GREENFIELD — The state and county orders to shut down all schools has left educators working on ways to continue education while students remain at home.
Greenfield Union School District has begun distance-learning programs enhanced by computer and internet components, distributing computers to students to ensure their access to those programs.
The district already had a 1:1 ratio of computers to students, which officials said made deployment much smoother. They began assessing which students needed computers in March and began handing out computers on April 1.
The district plans to distribute about 3,550 of its classroom Chromebooks out to students.
The final two days of computer distribution begin today, with first and eighth grade only, and conclude tomorrow with a final opportunity for all grades. Kindergarten, TK and pre-school distributions are being planned. Computer distributions take place at each elementary school site from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The district spread out deployment of computers over the course of weeks in order to exercise social distancing for the safety of students, staff and families.
“To have every parent pick up at the same time, it would be a little more difficult to adhere to social distancing,” said Laura Cortez, assistant superintendent of educational services. “The health and safety of our community is a priority for us.”
The Chromebooks used by students in the classroom are the same ones being handed out, and Cortez said there are cases where the students receive the very computer they’ve been using all school year. However, once distance learning is over, the students will need to return those computers to again be used within classroom settings.
Cortez said a schedule is being developed for computer returns, which will work much like the pickups, where they show up at a school site and talk to staffers in protective gear at tables. However, a drive-through drop-off option is being considered so parents won’t have to leave their cars.
To ensure Chromebooks return in a condition suitable for classroom use, the district is having parents or guardians sign an acceptable use agreement, which includes care for the device.
“We understand there will be natural wear and tear, but for the most part, we are confident that our students have enough experience with the device that they know how to use it appropriately,” Cortez said.
Unequal access to Wi-Fi
In addition to the technical hurdle of computer access, many families in South Monterey County don’t have internet access at home. Even with the use of their classroom Chromebook, a student might not be able to get to the online content, which is a challenge the district says it is working on.
“We are working as fast as we can with partners and vendors to get Wi-Fi access to all of our families,” Cortez said.
Until all Chromebooks are deployed, Cortez noted it is not possible to have a clear picture of the participation rate in online distance learning. While the district wants to see 100 percent participation, she said, “We will differentiate the experience as needed for all of our students.”
So far, Cortez said students and their families have not been resistant to the idea of distance learning.
“Since day one of school closure, (teachers) have been calling students to check up on their well being,” she said. “This has made a very positive impact on students. We know that each child has a different situation at home and we are and will absolutely differentiate as needed. This is a practice our teachers are already used to.”
The district is working to guide parents and families through their internet options in Greenfield.
“The best-case scenario is that we quickly partner with an internet provider to bring this much-needed service to our community,” Cortez said. “We are exploring every single option out there … the possibility of deploying buses with access points that students can connect to.”
Fresh educational content
The state of emergency and directions from the state required all schools to provide distance-learning plans. Each school district has taken a different approach, but they have had a commonality that online access isn’t even for all students, meaning the material being taught online isn’t reaching all students.
“For GUSD, our motto is ‘All Means All,’ and we truly live by that,” Cortez said. “We are educating our students by any means possible. This means that some will receive lessons via phone calls for the time being. Our students also have curriculum packets for learning. Teachers are calling students to clarify content and keep the learning going.”
The distance-learning plan in Greenfield entails new content, which is a challenge with the classrooms being closed.
“It is going to be essential that our students continue with new content to prepare them for the next grade,” Cortez said.
“We recognize that not all students will have immediate Wi-Fi access,” Cortez said. “Students with Wi-Fi access will meet with their teachers via Google hangout or Zoom for new content. Students that do not currently have Wi-Fi access, will continue to phone conference with their teacher for lessons, including new content.”
Teachers have been using different platforms to adapt to distance learning and to better suit their teaching needs.
“We also have a team of academic coaches that are providing virtual professional development for teachers on a daily basis,” Cortez said about getting teachers up to speed on teaching through technology. “Parents and students alike have responded very well to what teachers are doing.”
One concern that has popped up across the state is the issue of grading, with materials and instruction being in uneven formats, as well as the logistics of homework being assigned before the school closures with no defined way of turning in those assignments.
“We do not want our students, families or staff to stress over grading at this time and we will exercise ‘good faith’ on all parties,” said Greenfield Union School District Superintendent Zandra Galvan.
Students are expected to try their best, with staff also expected to do their best to reach and educate students, Galvan said.
“Students will be given ‘credit’ for trying to do their best work during this time,” she added.
Reuniting with classroom materials
In addition to the Chromebooks, the district is using the checkout process to pass out supplies and curriculum that students will use for their distance learning.
“We also have a wonderful partnership with the Read to Me Project and they will be handing out book bags to our older students to read to younger students at home,” Cortez explained.
Learning packets were prepared last month that were created by teacher teams in the district. The packets included material aligned with Common Core standards in order to prepare students for their next grade level.
“We have included instructions and ways to contact their school teachers who miss them very much and want them to succeed in every way,” Galvan said.
Teacher teams worked to serve the 3,700 students in the district to make sure they all received their packets.
“Our physical education and arts teachers at all of our schools also included items to help facilitate at-home learning, so students are not sitting all day,” Galvan said.
In addition to the learning materials, bags for elementary students were prepared at each site and contained the items each student had kept in their classroom cubbies or at their desks, this way they were once again able to access their classroom supplies.