Public education is kicking back into gear this month, but for most students in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties the phrase “back to school” will be a euphemism. Throughout the region, distance learning and closed classrooms will be the norms until health conditions improve.
With that in mind, here’s a brief guide to some of the questions parents and students might have about the upcoming school year.
Q: Can my kid go to school?
Probably not, at least not yet. The state is requiring online-only instruction until the pandemic slows in counties that are on the state watch list. Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are all on that list.
There is a limited exception. On Monday, Aug. 3, the state issued rules for a waiver process that could let some elementary schools reopen. But that process gives county health officials final say on the matter and sets health standards that must be met. As of now, in the four-county region, only Orange County might permit some schools to open, though none so far have qualified.
Q: Why are we doing this?
The online-only mandate was implemented for health reasons.
“Unfortunately, Covid-19 continues to spread in the Los Angeles area and the virus is going to impact how we start the new school year,” wrote Austin Beutner, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, to explain why the nation’s second-biggest school district is starting the year online.
It’s not ideal. Most teachers, administrators and parents (of all political leanings) seem to want traditional education to resume. And studies consistently show that for most students online instruction typically isn’t as effective as traditional schooling.
But in any face-to-face school setting – even if temperature checks and social distancing rules are enforced – students interact daily with a lot of people; other students, teachers, school staff, parents. And data shows that more contacts in schools mean more COVID in the community.
Q: When can traditional school resume?
Schools under the online-only mandate can’t reopen traditional instruction until their county has been off the state watch list for 14 consecutive days.
Q: Online school last spring wasn’t great. Will it be different now?
Yes. The state issued rules for the coming school year aimed at adding rigor to online instruction, including some rules for teachers and students that mirror traditional schooling.
For example, state law is reviving basic daily instruction limits. This year, that means 180 minutes of instruction time every day for kindergartners, 230 minutes for grades 1 through 3 and 240 minutes a day for grades 4 through 12.
The state also is reviving attendance rules, though it is letting districts work with parents to work out the details.
Also, for families who lack computers or WiFi access, online education wasn’t technically feasible last academic year. In fact, the state estimated that 700,000 more computers and 300,000 WiFi hotspots were needed to make sure every student in the state could attend online school this year. Officials set aside $5.3 billion to bridge that gap, and districts throughout the region have been tapping that money to get equipment to families who need it. (On Aug. 5 the state Department of Education said about one in nine students in California still need at least some new technology to participate in online school.)
Other new rules call for schools to offer some form of daily interaction with students and parents. When schools closed in the spring and online classes kicked in, many parents expressed frustration because it was tough to stay in touch with teachers.
Q: Will teachers issue grades?
The state says it’s up to each school district to determine how to handle grading. If grades are issued, the standards have to be equitable for all students and they have to reflect the curriculum that’s actually covered during this unusual year.
Q: What’s the deal with academic testing?
This year, it’s unclear if the state will require schools to conduct standardized testing to measure school performance. But tests that measure individual achievement – Advanced Placement, SAT and ACT – are being offered. All have been modified to reflect the rules of social distancing, including in some cases versions of the tests that can be taken remotely.
What’s less clear is the ongoing relevance of those tests.
Many colleges and universities still issue college credit to students who pass AP tests, or at least let a passing AP score substitute for introductory college-level coursework. Likewise, many schools still look at SAT and ACT scores as part of the admission process.
But that’s evolving. The state’s two big university systems, the University of California and California State University, said they won’t look at SAT or ACT tests for the class of 2021. And, recently, the UC system said it plans to develop its own standardized tests by 2025.
Q: Will students learn much this year?
Yes, but expectations should reflect the circumstances.
There are advantages and disadvantages to in-class and online learning, and individual students can thrive in either context. But experts say online-only instruction generally isn’t as effective as in-class schooling when it comes to reaching the most students.
A 2017 report from the Brookings Institution found online students generally don’t do as well as their in-class peers on assessment tests and other measures of education. Worse, the report found that the online education experience “impacts performance in future classes and likelihood of dropping out of college.”
That said, other studies show that online instruction can work well when it’s a supplement to time spent in class, and ‘blended’ schooling can be as effective as full-time, face-to-face instruction.
Q: What’s the glitch with online education?
Distractions. Essentially, the multi-task tools that are offered on any laptop or smart pad – and the easy-to-distract nature of young human beings – make it too easy for students to tune out information that’s presented online.
A 2019 study from Kent State, which surveyed 452 undergraduates at public universities found that online students demonstrated “significantly greater multitasking behavior” than their in-a-classroom peers. As teachers presented information online, their students were inclined to text and send email, watch video and listen to music, and talk to others on the phone, among other things.
Q: How big is the gap between online learning and face-to-face learning?
It’s hard to measure precisely, but an estimate by experts at Brown University says students were set back significantly by the switch to online-only instruction that started last March. Specifically, the report found most learned less than half the math and only about 70% of the language skills they would have picked up in a traditional school year. The problem was worse for young students and particularly acute for students in single-parent and economically challenged households, and for students who are learning English.
Q: How can a student learn the most online?
Lose the distractions. Be organized. Set aside time that’s devoted solely to communicating with the teacher.
In short, the same skills that help students succeed in a traditional classroom also work for online school. The difference is that much of that concentration has to come at home, without the physical oversight of a teacher.
Q: How can parents help their student during online school?
Know what’s expected of your student and track their progress daily.
You can start by using your school’s online parent portal and finding out your teacher’s short-term and long-term goals for the class and each student. Also, don’t miss any opportunity you have to chat with the teacher directly. In a setting where students and parents are isolated from other students and parents, there’s less wiggle room for uncertainty.
On that note, don’t be totally isolated. Use the internet and phone to create study groups for your student and discussion groups for parents. If many of you have the same questions, bring them up with the teacher or the school.
Also, make sure your student has the tech and WiFi access needed to stay in class every day. That includes a distraction-free work environment, clear of everything from TV shows and siblings to chatter from any adults in the house. Treat online school time for what it is: school time. You wouldn’t interrupt your student’s face-to-face math class, so don’t interrupt the online version of that same instruction.
And, finally, track your student closely. Listen to what they say about their classwork and watch for non-verbal cues. If they tell you about a problem, or if they show signs that they’re falling behind – can’t finish homework; becomes angry at the mention of school; won’t let you see their work – reach out quickly to the teacher.
Q: What should online school look like?
That’ll vary from school to school and maybe even from class to class. Many teachers will work from their homes; others will work from school classrooms.
One thing that’ll be common is this: The review part of this academic year could last longer than usual.
Schools were shut down suddenly in March and the online programs offered over the last months of the school year were less rigorous than the education planned for this year. As a result, teachers and students have a lot of ground to make up.
Q: This online school thing is frustrating. What can I do to reduce the stress?
First, the stress issue isn’t trivial. In June, Gallup published a national poll in which nearly 3 in 10 parents said their children are suffering some level of “emotional harm” as a result of the isolation that comes from social distancing and online school.
Or, as a high school student in Nashville told the New York Times:
“My online school day consists of waking up at 10 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., working on my laptop in my bed instead of a classroom, and now I make my own schedule. While this sounds pretty enjoyable for any teenager, it has made me miss school…
“If you had told me a few months ago that I would be praying to go to school, I would’ve laughed and called you crazy, but I would do anything to go back to my school.”
In schools, the pushback on stress will begin when online instruction resumes.
Emotional education is a thing in schools these days, with or with the pandemic. Students increasingly are being taught things like how to control their emotions, how to be empathetic, how to work well with others. Those skills are valuable in every workplace and every life.
That’s likely to continue, in some form, during coronavirus-era online schooling. Many teachers, at all grade levels, will set aside part of the online day to let students discuss everything from what’s funny about being cooped up at home, to what’s scary, to how they feel when illness and economic ruin seem to be driving the world.
The push back against stress also can happen at home. Parents can boost mental health by creating a life that’s as close to normal as it can be during an online school year.
That might mean more sit-down dinners and family time and reading. It also might mean paying extra attention to making sure everybody gets enough sleep.
And, of course, make sure your student gets outside for exercise as much as possible; the physical needs of childhood (or adulthood) haven’t gone away because of the pandemic.
Q: What are the rules for special needs students?
Same as the old rules.
If your school has an individual plan for your student, it “remains in effect,” according to state guidelines. Also, those guidelines say schools should, “to the greatest extent possible,” continue to provide all services that were available to your child prior to the imposition of online schooling.
The state urges parents to reach out to schools or districts to get specific answers. In all, more than 700,000 students in California (out of a total student population of 6.2 million) could be affected if any changes are made to special needs instruction.
Source: Orange County Register
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