Distance learning gets clearer as fall semester nears

Visalia Unified resolves issues of home school, technology devices, internet access and software

VISALIA – Less than a quarter of Visalia Unified parents wanted to begin the fall semester on distance learning, but 100% of students will have to start the school year that way.

As long as Tulare County remains on the state’s watchlist for high rates of coronavirus infection and transmission, Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered every school in those counties to keep their campuses closed to students putting every student on the distance learning model, at least for now.

Superintendent Tamara Ravalin solidified the school schedule for students in all grades during a presentation at the July 28 school board meeting and the subsequent release of the district’s “Return to School Planning Guide” to parents on July 31. Morning schedule classes will begin at 8:20 a.m. for all grades and will end at 11:05 for K-8 and 11:10 for high school followed by a lunch break. Afternoon schedule classes will begin at 12:30 p.m. for elementary, 12:25 p.m. for middle school and 12:35 for high school and end at 3:20 p.m. for elementary, 3:07 p.m. for middle school and 3:25 p.m. for high school. Morning and afternoon instruction will be held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with an independent study day for students each Wednesday.

Doug Cardoza, assistant superintendent of education services, said students will start their day at 8 a.m. during a 15-minute advisory period, or home room, where they will log on from their devices so they can be counted for the day every day, including Wednesday. Students will likely begin formal instruction on a Zoom call with their teacher. Cardoza said the teacher might then have students split into smaller groups within the Zoom software, where teacher aide’s and learning specialists may help with specific lessons. Students might then be brought back into the main Zoom call and assigned homework before being released from the class to study on their own.

Director of technology services Chuck Boone confirmed VUSD has enough Chromebooks and tablets for all 29,000 of the district’s students. Just two weeks ago, the district received its last shipment of 1,600 Chromebooks delivered on 15 pallets. Chromebooks will be distributed at your child’s home school site sometime next week, Aug. 10-14. Textbooks will be distributed at school sites the following week, Aug. 17-21.

A limited number of hotspots will also be available for checkout but will be reserved for families who cannot afford internet access. Parents will have to sign documents attesting that they do not currently have internet access and cannot afford it. Boone said parents who already have internet access should be okay with most basic packages, even if they are also working remotely.

“Most of what students will be doing is reading, writing, watching short videos and being on Zoom calls with teachers,” Boone said. “All of those things are designed to be less than bandwidth than watching YouTube and far less than streaming high definition/4K content like Netflix. Zoom is not as bandwidth intensive as people think.”

VUSD has already set up a tech support call center for students and parents for technical assistance with district-issued devices and hotspots and a page on the district web site (vusd.org/domain/77) with an FAQ and a portal for technical support requests. Boone said VUSD is also setting up a receiving area where district devices can be repaired “like a Mac Store, but not as nice.”

Visalia Unified School District employees work to receive and catalogue more than 1,600 Chromebooks last month. The district office says it will distribute about 29,000 devices to every student at their school site next week in preparation for the first day of school on Aug. 13. Photo courtesy of Visalia Unified School District.

During distance learning, parents are encouraged to be a partner with the teacher in the child’s learning. The district suggests creating a “learning zone” in your home that is consistently available as well as quiet and comfortable. Set expectations for how much time you will be available for help and how much time they will work on their own. Have your student take regular breaks or “digital recesses” from their device. Learn and explore topics together so your student can see the fun in learning.

Teachers may use a variety of software to start the year, such as ClassDojo or Google Classroom, but by the end of the semester all teachers and students will be transition to the district’s new learning management software Schoology.

“Nothing is happening overnight,” Cardoza said. “During the first few weeks of school, we will not be 100% implemented and we won’t be asking staff and students to do anything they are not up to speed on.”

K-8 curriculum director Phil Black said site administrators and teachers began logging onto Schoology for the first time two weeks ago and are not only completing a one-hour training session but are also completing assessments in a self-paced course to acclimate to the new technology. Black said the district’s 1,400 teachers had logged on more than 8,168 times in the first week and a half.

Students who committed to full-distance learning for the rest of the semester, regardless of campuses reopening to in-person instruction, will be considered students of Washington Elementary for grades K-8 and Mt. Whitney High School for grades 9-12. Cardoza said those were the schools with the lowest student enrollment and some of the lowest number of students selecting full-time distance learning, a major reason why they were chosen to accommodate distance learning students, who make up about 22% of the district’s enrollment according to surveys completed last month.

Many of the problems associated with students distance learning through other sites have been resolved. At the July 28 school board meeting, assistant superintendent of human resources Dedi Somavia said the district is working out a plan with the Visalia Unified Teachers Association to offer a home room or zero period for all students, regardless if they are on the a.m. or p.m. class schedule, during the 15 minutes before morning schedule classes begin at 8:20 a.m. The home room would be with a teacher at the students’ home school who will take attendance, relay information about their school and provide positive messages of encouragement for the day. Somavia said the home room would allow high school seniors to earn a diploma from their home school and play sports for their home school without requiring an interdistrict transfer when campuses reopen.

“They will have home room at home site and maintain that connection with their home school site as well,” Somavia said. “They maintain status at that school and play sports at their home site.”

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