July 27, 2020 — Mendocino County was put on the state’s covid-19 watchlist over the weekend, which means that all the schools in the county must reopen with distance learning. And, with 29 cases under the age of sixteen, 11 of those under five, kids are not immune. (Updated July 29). Parents in the Ukiah Unified School District are relieved that their children won’t be exposed to the virus at school, but distance learning didn’t get a rave review, either, with descriptions including words like “torture” and “nightmare.”
Lillian Rubie has a nine-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. She works days and her husband works nights, so they take shifts with the kids, but those kids have very different needs. “We can’t even play a board game as a family,” she said, because an activity that appeals to a toddler just isn’t interesting to a child nearing the end of her elementary school career.
Angela James, the Vice Chair for the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, pointed out that older relatives, as well as older kids, are struggling with extra duties. She has a sixteen-year-old daughter and a fifteen-year-old son. She and her husband are both essential workers, and sometimes she doesn’t get home until nine or ten o’clock at night. “A lot of Native American students are being raised by grandparents, or older aunts and uncles,” she pointed out. “And technology and tech savvy isn’t something they can do. They can’t help the student in their house. And sometimes it’s not just one student. You have multiple different grade levels. You might have an elementary school student and a high school student, and you’re expecting elders to help, and it’s just difficult.” A lot of parents, including James, depend heavily on older children to help the younger ones, which is an additional burden on students trying to get their own work done.
Rubie reflected that sometimes, schoolwork falls by the wayside. “As a parent, you start questioning what’s more important: her doing this schoolwork, or the sanity of the family,” she said. “If you’re fighting with your child all the time, it really does not help the family as a whole. It doesn’t help them. And so we had to ease up the schooling. She still did a lot and it was still very difficult, but she did not do as much as was asked of her.”
That’s a lot of work, according to James. She said her high-school-aged children have eight online classes, between six high school classes and two classes through Mendocino College. “If an adult went to an online college and took classes, they would never be expected to take six at a time,” she said. “Online colleges, usually you’re taking maybe three. And you never take them all at once...I just kept encouraging them and letting them know how proud I was of them.”
One phrase that’s made its way into the educational lexicon is crisis learning. That’s the description for the distance learning model that teachers started implementing over a weekend in mid-March. James said the main thing she wants is a stronger online curriculum in the fall.
Ann Molgaard, the president of the Ukiah Unified School District Board of Trustees, says the district is spending a lot of time and money on that very thing. UUSD students have Chromebooks, and the district bought 150 Wi-fi connectors, which, before covid-19, were called hotspots.
The district serves about 6,000 students, which is roughly half the student body of Mendocino County, including Redwood Valley, Hopland, and Pinoleville. At a special meeting on July 17, before the county got on the state watchlist, the board voted unanimously to start the school year with distance learning. Superintendent Deb Kubin asked for and received budgetary discretion to prepare for the new conditions. She said the price tag for staff training could be as high as $840k.The district was allocated over $5.6 million from the CARES act. Molgaard talked about what that money is for.
“Teachers really are trained to teach in person. So it’s kind of the art of good teaching, but there’s a science to it, too,” she said. Over the next month, teachers will learn from distance-learning experts about how to roll out the new curriculum more effectively. Part of that is using platforms like Edgenuity, which the district agreed to invest in earlier this month. “So we’re not just going to take a canned program from somewhere else,” Molgaard added. “We’re going to make sure it works with our standards here in California and what the teachers’ strengths are. But all of that takes a lot of time and effort.” The district and teachers are negotiating now about how much extra time and work that will involve, including five days of professional development training at the beginning of the school year.
“Teachers are perhaps more valued by parents than they were before, because they realize the high skill level that they do have,” Molgaard concluded.