The following is a column submitted by Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins, published here as a letter-to-the-editor:
Recently, the Mendocino Voice published a summary of the 2020 Mendocino County Grand Jury report focused on distance learning. Because of the pandemic, changes in education have come at lightning speed, so many of the Grand Jury’s recommendations have either been addressed or efforts are underway to do so. In some cases, things have changed so much that the recommendations don’t make sense anymore. For example, distance learning requirements from last year are no longer in place. Instead, many of the requirements have been folded into independent study.
Legally, the Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE) must address each finding with the Grand Jury before we can publicly share this information. We’re in the process of doing so. In the meantime, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain who makes which decisions regarding education for local students.
In California, decisions about public education are made at a hyper-local level. According to the California School Boards Association, school boards for each district have five primary responsibilities: setting direction, establishing effective and efficient structure, providing support, ensuring accountability, and providing community leadership as advocates for children, the school district and public schools.
In practice, this translates into decisions about curriculum, when the school day begins and ends, how many and what types of classes are offered, and how money is spent. As long as policies comply with state law, district school boards have a lot of flexibility. By maintaining control at a local level, the idea is that a community’s values and priorities will be reflected in the public education provided there
County offices of education (COEs), on the other hand, serve as a local representative of the California Department of Education. COEs provide fiscal oversight and educational support to districts, and through budget allocation, can have some influence on broad educational priorities. COEs are also responsible for instructional programs that serve students with highly specialized needs, including severely disabled students, incarcerated and expelled youth, and students who are also parents. In small, rural counties like ours, COEs can provide additional operational support like information technology services and telecommunication infrastructure. Finally, we provide advocacy at the state level, so the needs of rural students and educators are represented thoroughly and accurately.
The Grand Jury reported that distance learning adversely affected public education in Mendocino County. They’re not wrong, but I don’t think anyone expected schools to be able to shift to highly effective remote learning with no warning, no training, and no infrastructure. Even so, we did see some heroic efforts by teachers; we also saw several situations where students thrived. As the pandemic wore on, educators gained the knowledge, experience, and tools they needed to teach better remotely.
The upside of being forced into video conferencing is that districts can put those tools to good use long after the pandemic subsides. Our county has a big geographic footprint, and some districts have better access to resources than others. Improved technology infrastructure may help reduce that gap.
Overall, the challenges related to distance learning are not over and won’t be until the pandemic subsides. Unfortunately, well-meaning California legislators who wanted to make sure students returned to in-person instruction changed the law, adding numerous requirements for independent study programs. Now, districts must either try to hire more teachers when the state is in the midst of a severe teacher shortage, or burden classroom teachers with also teaching students remotely.
Each family must determine what is best for their students and continue to advocate for their students’ needs. As they advocate, I hope they can remember that schools are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. We all need to be patient and remember that eventually this pandemic will end.