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The Year of Teaching Dangerously

How California Schools Are Adapting to the Age of the Pandemic

This week a new series examines the fears and frustrations of teachers facing a new year of distance learning.




Illustration by Define Urban

In March, when Northern California counties issued stay-at-home orders, followed shortly afterwards by a statewide shutdown, schools scrambled to improvise a pivot to online “distance learning.” Some were able to make the change within days; others took many weeks. Grading and assessment systems were largely put to one side, at least in the public school system. And school districts rushed – and in some cases struggled – to purchase and distribute Chromebooks or iPads to students who didn’t have them; to set up Wi-Fi hotspots for families lacking home Internet access; to work out how to keep distributing food to children from low-income families who relied on school breakfasts and lunches; and to set up methods of teaching online that wouldn’t leave out students who had special education plans, or who were English language learners.

Bureaucratic systems fabled for their inflexibility were, suddenly, tasked with finding kluge-like solutions, at speed, to meet these extraordinary challenges. Inevitably, the result was hit or miss.

The articles in this week’s new series, “The Year of Teaching Dangerously,” reflect the extraordinary challenges facing elementary, middle and high schools as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on daily life.




Many schools have signally failed to issue detailed instructions to educators on how to reach out to, and protect the interests of, the most vulnerable of families.




Back in March, most educators were working on the assumption the shutdown would last a few weeks. Then, in April, it became clear it would last the rest of the school year. Now, with a new school year fast approaching, it is apparent that the vast majority of schools in California, and the vast majority of teachers and students, are facing many more months, perhaps even an entire school year, of online learning.

Read the Series Here

In some school districts, such as Sacramento’s – where I live and my children go to school – particularly acrimonious relations between the teachers’ union and the administration have made it even harder to decide on how to proceed with a distance learning based school year. With just weeks left before classes begin in Sacramento, negotiators are still hashing out everything from the number of minutes of in-person instruction per day to the grading standards for students’ work. “There’s a consensus that there needs to be clearer guidelines, schedules, real-time learning,” says David Fisher, president of the Sacramento City Teachers’ Association. But, he continues, the district and the teachers have yet to reach agreement on what this will look like in practice.

Around California, the issues faced by teachers and students, as well as the families of students, vary depending on the age of the students, the school setting, the resources available to the school and to families. Over the summer, Capital & Main reached out to K-12 teachers across the state, some from large cities, others from rural communities, some in affluent private schools, others in struggling public school districts, to explore the challenges this upcoming school year presents. “To be perfectly honest,” Fisher says, “I don’t think anybody thinks it’s going to be as good as in-person learning. One of the first things they teach you in classroom management is proximity, moving around the classroom. It’s impossible in distance learning. As a parent and as a teacher, this is surreal; and it really breaks our hearts.”

Our series’ stories will also examine the vast social equity issues raised by the closing down of schools. How, for example, will young children, whose parents cannot afford to stay home from work, survive? Where will they go during the day if school systems make no provisions for them to come onsite? What will befall the children just starting out on their educational journey if they miss a year’s worth of in-person lessons intended to teach them how to read and write, to develop the motor skills to hold pencil and pen correctly?

Some school districts have discussed plans to address these issues, including using outdoor spaces to teach small pods of kids who have no other safe space to take their classes; but as of August 6, Fisher says 100 percent of schools across the state plan to open remotely. Many have signally failed to issue detailed instructions to educators on how to reach out to, and protect the interests of, the most vulnerable of families.

“We have, even in normal times, a big divide,” says Newport Harbor High School English teacher Alex Goodman. More than half of the students in his school, in the tony coastal town of Newport Beach, come from very affluent families. But more than one-third of the school’s attendees come from poorer neighboring cities, many from immigrant families where parents, and sometimes also children, are not fluent in English. When Newport Harbor went online, Goodman – who is co-founder and co-chair of the school’s Inclusion Council – watched in horror as a good number of the children from poorer families “just disappeared. Most of my time and energy was devoted to tracking down the kids who didn’t show up.”

This is the story of California’s education crisis – a crisis that threatens to morph into one of the greatest social justice challenges of modern times – in the age of COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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