A Learning Curve: Educating Our Children During a Pandemic

With increased cases of COVID-19, most schools are beginning the school year via distance learning, while striving to provide the best quality education during these unprecedented times.

Conejo Valley Unified School District

Creating a new normal for students and a new routine they can count on is at the center of Conejo Valley Unified School District’s Reopen and Redesign Plan for the 2020-2021 school year.

In these very uncertain times, “our goal is to create a sense of consistency, which includes academic learning and social-emotional growth that will allow students to advance as scholars and well-rounded individuals, all while being supported by familiar and supportive teachers and peers,” says Superintendent Dr. Mark McLaughlin.

CVUSD planned to begin the school year with remote learning for all students, featuring daily live-virtual instruction from CVUSD teachers in the form of mini-lectures, group discussions and guided practice.

It also includes reinforcing assignments, activities and practice to allow students to solidify skills and content.

All of this is being completed on a singular, streamlined Learning Management System (LMS). This LMS also provides additional accessibility features, embedded assessments and clearer content organization that will enhance student learning.

“The hope is that via this one LMS system, families and students will quickly become familiarized, comfortable and well-versed in using this platform to seamlessly connect with their learning, assignments and more,” says Superintendent Dr. Mark McLaughlin.

“Specifically, for parents and families, we plan to engage with them throughout the year through training and webinars that will provide them with key academic and social-emotional concepts and skills to help support their child next school year and beyond,” he says.

In order to maximize students’ time with distance learning, the district will work to ensure that all students have the technology and infrastructure to connect to their remote learning.

“Technology is a key, fundamental component to students’ success in remote learning,” McLaughlin emphasizes. Additionally, “the District also plans to make ‘grab n’ go’ meals accessible to students, as we want to help make sure this essential need is met so that students can be fully ready to engage in learning.”

The district plans to provide three Teaching & Learning Models: Blended Learning, which includes on-campus learning with students coming onto campus in either a morning or afternoon cohort; Remote Learning, which takes place 100% at home; and participation in the district’s existing alternative learning programs: SHINE Homeschool (Grades TK-12), Century Academy (Grades 6-12) or Independent Study (Grades 6-12).

“If and when public health orders allow, CVUSD will be prepared to quickly bring students back for 100% traditional on-campus learning, while still maintaining some choices for families,” McLaughlin says.

The school closures last spring quickly forced the district to try new and different things: One example is the launch of high school students providing virtual tutoring with elementary students. 

“Our high schoolers expressed a desire to help and our parents of elementary students were seeking additional engagement time,” McLaughlin says, adding that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. 

Another example is the shift to virtually provided professional learning for staff and families and multiple layers of support for families to access technology at home.

“Reopening our schools is a community-wide effort that impacts us all,” McLaughlin adds. “Let’s please continue to stay positive, care for one another and follow health and safety guidelines. We are all in this together.”


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.


Las Virgenes Unified School District

The Las Virgenes Unified School District began classes Aug. 19 with distance learning. Families chose between distance learning, which can transition to on-campus learning, and the district’s Virtual Learning Academy.

In efforts to make distance learning more productive, the district is setting clear expectations for students and staff and providing a clear and consistent schedule. Professional staff development, laptops and internet, tutoring and childcare are also in place, says Superintendent Dan Stepenosky.

Meanwhile, the district spent $850,000 on safety and health upgrades, including Infrared Thermal Scanners, touchless thermometers, PPE for staff and plexiglass for teachers’ desks.  

“We have had wonderful success by having our high school students offer tutoring and online virtual camps this summer on such topics from Harry Potter, Spanish, Cooking, Crafting, Surfing and direct reading to children,” Stepenosky says. “Also, we have a consolidated Counseling Center that supports our students, their families and our staff with all of the anxiety, stress and changes during the pandemic.”


Oak Park Unified School District

The district started the school year with distance learning—at least through Oct. 9.

“We will base our next steps on guidance from local health authorities,” Dr. Jay Greenlinger, director of Curriculum and Instruction, explains. “We anticipate this will include a partial opening of some sort; if so, we would institute the hybrid model which incorporates both in-person and at-home learning that we proposed prior to the mandate to go into distance learning. Our sincere hope is that at some point this school year we will be able to welcome all of our students, staff and families back to campus.”

During the spring with the forced school closures, the move to distance learning was rushed and reactive. Without time to plan, coordinate or deliberate, the district wasn’t able to create the ideal learning environment in a virtual setting.

“Our teachers put forth enormous efforts in that trying time,” Dr. Tony Knight, superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District, emphasizes. “As we plan for this year, we are able to devise a more structured schedule and set of expectations, which should ease the job of teachers, students and parents.”

The district had two task forces working on these topics all summer long, and they have provided clear and meaningful expectations for the distance-learning program.

The district has also purchased online tools to enhance instruction and provide clear communication. Some of the tools include PearDeck (interactive slide decks), SeeSaw (digital portfolios for Grades K-5) and Newsela (online primary sources with interactive components).

“Our teachers are our greatest resource, as always,” Greenlinger says. “Since last spring we have heavily invested in professional development related to distance learning that will help to support our teachers in their delivery of the program.”

A fortunate outcome of the modified school schedules is the Schoolwide Enrichment Model, which will take place on Fridays for Grades DK-5.

“The Schoolwide Enrichment Model allows us to provide students with a variety of enrichment activities, including art, science activities, technology classes and other creative and collaborative pursuits,” Greenlinger explains. “While we are in school closures the experiences will be virtual, however, we hope that upon the resumption of on-campus activities, the enrichment offerings can expand.”

This is a tough time for everyone and parents are placed in a particularly difficult situation, Knight adds.

“Unfortunately, the nature of schools makes them difficult to operate in person during a pandemic,” he says. “We are going to offer the most innovative and robust distance learning possible, as that is all we can do at this time. If things improve and we can offer our hybrid model, we will ensure that it is high quality as well—something that people would expect from Oak Park.”


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.


One Spark Academy

At One Spark Academy, “we are adjusting our curriculum around the kids’ needs and not the other way around,” says Lori Peters, executive director and educator at One Spark Academy.

For instance, online lessons will be engaging, interactive and provide time for feedback, fun and breaks. Additionally, assignments will be modified so students don’t need to do more online work than necessary outside of class.

“In times like this, adhering to strict curriculum outlines may not serve our students,” Peters says. “They need more in the way of relevant lessons, stress management and emotional support.”

Resources being offered during this time include small class size even for online lessons, reminders of what students will need at home to be successful and interactive online platforms, such as Edmodo.   

“We are hoping to do as much as we can outdoors, in small groups and while following all recommended safety protocols; what we can’t do outdoors or safely indoors—whenever that may be—will be done online,” Peters explains.

In other efforts implemented during this time, One Spark Academy built a large garden structure on their plot at the Las Flores Community Garden, where they will safely hold one of their courses.

“We’re looking at more fitness classes, even hiking; it’s important that kids are active, and they can be safely active together,” Peters says. 

As this pandemic continues, Peters advises parents to not get caught up in certain lessons that the students are “missing,” since there are many other lessons to be had from this extraordinary challenge we are all facing, like building resilience, forming closer family bonds, being interdependent and letting go of some things we thought were important.

“We need to do everything we can to create unique, fun opportunities for students and adults,” Peters emphasizes. “We need to find ways to lower stress levels. We need to maintain opportunities to safely socialize and learn things outdoors. School should not look the same during this time—it can’t. So, we should all be asking, ‘What can we do to make this situation less stressful on our students, teachers and families? What can we all do to bring more joy?’”

The community can help by showing extra compassion and kindness toward teachers and administrators as they make tough decisions and supporting parents in the tough decisions they make, too.

“They can support students by showing compassion and kindness for the enumerable disappointments they are facing at critical points in their childhood,” Peters says.

There are no easy answers or perfect solutions, she adds.

St. Jude The Apostle Catholic School

At St. Jude The Apostle Catholic School, “we believe that providing structure in the school day online will help optimize student learning,” says Principal Marty Freel.

“Our school will take attendance, have live teacher instruction daily and will provide enrichment opportunities that students may be lacking while learning remotely,” he says, adding that these enrichment options include foreign language, physical education and social enrichment opportunities.

“Since we are a small school, we can offer much more individualized education for our students than a larger school,” Freel continues. “Many parents are struggling with having their children at home with very little to do or having too much work to do with little guidance. We will have additional resources for our students to have office hours with staff, small group instruction and will provide online resources for parents to help maximize their children’s education while at home.”

St. Jude The Apostle is a K-8 school and provides the same online opportunity for all students in the upcoming school year.

“One encouraging piece to this entire situation for our families at St. Jude’s is that we are prepared to open our campus on day one,” Freel says. “While we will follow state and local guidelines, our school will be able to provide the necessary requirements to open school safely since we are a smaller school than most in our area. Our enrollment is at about 215 students this fall.” 

As a father of four children himself, Freel understands the toll that distance learning can take on families.

“As I think about what next school year will look like, one area really sticks out to me more than most. I believe that the longer we are doing distance learning, the more our children are lacking in social skill development and need human interaction.”

To help, St. Jude’s will be providing “Social Enrichment Opportunities” every day to help develop and maintain close relationships with peers.

“These enrichment opportunities are so essential, as we know that studies show that the most crucial social development years are during elementary and middle school years,” Freel says. “Our school is great because of our wonderful community and we intend to continue to see our community grow and become closer as we navigate through these uncertain times.”

While the pandemic has been difficult for so many of us in many different ways, “we are not the first people to ever go through hard times like these,” Freel notes. “Our school and our church believe strongly in staying strong in our faith and always looking how we can be a service toward others.”   


Stowell Learning Center

Distance learning has turned life upside down for many families, says Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers.

“Not only has it stressed the organization and self-discipline of students, but it has magnified the challenges that some bright kids experience with reading, attention or other aspects of learning,” Stowell says.

At Stowell Learning Center, educators work one-to-one with every student, and clinicians are experts at making each session personal and fun so they stay engaged and continue with maximum progress in spite of working remotely. 

“Whether onsite or virtual, we are very intentional about every part of every session,” Stowell says. “Our goal is that each student makes progress in every session, getting to the point that learning is easy and the burden parents feel about their child's education vanishes.”

She notes that Stowell Learning Center helps bright but struggling students permanently change their learning or attention challenges by developing the weak underlying processing or learning skills at the root of the problem and remediating reading, writing, spelling or math. 

When schools went to distance learning, “we found that spending the last part of each session helping students and their parents navigate the challenges that were coming up for them with remote schooling was extremely helpful to families.”

Stowell started a weekly broadcast, LD Expert Live, which airs on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. on Facebook and YouTube, to help parents understand and support their children, teens and themselves as they try to reorganize their lives to manage distance learning.

In the current school year, Stowell Learning Center is providing one-to-one instruction both virtually and onsite. Additionally, “we are following very strict state and CDC guidelines for onsite sessions—families and staff have the option of onsite, virtual or hybrid instruction,” Stowell says.   

Like many learning institutions, Stowell went remote overnight with the lockdown in March.

“Our service has provided a consistency and stability for families that parents are very grateful for,” says Stowell, further adding that they work closely with parents to offer support and guidance with whatever is coming up for their kids as they navigate this new, uncertain time with school and education.

“Parents have been concerned about their children and especially their teens feeling isolated,” says Stowell, noting that recently, the Thousand Oaks Center Director, Sharon Diep, organized a virtual game night for Stowell’s students. 

“Students from all four of our centers attended and they had such a good time interacting, even though they were of different ages and most did not know each other,” Stowell remembers. 

Opportunities to safely connect with other kids is vitally important for students, “so we plan to continue integrating game nights and Spirit Weeks into our distance learning as remote extra-curricular activities for our students.” 

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