Bishop’s School had a serendipitous leg-up it used to proactively implement distance learning.

Each year, the Upper School students can participate in a spring break trip, and this year’s trip was scheduled to Italy, the canary in the coalmine for this pandemic.

In mid-February, head of School Ron Kim said he started paying attention to the virus and how it might affect the trip.

“We soon realized the students weren’t going to be able to go, but we were mindful of what was happening there and how quickly it could spread,” he said. “That was fortunate for us.”

On Feb. 25, Kim hosted the first of many planning meetings on how to approach COVID-19 and distance learning. An academic plan was in place by the first week of March and students bid farewells to each other on March 13, a week before the statewide shelter-in-place order was given.

“Looking back, we were thinking about this sooner than others, but it was so hard to get fully ahead of this,” Kim said.

Most of the Upper School students already had laptops, and for the last few years, the Lower School students (grades 6-8) were given iPads. This technology has been essential in continuing student education.

The school is focused on maintaining “synchronous learning,” Kim said, “so the kids are getting together at the same time they normally would. Class time is for the continuation of relationships between students, and between teachers and students. That is so important for good learning. We’re trying to maintain the rhythms and rituals and familiarity of the schedule..

“It’s comforting for the kids in an uncomfortable time to have familiar patterns. They wear their Bishop’s uniforms and we still have our mid-morning break called ‘milk break’ that has been in existence for about 100 years.”

When it comes to grading, Lower School students will move to pass/fail, while Upper School students will continue to be graded.

Commencement is scheduled for June 5, and while instruction will take place until that time, a decision has not been made about how and whether a ceremony will occur.

In the meantime, Kim said he sees his — and teachers’ roles — as being models of hope.

“We will come out of this. I told faculty and staff that this is not an unusual occurrence in the history of this school. This school has gone through two world wars, a great depression and a great recession, polio, 9/11, AIDS ... the school will thrive. We will get through this challenging period and will come out of this stronger than ever,” he said.

“I’m also thinking of Ellen Browning Scripps and her message to the school 100 years ago, which was that our job is to give students courage, confidence and hope.”

College bound

For those nearing the higher levels of education, California’s education systems have agreed on a list of exemptions for high school students who are applying to colleges, according to press material. On March 31, the University of California implemented temporary measures that relax undergraduate admission requirements at UC for fall 2020, and future years as applicable.

These include:

• Suspending the letter grade requirement for A-G courses completed in winter/spring/summer 2020 for all students, including UC’s most recently admitted freshmen.

• Suspending the standardized test requirement for students applying for fall 2021 freshman admission.

• No rescission of admission offers that result from students or schools missing official final transcript deadlines, and student retention of admission status through the first day of class until official documents are received by campuses.

• For transfer students, temporarily suspending the cap on the number of transferable units with “pass/no pass” grading applied toward the minimum 60 semester/90 quarter units required for junior standing.