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San Diego Unified says 89% of students have connected to distance learning; formal instruction starts Monday

Chromebook distribution
Austin Correia delivers a Chromebook to an elementary school parent waiting in a car on April 5 as San Diego Unified handed out tens of thousands of laptops for distance learning.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

School officially resumes Monday with distance learning and graded instruction. Cox provides thousands with free Internet.

A few days before the San Diego Unified School District officially resumes classes with distance learning, its teachers have reached most, but not all, of its 103,000 students during its “soft launch.”

Superintendent Cindy Marten said during a press call April 23 that 89 percent of students have logged on at least once to an online learning platform over the past three weeks.

That means about 8,100 students have not yet been reached and may lack computer or Internet access.

Officially, distance learning and graded instruction begin Monday, April 27, for San Diego Unified. Other districts started earlier this month.

During the soft launch, teachers were not required to provide instruction but were expected to connect with students. Many have been providing learning activities such as Zoom class sessions and suggested assignments.

San Diego Unified, like several other school districts, is leaving it up to teachers to decide how to structure distance learning.

Teachers won’t be taking daily attendance but will instead track online participation weekly, Marten said.

As schools, students and families navigate the new world of distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic, a La Jolla math tutoring expert is urging awareness of the impact of children not being in the classroom for half a year.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said the 89 percent figure for students who have logged on concerns only those on the traditional school year calendar. About 10 percent of the district’s students are on a year-round calendar, and their soft launch to distance learning is not starting until next week because they had a later spring break.

Magee also said at least 5,800 more Chromebook computers had been given out in the past day before the press call, after the 89 percent was calculated. So likely more than 89 percent of students have been able to log in, she said.

“We will not be satisfied until every student is reached and is participating ... in a meaningful way,” San Diego Unified board President John Lee Evans said during the call.

The district has passed out more than 47,000 Chromebooks to students in the past three weeks, Marten said, which is 7,000 more than the district originally estimated it would need to distribute.

Reaching students has been a challenge for schools nationwide since school buildings were closed in mid-March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Distance learning presents equity issues for students who may lack computers or Internet access or who experience disadvantages such as homelessness or poverty.

Some families can get free Internet from Cox Communications if they sign up by May 15 for Connect 2 Compete, which is intended for families who have at least one K-12 student and receive government assistance.

San Diego Unified gave Cox a list of 18,000 addresses of families who officials believe may lack Internet access. Cox has connected more than 10,000 of them to the Internet, said Cox spokesman Sam Attish.

Cox will extend its free program by two more months, until July 15.

San Diego Unified’s official Chromebook distribution ends April 24, but students can still pick one up at one of the district’s “exchange centers” that will open Monday, Marten said.

Students also can exchange broken Chromebooks for working ones.

Families who still need a Chromebook can call (619) 260-2460; for technical help they can call (619) 732-1400.

The district continues to distribute free meals to students. The district has given more than 500,000 free meals to students in the six weeks since schools closed, Marten said.

No one knows when students will physically return to school.

“This is gonna depend on the virus, it’s gonna depend on our public health officials telling us when we can go back,” Evans said.

The San Diego County Office of Education has told districts to plan as if physical distancing will continue for the next 18 months, which means districts may have to adapt to distance learning or blend it with in-person instruction over the next school year. ◆