School districts find distance learning can bring education closer to kids

After a few weeks of utilizing distance learning school districts are realizing the benefits while working through the challenges 

TULARE COUNTY – After several decades of traditional in-person schooling models, schools around Tulare County have had just a few weeks to get accustomed to distance learning. While there have been many challenges, students and staff members are adapting well and have found the positives that have evolved from the new way of schooling.

Attendance

Back during the spring semester when schools were unexpectedly thrust into the world of distance learning, a common issue was getting students to actually log on and attend school. Since school districts were able to take the summer months to put a proper infrastructure in place, there are now guidelines and strategies dedicated to maintaining high attendance levels that weren’t there before. Schools are taking attendance, sometimes several times a day, and are consistently following up with families if a student is absent. For students that have been absent at least three times, the Tulare Joint Union High School district has created an engagement plan to ensure that a student is not getting left behind.

“Teachers are calling for every absence but sometimes they can’t get a hold of a student or parent. So then [administrators] will make home visits to follow up and understand why [students are absent] and see how they can [provide] support,” District Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Technology and Assessment Dr. Lucy Van Scyoc said.

Most schools in the district are experiencing attendance levels around 95%, which is nearly on par with previous years. Some districts may be experiencing slightly lower numbers than previous years, but that is mainly due to connectivity issues.

Technology

The use of technology in schools has rapidly evolved over the last few years as teachers are constantly finding new ways to support students. Without that evolution, a distance learning model would not be possible. The use of technology has been one of the biggest obstacles but also one of the biggest benefits for schools over the last few weeks.

Most school districts in Tulare County have sited connectivity issues as one of their main road blocks at the beginning of the distance learning school year. Many schools distributed laptops and WiFi hotspots to their students to help mitigate those issues. However, those methods aren’t a definitive solution for students who live in a rural area or if they live in a house with several siblings who are also connecting to the same WiFi source. If a student is experiencing connectivity issues, they may have to turn off their video feed to free up bandwidth. That makes it more difficult for teachers to connect with and assist their students, which is already an existing struggle.

Lindsay and Woodlake were the only districts who were already providing their students with community WiFi across those areas. But now that every student is utilizing it there is more of a strain on the coverage. To alleviate that issue Lindsay director of special projects Amalia Lopez said they are a few weeks away from having more community WiFi towers to increase speed and connectivity for their learners. They are also working to identify where there are six or more students in a home, so the district can increase the WiFi bandwidth to that house.

“It didn’t take a pandemic to realize that most of our learner families could not afford WiFi at home,” Lopez said. “One of the lessons learned is there is no single WiFi solution. You have to have multiple solutions in place to serve the different needs of families.”

Once schools get past the connectivity issues, the increased use of technology has been widely considered as one of the biggest benefits of the distance learning model. Schools are learning how to better utilize technology and different software to better meet the needs of students.

According to Woodlake superintendent Laura Gonzalez, if they were not in a distance learning environment then all of the technology that they currently have would not have been maximized. Their district has a virtual independent study program that was mainly being used for certain middle and high school students. Now they are using it for their younger grades as well. It is beneficial for parents who work during the day so they can’t help their kids log on to school. Now they can utilize the independent study program to work with them at more convenient hours. The program has a virtual teacher instructing via video while the parent sits with their child and works with them through the lesson.

“It’s working so nicely in the lower grades and we had no idea how great it could have been,” Gonzalez said.

Even when students are back in-person, this program is something that will continue for parents who want it. It’ll be rather beneficial for summer school or if a student is sick and must miss school for an extended period.

The Exeter Unified School District is experiencing similar success with technology. Their teachers are recording lessons that students can playback at any time, which isn’t a resource that was available before. According to deputy superintendent Melanie Stringer, another major victory has been the increased level of engagement from parents. Each school in the district hosts weekly forums on Zoom where parents can interact with school administration and figure out what they could do at home to support learning in the classroom.

“It’s been powerful watching our parents partner with us. Something we’ve talked about for years is figuring out how we could get our parents more engaged in learning and now they’re doing that,” Stringer said.

Returning to school

While the wheels on the distance learning bus are successfully driving forward, the focus for all schools is still getting students back in-person. While that is largely dependent on the county’s COVID metrics, some elementary schools have begun applying for waivers to reopen for grades TK-6. Other districts, such as Visalia, are working on bringing students back in for one-on-one assessments. They’ll likely start with students who are on individual education plans who receive specialized services or students who need English language assessments. They recently received guidelines from state health officials on bringing in small cohorts of learners, but no more than 25% of the school’s population. They will mainly focus on students who have special educational needs or are struggling to learn through video conferencing.

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