The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
What a difference a year makes! It is so good to see school buses stopping for school children, not just distributing meals and operating as hot spots. Last year on March 17, Mendocino County schools transitioned to distance learning and teachers were asked to instantly master online learning platforms using video conferencing to teach their classes.
Now, schools are in the process of returning to in-person instruction where teachers are learning to “Room and Zoom,” simultaneously teaching students at home and in the classroom. Ingenuity is at a high point. By the end of Spring break, most elementary and middle schools and some high schools will have transitioned to partial in-person learning.
RETURNING TO IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION
Though this is good news, it is important to recognize what this means for schools and the communities they serve.
1. Before you start comparing your local school or district to those in surrounding areas, please remember that each school community is deciding the best reopening process that fits their unique circumstances, including resources, student needs and teacher needs.
2. While studies show it is safe for students to be on campus, challenges arise as we transition from one mode of learning to another. Safety mitigation measures must be learned and new patterns of behavior established.
3. The redesign of classrooms and campuses is dependent upon the structure of each school facility. So, the redesign of the classrooms to accommodate COVID safety is not a one-size-fits-all strategy.
4. As the pandemic wanes, the CDC will continue to adjust guidelines. School communities will likely respond by beginning to relax some of their safety requirements. For example, the required distance between students will lessen as schools become comfortable with reopening strategies.
Every school that offers in-person instruction is required to publicly post a Covid Safety Plan, a plan that explains the individualized strategies each school is implementing to address the challenges of that particular site.
The State of California has a Safe Schools for All website (schools.covid19.ca.gov) where members of the public can report concerns and schools can receive technical assistance. There’s also an in-person instruction dashboard that will be finalized April 1, so people can review the percentage of students in hybrid v. full-distance learning at each level: elementary, middle, and high school all over the state.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM DISTANCE LEARNING
Although educators agree that in-person instruction is best, distance learning wasn’t all bad. As we worked through each new challenge, we developed a new kind of learning. And thanks to the need for everyone to learn remotely, we now have a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio countywide.
Here are some examples of the benefits of distance-learning:
● Students were able to focus on academics without the distraction of having to navigate challenging social environments. Those who were victims of bullying or pressured to behave in ways inconsistent with their own beliefs felt enormous relief this year.
● Because teachers have learned to teach remotely and record their lessons, in the future when students cannot attend class, they may still have access to class material and instruction.
● Long-term distance learning could allow Mendocino County schools to share specialized classes or teachers (e.g., AP physics). This may allow schools to expand course offerings and dual-enrollment opportunities with Mendocino College.
Whether students are still learning remotely or transitioning to in-person instruction, they’ll be required to take summative, end-of-year testing—the State has not waived this requirement. It has, however, granted some flexibility in what instrument schools use for these tests. The goal of this testing is to determine the true learning loss and design programs to help students recover in the coming years.
To make up for learning loss and repay schools for some of the massive costs they’ve incurred this year because of the pandemic, schools will be receiving one-time funds from the State. The monies they received may not cover all the expenses, but they will certainly help.
As I’ve said before, on a personal note I encourage everyone who can get the vaccine to do so. This pandemic has been devastating for so many people and the sooner we can get it under control, the better. I believe the vaccine is our quickest route to a post-pandemic world.