This year, elementary schools across California started their year by shutting down their campuses and going online. Although some elementary schools like the Menlo Park City School District are starting to return their youngest students to campus, the majority of elementary school students have suddenly been plunged into online learning this fall with almost no test run. Unsurprisingly, this transition to remote learning has presented challenges to some of the youngest members of our community, as Kindergarteners are being asked to sit in front of a Zoom for three hours a day. According to the Las Lomitas Principal Alain Camou, “kindergarteners and first graders already have low attention spans in person, but over screens it becomes almost impossible to hold their attention.”
A typical school day for students in elementary school entails about three to five hours of online learning, depending on what grade level they are in. Between Menlo Park City School District, Ravenswood School District, and Las Lomitas Elementary School District, students have blocks of classes each day on Zoom, as well as breaks for recess and lunch. Each school generally starts each class with about 20 minutes of directed teacher instruction, and then a period of time afterwards to work on assignments asynchronously. After class, students turn their assignments in through a variety of education applications like Altitude Learning. Remy Mediratta, a Kindergartener at Las Lomitas, said, “I think distance learning is good. Most of the time I like it, and I can concentrate well.”
However, not every student can concentrate for the whole class. The biggest difference between in-person and distance learning is the difficulty in controlling student behavior during class time. “What is lacking is any real accountability for the students to focus and engage while Zoom is on in the background. While my children attend school all day long, they are frequently distracted and not participating,” commented Katherine Bicer, whose kids attend Encinal.
Ravenswood Superintendent Gina Sudaria said, “there is really nothing you can do except motivate them and encourage them to look at the screen and write down what they need to to complete the assignment,” a sentiment expressed by several other principals interviewed.
One of the solutions is increased parent communication from the school. According to Bicer, “there was a lot of communication at the beginning about how to do school from a distance, as well as a step by step plan for what teachers and administrators will do if kids are not showing up for sessions.”
Oak Knoll Principal Kristen Gracia said that they have also made student organization without parents a priority. “Every student has a daily card, which has all the necessary content and links for classes [on an electronic document], leading students through their day.” Organization systems like the daily cards get students to their Zoom links, while also giving the students some form of independence from their parents.
Teachers expressed the need to be extra specific and enthusiastic with their students to keep them engaged. “A constant touch point of asking questions like ‘how are you doing,’ ‘what did you hear me say’ is used in my classes,” said Kristina Thompson, a teacher at East Palo Alto Charter School. Thompson agreed that elementary teachers in general have been extra positive and engaging this school year, so students have the best chance of comprehending material over Zoom and getting their work done on time.
In addition to increased parent contact and an emphasis on student organization, elementary schools are more tolerant this year of home environments that are not conducive to distance learning. Gracia said, “it [online learning] is very challenging, and it’s totally dependent on each family’s needs. There could be two working parents, and they’re out of the house, so every situation is different. We recognize that, and we will be flexible to everyone’s needs.” Another way schools demonstrate flexibility is by allowing students to go outside during less critical classes like music and PE if their parents believe their child is having too much screen time.
The largest concern expressed by all is coping with too much screen time, assessing the social needs of kids, and establishing emotional connections between teachers and students. However, even with these challenges and the problems that arise every day, all three schools feel that their online learning is going smoothly. “I am very happy with how this school year has started. I’m happy with the resiliency of our teachers and them stepping up to this new challenge, and how our district has equipped our families with the necessary materials for success,” Sudaria added. In these circumstances with little control over what happens, Camou, Gracia, and Thompson were all pleased with how the school year had started as well.
California has a color code system to judge the status of the spread of COVID-19 in each county. The system uses four colors from widespread to minimal: purple, red, orange, and yellow. According to the SF Chronicle, counties have to be out of the purple zone for at least two weeks for schools inside their county to request reopening. Another option for elementary schools is to apply for a waiver to reopen for grades K-6. Menlo Park submitted their waiver on September 10, and opened up their school for in person learning last week for kindergarteners and first graders. Las Lomitas has applied for a waiver and will look to return Kindergarten in person on October 19, and each grade after that spaced out weekly in the three weeks following. As for Ravenswood, they will potentially apply for a waiver in the future.