By mid-July it was made official that the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District would continue with distance learning until at least the end of October. Teachers spent much of the summer preparing for this possibility.
“It’s definitely been a working summer!” says Ryan Kurada, TK/K teacher for University Elementary School at La Fiesta in Rohnert Park who has been busy pre-recording videos for math, reading and other lessons that he plans to show his students this coming fall. “I think I can speak for the teaching community that it’s been on our brains the whole summer. I’ve been thinking a lot of how it will look like and just the uncertainty of it all.”
For University Elementary, a project-based learning school, it is especially challenging incorporating that type of education into a distance learning environment. Teachers have had to get creative in ensuring their students balance technology use with play-based experiences and hands-on learning.
“Our job is to connect with people – families and kids – and it’s hard to translate that through a screen,” says Kurada. “We love our jobs, we love engaging and teaching, and no matter what, we’re going to teach our kids. We’re going to find a way. Distance learning may not be the best option, but it is the safest right now until we can get back to our classrooms. It may not be ideal but we’re going to make this work and we’re going to make sure we support our families and that our students get the best education possible.”
Kurada notes that in this unprecedented time it is also important for teachers to be extra mindful of the social and emotional needs of families who may be struggling financially or health-wise. Besides focusing just on education, teachers will also work on building their communities of families, fostering relationships, and retaining connections, even in a virtual environment.
Unlike the spring semester, where teachers were forced to move to distance learning practically from one day to the next, this semester there has been a lot more thought put into establishing a system that, while not ideal, will still work to educate students while keeping them safe. Teachers are required to have regular daily communication with students. These daily check-ins will be balanced with video recordings teachers have made for certain lessons, like math and reading, for example, so students can view them when it is convenient for them and their families.
The school district also recently sent out an email to all parents, explaining that they are providing technology devices for each student, from TK to 12th grade.
Grades TK and Kindergarten will be assigned iPads and grades 1 through 12 will be assigned HP Chromebook devices, unless a family specifically opts-out to use their own device.
“All devices will have strict web content filtering even when used at home on your personal Wi-Fi network and will also have updates and instructional resources such as apps and software extensions pushed to them based on the needs of your student’s school site and classroom,” said the letter from Robert Valdivia Gonzales, Information Technology Supervisor for the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District. “We will also once again provide Wi-Fi hotspots to families with no internet connectivity at home.”
The district also decided to streamline which conferencing platform all teachers will use, minimizing the confusion for students having to learn and use multiple platforms, as was the case last semester. All virtual class meetings will now use the Google Meet video conferencing platform. Besides limiting confusion and streamlining apps students already use, using Google Meet will also ensure students’ data privacy and security because the school district can limit access to virtual classes and recordings to only members within the district. For very young learners, teachers can use the Seesaw platform, a colorful, user-friendly platform that even early elementary students can log into themselves.
While the challenges are many, Kurada also tries to see the positive side of how the pandemic has forced educators to rethink how education is best provided to students, and what other tools and resources can be used to teach and strengthen students’ life and academic skills. While he is eager to return to the classroom, he nevertheless hopes that schools and teachers will retain some of what they’ve learned and use those tools in the future.
“We really haven’t had a huge education reform event happen in the last ten years and this is it,” says Kurada. “We’re really having to do an overhaul on how to redo education. I’m learning about new platforms almost every day. It’s a whole new world. It’s overwhelming but exciting at the same time to rethink education.”