Distance learning is changing education and will impact students far beyond this pandemic. While plenty of discussion focuses on the incredible toll this educational environment is taking on students, it might be time to look for some of the more positive outcomes. The UCLA IDEA (Institution of Democracy, Education, and Accessibility) recently surveyed principals across the nation to understand the issues facing educators, students, and their families during this unprecedented time and found some unexpected results. They concluded that despite all the technological advances and innovations, in-person education is still the most enriching and effective way to engage youth in learning to become well-rounded and civic-minded young adults, and in-person activities allow them quicker access to mental or emotional support.
The pandemic exacerbated and highlighted massive disparities in high poverty and rural schools versus those with low poverty levels in suburban and city locations. Currently, Fullerton Joint Union High School District identifies 52% of its student population as socioeconomically disadvantaged, meaning that the district experiences both high and low poverty school issues.
The distance learning model exposed inconsistencies and needed improvements in areas of technology, public school-offered social services, and the quality of teacher/student relationships, as well as parent connections with their childrens’ teachers. Schools tackled areas of educational inequity for students, and actually put changing educational concepts in motion, causing teachers and administrators to reevaluate and reinvent what education will look like in the near future.
Technology is not simply a matter of Chromebook and iPad availability. Statewide, many students in high poverty neighborhoods and rural areas lack broadband infrastructure to make complete long-distance learning feasible. Conducting school completely on inexpensive Chromebooks and iPads quickly revealed the limitations of the software and the devices as teachers learned innovative and effective software platforms to create focused lesson plans to maximize student engagement. While a majority of California students had a Chromebook or iPad in hand by June, many students lacked WiFi service where they lived since the infrastructure wasn’t in place. FJUHSD students already had or had received Chromebooks by March and over 600 hotspots were available to parents from the District upon request.
In spite of connectivity issues, all teachers learned to teach through technology. Fullerton teachers and support staff quickly adapted Zoom and Google Meet technology to teach and support students while sharing new ways of effectively communicating with their students and each other. The shift exposed areas in our own community and throughout the State where broadband infrastructure is vastly underserviced, showing how important WiFi access is in order for all children to gain a high-quality public education. Teachers and advocates are now reviewing the need to update the Williams Act in order to include technological access and equipment as part of a fully balanced and inclusive education.
A community school encourages teachers and other support staff to allocate time and resources to support student achievement and well-being. As the pandemic has persisted, more students have required greater basic services in order to maintain distance learning for an extended period of time. School personnel assessed student needs and provided services faster to individual families than government support could. Public schools provided a centralized place to distribute food and clothing, share mental and physical health resources, and share reliable and responsible safety information. Every Fullerton high school site offered boxed “grab and go“ meals for students during the spring, summer, and now into fall.
Through Care Solace (www.fjuhsd.org/domain/1284), students, parents, and staff can find mental and emotional health service providers. Communicating with district multi-lingual community liaisons, families can connect to housing and other resources. Providing food, social services, educational materials, and updated safety information reinforces public schools as a secure place for Fullerton families to turn to for basic care needs as well as education.
Increased Parent Engagement
Parent engagement builds stronger student outcomes. Lack of time, resources, and long-held beliefs by parents, students, and teachers can make this connection difficult in high school. Distance learning transformed every traditional in-person activity from teacher conferences and Back-to- School Night. Utilizing vast amounts of student, teacher, and support staff creativity, the shift to virtual meetings has allowed parents and teachers (who often could not meet due to conflicting schedules) to communicate face to face more often, building meaningful connections to solve student issues. Now parents and teachers can attend conferences and Individual Educational Plan (IEP) meetings without taking time off work in order to discuss problem-solving solutions. Teachers have been allocated time during their work week to interact with parents to share concerns and quickly evaluate solutions. Flexible scheduling increases communication opportunities and has led to new, productive ways parents can participate in their child’s education. Parents feel more like real partners and teachers are depending on parents in different ways.
Evaluating early distance learning results revealed real areas of teacher innovation and need in the school community. Going virtual motivated teachers and many parents to upgrade their technology skills and allowed students greater choices to engage academically while reinforcing their organizational skills.
The changes from in-person meetings to virtual communication has led to better quality and productive relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and teachers with each other and support staff, providing more student support. As teachers and students transition to in-person hybrid education or stay with distance learning, they continue to nurture these new relationships and embrace new and dynamic ways to educate and engage students. Students and their families depend on public schools as community centers providing consistent services, and trust them to disseminate honest and scientifically-based information in a continuously changing environment. In these dynamic times, evaluating the good with the bad brings much needed balance into our lives and helps us cope with new issues that will surely develop as in-person education starts to reemerge.