Virtual Learning: From Friday the 13th to Labor Day weekend

Visalia Unified students struggle with emotional toll of distance learning as district begins steps to help the most vulnerable populations return

Although the 2019-2020 school year ended in May for most students, Friday the 13th of March 2020 is a date that most students will remember for years to come. Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) students left school that day believing they would be returning after the weekend. Students of all ages were initially shocked, some were even happy, to know that classes had been canceled for two weeks, although these two weeks quickly turned into months.

Over the summer, parents, students and teachers wondered how the reopening of VUSD would look like in the fall of 2020. As announcements from the Governor talked about Tulare County being unsafe for schools to reopen, parents waited to hear from the school what this meant for their students. Many parents became frustrated because they felt that they were not given enough information or direction on what to expect or how to prepare for this huge change in education.

The idea of virtual classrooms went from uncharted territory to our current model of teaching and learning. The school year started for most students with a Chromebook pick up drive-thru event. Because of social distance parents were told they had to drive and could not get off their vehicles. Depending on the school some parents waited over two hours to pick up their students’ Chromebooks.

On Aug. 10, students across the district started their first day of virtual school by logging into a new software program, Schoology, finding the link to their teacher’s Zoom class and joining their classmates on screen. Although this sounds easy enough, students navigated issues like links not working, not being able to log in, and intermittent interruptions of their WiFi signal, among other problems.

Some families are tech-savvy. What about our families who are not? How is the district helping parents who are not able to help their students log on? Some parents turned to friends, coworkers asking for help learning how to help their student.

Students’ school schedule changed drastically. Most students have always attended school from 8:20 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m. In this new model, most students are taught virtually for about three to four days per week with a shorter day on Wednesday for interventions and small groups. Some attend morning classes while others attend the afternoon sessions.

Although students are happy to see their friends through the screens some students have expressed the desire to have more interaction with their peers. Parents across the county voiced their concerns over distance learning at the Sept. 1 meeting of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. Most parents urged their elected officials to put pressure on the county’s public health officer to allow schools to reopen as long as they are following safety protocols such as wearing face masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing and classroom sanitizing. Parents argued the long-term social and emotional effects of school-age children spiraling into depression was a greater risk than the possibility their children would contract the coronavirus and spread it to classmates and teachers.

At the same meeting, the county’s health department announced it would be allowing schools to reopen their campuses as cohorts for student populations experiencing the most obstacles to distance learning, such as special education students, English learners, students with learning disabilities, those needing speech, physical or occupational therapy and foster and homeless youth. The cohort model allows these students to return to campus as long as they are split into groups of no more than 16 people, including both students and teachers, in a single classroom. Those teachers would have to remain with those students in that classroom and would not be allowed to interact with any other student groups. Each school campus is allowed to bring back up to 100 students or 25% of the site’s enrollment, whichever is greater.

On Sept. 4, VUSD announced it would be taking a staggered approach to bringing back cohorts of these students. The district’s first step is to begin scheduling in-person, one-on-one meetings for special education and language assessments. The district will begin providing in-person instruction for students with individualized education plans (IEPs) during times when students are not scheduled to be on Zoom calls with their teachers. During this time VUSD will be developing plans for all of the targeted groups to return.

“In all of the first three steps, we will follow the CDPH COVID-19 Industry Guidance for Limited Services and we will continue to work closely with the Tulare County Health and Human Services Department,” Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said in a released statement.

VUSD also said it is moving forward with completing school waivers for its elementary campuses to welcome all students back to campus with strict health and safety guidelines in place. The most likely scenario, Ravalin wrote, is that VUSD would start a return to school with transitional kindergarten through 2nd grade students. The district is also continue to look for ways to improve the experience for families who want their students to remain on full-time distance learning.

“Visalia Unified School District is committed to providing equitable, quality education for all students while honoring social distancing and health/safety guidelines to maintain a healthy environment,” Ravalin concluded.

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