SALINAS VALLEY — Three superintendents from area districts recently spoke to King City Rotary Club about how their schools plan to deal with the beginning of the school year and uncertain shift from distance learning to in-person instruction.
Every school in Monterey County must begin the 2020-21 year with distance learning, but challenges with accessibility to both computer equipment and internet have been challenges faced by area students and families.
“We know that we have sufficient Chromebooks to hand to every single child,” said Rory Livingston, superintendent for King City Union School District, which contains all of King City’s elementary and middle schools. “I ordered a week and a half ago 2,000 hotspots at $1.2 million, for one year. Not an effective use of public money, but it’s being required.”
Livingston explained that though the use of funds is inefficient, ensuring that students can immediately access online classes without problems was of paramount importance. He said the district is looking into a more monetarily efficient solution of providing permanent Wi-Fi access to students at a cost of $2 million, but that plan would take one year to implement.
Solving the internet access problem has been spearheaded locally by school districts last school year, as well as such services as Monterey-Salinas Transit, which placed buses around South Monterey County to act as Wi-Fi hotspots, and the City of Gonzales, which provided free hotspots to residents.
“The biggest problem with having broadband Wi-Fi is not so much availability but the affordability,” Livingston said. “The majority of our families are below the poverty level so the $30 a month or more … is beyond their means.”
San Lucas Union Elementary School District is also seeking to solve the issue of public access to the internet.
“Installing fiber is really expensive, $100 a foot, and we might want a mile of it,” said Jessica Riley, superintendent at San Lucas. “That’s more of a long-term hope.”
Both Livingston and Riley criticized the idea that solutions for one area would work for all areas of the state.
“I have a facility that can accommodate up to 200 students, and I only have an enrollment of 73,” Riley said. “We could have had every single student back here on site, socially distanced, wearing masks. We had plans. I had purchased numerous supplies to make it happen.”
Riley added that when she saw the plans implemented in Los Angeles around distance learning, she knew it was only a matter of time before the state mandated schools in “watch list” counties do the same without distinction for individual local circumstances.
The mandate to all distance learning meant some changes had to be made to lineups.
“We did have to reduce down some of the options, some of the classes that are hands-on, such as welding and floristry, those are going to have to be put on hold or done much differently,” said Brian Walker, superintendent of South Monterey County Joint Union High School District, which includes the high schools of both King City and Greenfield. “Unfortunately, the students didn’t get all the choices they normally would have for classes, but they certainly are getting all their graduation requirements.”
Interaction with teachers remains a top need for education, one that becomes a challenge with distance learning.
“One of the methodologies we had last year was passing out paper packets,” Livingston said. “That wasn’t real effective, that was more busy work. There was very little interaction with teachers. For this upcoming year, there has to be daily interaction between the teacher and the student.”
Walker mentioned the idea of having teachers in their instructional settings, despite students being at home.
“In our district, we are planning and negotiating to have our teachers come back,” he said. “We want our teachers to be providing instruction from the classroom. But because of the conditions, we’re not going to be having any students back. This is the lowest risk format that we’re able to provide.”
Family environments can play a role in not only student success, but also student reinforcement to log in to their classes.
“For King City, it’s going to be tough for elementary kids,” Livingston said. “Because for 75 percent of our families, both parents work during the day when we’re supposed to be doing distance learning. There typically will not be a significant adult in the home. That’s going to be a burden we’ll somehow have to overcome.”
Along with motivation to log in and do lessons when no adult is around, students will also face technical issues with their computers and will need to know how to operate them and troubleshoot on the fly with no access to tech teams or adult help that can normally be found on campus.
Riley said San Lucas will spend the first weeks providing hub meetings with students to show them exactly how to do just that in order to continue their school year with reduced problems.
Looking into the future, both the county and area school districts would have to meet state criteria to reopen public gathering areas, including schools, but those remain uncertain, especially given the July rebound in restrictions for shelter-in-place orders.
“I don’t anticipate that we would open up into any kind of modified schedule or even a fully open schedule until probably sometime in November,” Livingston said.
When things eventually lead to an easing of restrictions and schools are allowed to provide hybrid or in-person instruction, Walker said the high school district has planned for the contingency of an echo of what the state saw in July, with restrictions easing and then returning. He showed a class schedule for GHS and KCHS that can transition from one format to another in the event of the state switching guidelines.
“We had to come up with a way to be flexible enough to change in and out of these different statuses the state says we’re in,” he said.
Riley looked further out into the future, seeing ripples even from the shortest term of changes that have already been made.
“I’m most concerned for the next eight years,” she said. “Every one of my kindergarteners, first graders, second graders and anyone who hasn’t yet mastered reading is on my radar because they’ve already missed three months. They’re going to miss potentially another school year in this weird new form of learning that my teachers haven’t had time to create their own professional pedagogy in. How are we going to afford the interventions that will be necessary to get everyone back up and running?”
Walker said one silver lining to the situation is construction at local campuses.
“All the school districts that are doing construction have an incredible opportunity right now to fast track all that construction,” he said. “All of our projects, $40 million worth of projects in Greenfield and King City, every one of them is ahead of schedule because the contractors can go full bore to get things done.”