A Learning Curve: Educating Our Children During a Pandemic

School systems are facing many obstacles this fall. With COVID-19 still presenting a serious health threat to California and most of the United States, many administrators and parents feel that having teachers, students and staff return to traditional in-person school instruction would jeopardize their safety. However, other people strongly believe it’s critical to get students back into the classroom.

What Are Schools Doing?

Schools have basically been considering three different options:

·         All in-person instruction – students attend their physical schools full-time

·         Hybrid instruction – a combination of in-person instruction and distance learning

·         Distance learning only – children will receive all instruction online.

Malibu Public Schools

On July 14, 2020, Superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, Dr. Ben Drati, sent out a letter to parents stating that, “SMMUSD staff want to reopen in-person as soon as possible and had been preparing to recommend an in-person option. However, the steady upsurge in coronavirus cases in our region over the past several weeks combined with the advice of public health experts has led us to the conclusion that distance learning is the most prudent model to start the 2020-2021 school year.”

He stresses in the letter that SMMUSD administration, teachers and classified staff will work hard to make distance learning an engaging and positive experience. Unlike in the spring semester, teachers have had more time to prepare and train for this new method of teaching.

“Distance learning in the spring was instituted abruptly due to the unforeseen shutdown in mid-March,” says Gail Pinsker, Community and Public Relations Officer for SMMUSD. “We have heard from parents, students and teachers that there were some shining examples of distance-learning delivery throughout the district, along with challenges.”

Over the summer, she says, teachers have undergone professional development in order to provide high-quality distance learning. This fall, this will consist of a combination of live teacher instruction with the students in real time and instruction that does not necessarily happen in real time.

“Like with in-person learning, teachers will be creative and incorporate a variety of methods to engage students so they may reach their highest levels of success,” she says. “Special education students and students with 504 plans will be contacted by their schools or coordinators regarding their plan, which may include some in-person programming.”

In addition to educational goals, social-emotional development is a crucial aspect of being in school with other children, so the district is focusing on those needs as well.

“Students who are well-adjusted, confident and happy are likely to be more successful academically,” says Pinsker. “The district provides mental health support for our students and we partner with local agencies and city programs to support our students and families.”

La Reina High School and Middle School

La Reina High School and Middle School began their school year on Aug. 11, 2020.

“All campus preparations have been made in accordance with national and local health guidelines; the safety of our La Reina community is of the utmost importance to us,” says Laird Wilson, Director of Facilities and Operations. With the news from Governor Newsom that Ventura County is on the state’s watch list, La Reina Leadership adopted its online learning model, La Reina at Home.

“We have designed our La Reina at Home instructional schedule with our students’ needs in mind—specifically their mental wellness and reduction in tech fatigue,” says Principal Maggie Marschner, noting that this schedule allows for online, live direct instruction and project-based application time.

“This model allows our students to have productive student-to-teacher and student-to-student interactions while online as well as providing them with offline engaging activities,” Marschner iterates. “By creating a schedule such as this, students are provided with a daily framework to support their learning and productivity.” 

As we enter the 2020-21 school year, La Reina is focusing on its students’ overall wellness.

“We know that students that enjoy school and have a sense of security and structure within their school community will want to attend and achieve in their online classes,” Marschner notes. Additionally, La Reina’s Director of Counseling and their Dean of Student Life are actively collaborating with our Return to Campus Task Force “to provide our students with structured time where the focus is on community, sisterhood and positive engaging activities.”

La Reina is proud to offer their La Reina at Home model for their families; furthermore, “It is our community’s hope to return to campus in accordance with health and safety guidelines,” states President Tony Guevara, noting that with approval from the Ventura County Health Department, “our facilities are prepared for our students’ return when Ventura County is no longer on the watch list.”

“With both these models, La Reina is committed to educating the whole person and creating a culture that is welcoming, educational and inclusive,” affirms Marschner, further noting that teachers collaborate and plan their lessons utilizing the Universal Design for Learning framework. “This framework ensures a student-centered approach where all students have access to high-quality, relevant and engaging content.”

Above all, La Reina has a long tradition of helping every student find her own voice, to believe in herself as an independent thinker, with a deep commitment to serving others.


The McKinna Learning Center

A private school in Malibu, the McKinna Learning Center will also be providing distance learning this fall. The Center had originally been planning for both in-person and virtual classes, but with orders from Governor Newsom combined with the decision by SMMUSD and recommendations from the Department of Public Health, it was decided to begin the school year as virtual only. Although the administrators and teachers felt they were well prepared in the spring when classes went online, they are even more ready now.

“We are only getting better,” says Dr. Kellye McKinna, director of The McKinna Learning Center. “We had a rehearsal with virtual education following the Woolsey Fire, as many of our families were displaced for several months. Thus, when we went virtual in the spring, we were prepared. 

“As we worked through our summer program, we continued to make adjustments and improvements to our program, incorporating more shareable online resources with our students.”

In order to keep distance learning interesting and engaging, they’re using a variety of techniques and learning modules.

“First and foremost, we try to retain our child-centered progressive approach by providing opportunities for student inquiry, exploration and experimentation,” she says. “For example, in science, we encourage our students to create their own hypotheses and build experiments to test their ideas. Students then record their experiments and share them with the class.

“To facilitate this, the teachers, working with the students in one-to-one meetings, help students develop their plan, record and analyze their data, and we even drop off materials to the students' homes, as needed.”

The Center has also embedded practices and protocols in their virtual classes in order to meet the social-emotional development of their students.

“These include our ‘Wave and Wipeout’ daily conversations, in which students share the ups and downs of their days,” says McKinna. “Additionally, we have incorporated a set of effective online student expectations, so students develop good listening and communication skills while participating in virtual classes.”

The McKinna Learning Center, she said, is also well prepared to support those who are struggling.  

“Our mission at the McKinna Learning Center is to create a program in which all children thrive and are able to achieve to their highest level,” says McKinna. “Thus, as our classes are small, we can work individually with each student to ensure their progress. 

“Additionally, in some specific skills areas, such as reading development, we build one-to-one classes into the student's school day schedule. Finally, my dedicated team takes time before school, during lunch or after school to support our students in one-to-one meetings.”   

McKinna is confident that she and her staff are ready to meet all their students’ needs this year, whether in person or online.

“In many ways, this unprecedented experience has provided us with the opportunity to hone our teaching craft,” says McKinna. “I am so proud of my team who continues to be able to support our students’ academic growth, facilitate their development of higher level cognitive skills through insightful projects and support their social-emotional growth.”


Oaks Christian School

Like many other campuses nationwide, Oaks Christian School closed its campus in mid-March and moved to remote learning, delivering instruction via Zoom and other platforms. 

As such, Oaks Christian delivered a rigorous, comprehensive and highly valued remote-learning experience. The evidence was in the experience of the students and parents and the number of schools from across California and the nation who called the school to benchmark their learning and best practices. The school’s recognition, both regional and national acclaim, also solidified the approach and delivery by the faculty and staff.

Oaks Christian School announced plans to reopen both its middle school and high school campuses on Aug. 12, but due to government mandates for all schools, public and private, the college-preparatory school’s 1,450 students began the year with remote learning.

Head of School Rob Black shared that as soon as Los Angeles County and the governor allow, Oaks Christian will be ready to quickly transition to on-campus instruction.

“We have reconfigured classrooms to accommodate students within the recommended 6’ social-distancing spacing, resulting in class sizes averaging 12-15 students. We will be utilizing non-traditional classroom spaces and the introduction and addition of portable classrooms and outdoor learning spaces,” says Black.

According to their reopening document, “Reunite: A Path Forward,” the school will open with smaller classes, socially distanced physical spaces, masks, hand sanitizer stations, frequent staff and student temperature checks and possible staggered start and dismissal times, as well as hall passing periods. Visitor access will also be highly restricted. Health guidelines for cafeteria food service will be implemented.

Students with health concerns, quarantine restrictions or who are not completely comfortable returning to campus can choose hybrid learning (virtually attending live classes and assemblies through a video feed) or a total online schedule.


The Sycamore School

Since the Sycamore School, a private school in Malibu, has small classes with a 10-to-1 ratio at most, it’s planning to open for in-person classes. Since experts advise that being outdoors while in a group is much safer than being inside, the school plans to hold classes outdoors.

“We have a really small community which will allow us to expand outdoors as much as possible on our beautiful campus,” says Tedd Wakeman, co-founder and director of the Sycamore School. “And if there is inclement weather, teachers can adapt to conduct classes online.

“Students will be socially distanced, temperatures will be checked daily and hand washing will be strictly enforced. Staff will also be constantly wiping down surfaces, and individual resources will be available for each child. This way, they’re not grabbing pens and pencils out of big boxes or bins.”

The Sycamore School’s philosophy is to be adaptable, which encourages its staff and students to embrace change. Wakeman states that because of this, many parents expressed that their children did really well when asked to switch over to online learning.

“We have a very unique approach,” he says. “We’re very much not a traditional school. Our educators and our team really did a good job of adapting during the spring and we all learned a lot about what’s effective online. If we have to return to at-home learning, we will implement all the things we have learned and will definitely be ready for an engaging and supportive educational environment.”

Teachers and parents have been very supportive of getting the kids back to in-person instruction, he says. And although they are planning to welcome students onto campus this fall, the school is preparing for all scenarios. They may have to go to hybrid learning or total distance learning at some point.

“We really don’t know what is going to happen,” says Wakeman. “The more we can be flexible and adaptable and recognize that our kids are going to be okay, the better. We have to continue to create safe and engaging environments for them. Let’s continue to engage their curiosity, let’s continue to ask interesting questions, and let’s involve them in this process.”

Support for Parents

Parents of the SMMUSD were asked for their thoughts about reopening the schools. Since having children at home during the school day can create quite a hardship on parents who have to work, Drati addressed those concerns in his letter as well.

“We understand that distance learning may present a challenge to many families. We will address these concerns in the upcoming school board meeting and during the next month and beyond.”

In order to assist parents with young children, the district is working with local organizations, such as the Malibu Boys & Girls Club and their own Child Development Department, to offer some form of childcare or child supervision. 

Preparing and encouraging children to work independently is also important. It not only frees up parents’ time, but also gives children a sense of autonomy.

“The greatest thing parents can do prior to the beginning of school is create a ‘School Space’, a space that is just for school with traditional school supplies, as well as the most important apparatus—the computer, tablet or iPad,” says McKinna. 

“Helping students develop a folder on the student's desktop with Zoom links makes life really easy for students to sign into classes independently and consistently. Also, in the beginning, it is important for parents to make sure their students are signing into classes consistently, then begin to increase the level of independence. For the most part, after a few days, there is no need for parents to sit with students during classes.”

Communication seems to be a key factor in helping parents manage their children’s educational needs in this ever-changing situation. Having input in decisions and being kept up to date can help ease some of their anxiety.

“We understand that these decisions are not without some frustration for parents,” says Wakeman. “We do our best to communicate with families and we understand their frustration.”

Returning to In-Class Instruction

In his letter to parents, Drati states, “Since late spring, the district [SMMUSD] has worked toward the reopening of our physical buildings on our campuses following all guidelines and protocols presented by the agencies mentioned above.

“While we are making progress, this is a big undertaking that requires additional time, considerations and material purchases to ensure we are the most protective of student and staff health while on campus.”

At first, this return to school may be gradual, possibly moving from an all distance-learning model to more of a hybrid situation.

“This discussion will be happening on a near daily basis, and we will be following the guidelines from the Los Angeles County Department of Health and Los Angeles County Office of Education regarding when it is safe to transition,” says Pinsker.

Although the McKinna Language Center is opening with distance-learning instruction, the administration is hoping that they too can return to in-class instruction sometime this year.

“We have all the safety measures in place at our physical school, so we can make the move to return to full-time in-person school, as soon as it seems safe to do so,” said McKinna.

Whereas the Sycamore School plans to hold in-class instruction right from the beginning of the fall semester, Wakeman knows that this may not happen.

“Everyone’s safety is at the heart of all of this,” he says. “We want to open so parents can get back to work, and so the kids can be in the school, which I know is good mentally and emotionally.

“But the bottom line of all of this is just making sure that anything that we choose to do, we do with people’s safety and health at the forefront and not for other purposes.”

Stay Informed

Since the COVID-19 situation is ever changing and methods for instruction may be modified in coming months, parents are advised to follow updates on their children’s school's websites. And if parents have any questions or concerns, they should contact their children’s teachers and/or school administrators.

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