This spring, when school moved online in Cajon Valley, Calif., lower-income parents struggled to balance work and home instruction. Students — most of them poor enough to receive free or subsidized lunches — struggled to connect to lessons online.
The district superintendent, David Miyashiro, vowed to reopen schools in the fall. Now, students are back in classrooms for a hybrid learning model in all 27 schools in the district near San Diego.
“The truth is, distance learning isn’t working for most families,” he told our colleague Jenny Anderson. “Parenting, teaching and working do not make for manageable multitasking.”
Cajon Valley is a rarity in the state: More than nine out of 10 of California’s 6.3 million public school students are doing only distance learning. The district is also an outlier nationally: High-poverty schools are significantly more likely to opt for remote-only instruction.
Years of preparation and development made Cajon Valley’s hybrid system possible:
Students already had laptops when school moved online this spring. For the last seven years, the district has provided every child a laptop and access to a curriculum that blends technology into day-to-day teaching. And they knew how to use them: Miyashiro created a TEDxKids@ElCajon conference to showcase children’s talents and teach them presentation skills.
Teachers, since 2014, have received extensive training for high-tech, “blended” classrooms, showcased in YouTube videos. They were also committed to work, in part, because they were compensated for it: The district secured a 6 percent pay raise over last two years.
And parents could get online. According to prior surveys, 100 percent of families already had connectivity. When the lockdown revealed many were traveling to get Wi-Fi, the district quickly stepped in to help them get connected.
Cajon Valley also used the spring and summer as an opportunity to prepare. It ran an in-person summer enrichment program for more than a third of its 17,000 mostly low-income students, road-testing online safety measures.
When teachers came together in August, teachers from that program shared concerns founded on observations: Middle-school students were lax about social distancing, and students in high-poverty schools had dirty masks. They negotiated, compromised and adjusted. Some teachers did not wear masks, although they were required to do so.
As of Friday, the district has not yet reported any infections, although classrooms have been fully open for only a few weeks. Students are required to wear masks and follow social distancing rules.
At a moment when many communities feel abandoned by their schools, Cajon Valley’s ability to partially reopen its buildings with the support of both families and teachers is a testament to the importance of a scarce commodity during the pandemic: trust.
“Knowing you have teachers and principals and a superintendent that care helped families in this pandemic,” said one parent, Jemima Dutra, who cried as she recounted all the ways the district tried to support her children. “They cared about us even though we weren’t in front of them, and that meant a lot to me.”
One family’s remote-school tale
This item comes to us from our sister newsletter, On Tech With Shira Ovide.
Virtual school is going better for Valerie Cruz and her son Brian now than it did last spring. It’s still not easy.
Brian’s school, Immaculate Conception in the Bronx, resumed with live online instruction instead of the self-guided lessons from the last school year. His teachers are in constant touch.
Many schools, teachers and parents are better prepared for remote instruction this fall than they were in the pandemic panic of the spring. It’s still a disaster for many, difficult even in the best of circumstances and unmanageable for some families, including those who are homeless or can’t access reliable internet service.
Cruz is balancing her hope, anxiety and personal challenges that make remote learning harder. She is a single mom with a full-time job out of the house, and she had to scrimp to buy internet service at home.
Like many parents, Cruz is dealing with a tough situation and making it work. When school resumed, Brian’s parochial school gave families a choice of in-person classes or learning from home. (New York City’s public schools also offered parents a choice, but the reopening has been plagued with conflict and delay.)
Cruz said that she and Brian have health conditions that put them more at risk from the coronavirus, so they opted for virtual learning. So far, things are going well. Through the New York Education Department and the school, she got an iPad and laptop for Brian to use for online video classes and his class work. Teachers are holding virtual “office hours” for one-on-one time with students who aren’t there in person.
None of that happened in the spring, when students worked on assignments on their own and posted them to Google Classroom.
Cruz said she was hopeful about the new school year, but also anxious. She is worried about Brian staying on task when she’s not home. She sees his teachers working hard, but is concerned that they’ll burn out.
“They’re doing a wonderful job with what they have,” Cruz said. Without more money and manpower, “it’s hard to see how to make that better.”
For more stories about families finding ways through the school year, sign up for The Times’s Parenting newsletter, written by our colleague Jess Grose.
Around the country
Three hundred students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology are in quarantine after the university found trace amounts of the coronavirus in sewage water testing.
The local health department asked students at the University of Colorado Boulder to leave their homes or dorms only for essential needs, in response to a sharp rise in cases.
In Utah, the governor is considering a mask mandate after a surge in cases. Many of the new cases are being driven by college-age students in Utah County, home to Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, state health officials said.
Fifty-one percent of college students say it was not the right choice for their schools to allow students on campus; 60 percent say they are learning less, according to a new College Reaction/Axios poll. And of those on campus, 50 percent have gathered with friends without masks.
University coronavirus dashboards are confusing and vary widely across institutions. That makes them almost impossible to read.
In New York City, up to 90,000 preschool students and special education students have returned to classrooms. Older students are scheduled to be phased in over the coming weeks — but the city has yet to solve a large teacher shortage.
A high school in Madison, Ala., canceled homecoming after nine football players tested positive. At least 170 people are in quarantine across the district.
Some high schools in Maine are streaming athletic events, for a fee: Friday night lights with a subscription.
There are more than 4,500 cases in Texas public schools. An estimated 1.1 million students have been on campus for instruction or activities since the beginning of the school year.
A teacher in Utah is in an intensive care unit after she contracted Covid-19 at school. The teachers’ union is demanding that the governor close schools after outbreaks, but a few districts have ignored state guidelines recommending virtual learning following more than 15 infections.
Tip: Make an informed decision
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance about the risk of transmission within a school. The color-coded tool includes questions about health indicators and school protocol. Although it does not mandate a specific response, the tool is meant to help administrators and local health officials make decisions about in-person learning.
The United Nations Children’s Fund also released a framework and checklist for reopening schools. It includes recommendations about policy, financing, safe operations, learning, and strategies to reach and protect the most marginalized students. It will be useful to any educator.
Parents: How are you coping?
Parents: Tell us your strategies to balance work and parenting, especially if your kids are learning from home. We may feature some future responses in an article or a future newsletter.