Educators discuss issues around distance learning
California’s schools closed this month to combat the COVID-19 outbreak and may not reopen until fall. The education of students, however, is still ongoing – although radically different. Educators are now relying on technology to teach remotely from their homes as they shelter in place. Some school districts have made the transition easily, while others are still in flux.
To better understand the challenges for teachers and students engaging in online learning, Gov. Gavin Newsom and first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom held a Zoom meeting April 1 with four CTA members: Reagan Duncan, a first-second grade teacher at Maryland Elementary School in Vista Unified, who is the bargaining chair of Vista Teachers Association; Roberta Kreitz, special education teacher at Wells Middle School and Dublin Teachers Association co-president; Kyna Collins, an English teacher at El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills and United Teachers Los Angeles member who chairs the Negotiations Committee at State Council; and Olivia Udovic, an Oakland Education Association member, site rep and kindergarten teacher at Manzanita Seed, a dual immersion school.
Was the meeting successful? Did teachers feel their voices were heard? To learn more, the California Educator held a remote roundtable discussion to follow up with them.
California Educator: What concerns/viewpoints did you want to share about teaching in a pandemic?
Kreitz: The key for me, especially as a special education teacher, is having equity of access, so that every kid has access to quality educational opportunities in what is becoming our new normal. It was very important to convey that concern, and it was well-received and acknowledged by the governor and his first partner.
Udovic: We wanted to make sure the governor is fully aware of how deep the needs are in some communities, like Oakland, and that we worry about furthering huge inequities that already exist when it comes to technology and the ability to access curriculum and connectivity. Our school district is facing massive budget cuts due to gross mismanagement of funds. Before coronavirus, discretionary funds were cut at each school site by 50 percent, and we’re required to use discretionary funds to purchase technology and digital learning platforms. It is very difficult to purchase these things when we are already facing a huge budget shortfall.
“We have great teachers creating great lesson plans, but if kids don’t have access, it doesn’t matter.”
Reagan Duncan, Vista Teachers Association
Duncan: Olivia, you are on point talking about access – especially when you have students living in shelters or in cars, where internet access is a huge issue. My district has 800 hotspots and 20,000 students, and I expressed concerns about how we are going to give every kid access and how we can be equitable when we might not have enough service. We have great teachers creating great lesson plans, but if kids don’t have access, it doesn’t matter. Gavin did address that; he said Google is going help the state with this.
Collins: One of biggest things we discussed is underlying inequities and the importance of funding. We need to fund meaningful professional development, because many teachers are new at online learning, although I come from a school that has already successfully implemented it. And we need to fund special education.
Kreitz: Yes, funding special education is crucial. A lot of students with moderate to severe disabilities lack the physical ability to turn on machines, so how do parents help support and implement programs we have in the school day from 8 to 3? How do we implement special services beyond the classroom such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavior support services and psychological services? How do you implement assessment of kids looking through a computer screen? It’s definitely a challenge and concern in the special education world. In my district, we have tabled assessments. Right now, we are focusing on their social and emotional needs.
“We discussed the importance of wrap-around services including access to counselors and social workers, because students are going through a lot right now.”
– Kyna Collins, United Teachers Los Angeles
Collins: For social and emotional needs, we discussed the importance of wrap-around services including access to counselors and social workers, because students are going through a lot right now. I’m using Canvas Learning Management Platform, which has a video component. Some students show their faces and I can see that many are depressed, so they need access to counseling and emotional support services. I shared with the governor and first partner that my seniors have a very high level of trepidation, stress and uncertainty. They are upset about their senior events being cancelled such as graduation and prom. Many are receiving acceptances to college and now they don’t know if they will be able go away or if parents can even afford college. Roberta brought up the importance of scholarships. Many of our students will need them, because their parents can’t work.
Duncan: Yes, we focused a lot on supporting our students. Personally, I’ve never had a year like this year with so much active trauma in the classroom. I’ve had students in homes with domestic violence, students who were abused, deportations, foster kids being moved from one home to another. Knowing all these things are happening to my kids and not being able to do a daily check-in with them to know if they are OK is difficult. I brought up my concerns, and the importance of helping kids get support they need through streaming with their counselors right away if they need it.
“We worry about the danger of furthering huge inequities that already exist when it comes to technology and the ability to access curriculum and connectivity.”
Olivia Udovic, Oakland Education Association
Udovic: One of the issues we raised is asking the governor to continue maintaining communication with educators and people working at the ground level who are doing the teaching. We want to make sure the ‘asks’ and the ‘requirements’ that will be put into place with distance learning from the state are in alignment with what we are able to do. We asked him to respect the mental health of educators at this time – and the mental health of our students. There is extra stress on students’ families facing deep financial worries, having to work from home and also having young children at home.
California Educator: How did the governor and first partner respond to your concerns and comments?
Collins: I appreciated their willingness to listen, collaborate and look for solutions. I could tell that the governor and Jennifer both felt a sense of immense responsibility to help educators and students, and that they believe that what happens with education now will be very important in the future.
Duncan: I agree with Kyna. They were kind and gracious and extremely appreciative of teachers’ efforts to make this thing work. They heard everything that we said. I feel they are willing to work with us and give us what we need.
Kreitz: I felt like they genuinely heard us. Their facial expressions sometimes conveyed an ‘aha moment’, like they were putting something on a mental to-do list. He thanked us for stepping up to do things differently, in the same way the medical community is stepping up. Of course, we’re not putting our lives in danger in the same way the medical community is doing. But he acknowledged that educators are stepping up. Some schools closed on a Friday and had distance learning in place by Tuesday. It really is incredible to think about that.
Udovic: I was heartened to hear that the governor is having listening sessions with teachers and other folks (farmworkers, healthcare workers, etc.) to understand what people on the ground are experiencing during this crisis. I hope that he continues to engage with people doing the work, instead of consultants or administrators, to ensure that he has our input in shaping policies that will provide the most relief to those most severely impacted.
“I was encouraged by what Gov. Newsom had to say. I might be Pollyanna, but I believe our conversation with him and his first partner will bring about positive changes.”
– Roberta Kreitz, Dublin Teachers Association
Kreitz: I was encouraged by what he had to say. I might be Pollyanna, but I believe our conversation with the governor and his first partner will bring about positive changes. I think there will be see more support for technology and internet access, especially for students in low-income communities. I think what we had to say made a difference.
Watch a video snippet of Gov. Newsom speaking about his conversation with these educators: