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Jenny Kustura put on a St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun costume and walked into her classroom at Marymount School, ready to teach her rambunctious group of 2nd graders. She was the only one in the room; her 7- and 8-year-old students were all home. Kustura flicked on her video camera and began to teach her lesson for the day.
Welcome to the future of K-12 education. At least for now.
“They are 2nd graders, so a huge part of [their virtual education] is keeping them engaged and individualizing their learning as much as possible,” 13-year teacher Kustura said. “Because we’ve already gotten through two-thirds of the school year, I already know these kids really well, and I know what each one is capable of.”
Kustura, like many teachers at schools all over the county, records videos of herself teaching and reading to her young students in their same classroom setting to help them feel connected and ease the transition. She has a reputation for wearing “silly” outfits to school on special occasions, so she’s kept up with the tradition virtually to keep her students smiling.
While schools continue to stay closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the connection between teacher and student is becominging increasingly crucial.
Zyrka Metcalfe, a mother of two at Cold Spring Elementary, has homeschooled her two boys, a kindergartener and 3rd grader, since the school shut down two weeks ago. For her older son, nothing engaged him in virtual school more than being able to see his teacher in real life.
“The 3rd graders were never able to bring their STEAM rain gauges home before the school was closed,” Metcalfe said. “His teacher went to every child’s house and dropped off their projects on the doorstep and waved at them through the window. He was so excited to see her.”
Metcalfe said that although it feels extremely difficult some days, she is aware of how fortunate she is to be able to homeschool her children. Her husband is able to work from home and earn an income, she was already a stay-at-home mom to begin with, and her children already have the technology they need to access their lessons and a mom to walk them through it.
But not all families are as fortunate. And teachers are focusing on how to adjust since California Governor Gavin Newsom predicted schools will remain closed through at least April.
“I’m aware that some of my students are going to have to take care of their younger siblings and are home alone while their parents are working,” said Franklin Elementary 6th grade teacher Richie Alvarado. “I know they aren’t going to be tuning in to my class at that time.”
More than 90 percent of Franklin’s 680 students come from low-income homes, so in many cases parents may not be as available to homeschool their children as those in private schools or higher-income districts.
Alvarado uses many different means to engage with his students, including the app Flipgrid for morning check-ins with students and Google Classrooms to set up lessons. He also records himself teaching so students can either watch live or later on when they are able. He is sharing it with as many colleagues as possible.
“Hyperdocs are my favorite way to engage students,” Alvarado said. “I can see exactly how far they’ve gotten through a lesson, and it requires them to be interactive.” Hyperdocs are interactive presentation slides on which he presents new lessons that students fill out. They can complete them at their own pace, step away, and come back to finish.
All of the schools in Santa Barbara Unified School District give students in grades 3 and above an iPad as part of its Tech Equity program, so those students are somewhat adjusted to working virtually. Todd Ryckman, the district’s director of technology, said that a portion of next year’s new iPads will be redistributed to students in pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade, and those students will receive them in the next few weeks.
As for Wi-Fi access, Ryckman said recent survey results estimate that between 1,500 and 2,000 families are without Wi-Fi in their homes. Many of those families overlap with the Hope and Goleta Union school districts and other charter schools such as Peabody.
Because of the overlap, the districts have partnered with Cox Communications to provide free Wi-Fi to families who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Students in North County without Wi-Fi can use Comcast, which is providing free hotspots. Ryckman said any families living in vehicles will receive a wireless hotspot in South County.
“Achievement gaps get bigger in times like this because of the haves and the have-nots,” said Franklin Principal Casie Killgore. “We are saying, how can we use this experience as a way for kids to practice online learning? because they will use it a lot by the time they get to junior high and high school. We can teach the kids accountability and to do work not just because someone is watching.”
In the upper grades, accountability becomes even more important.
“We realized that taking attendance is not the same,” said Laguna Blanca High School English teacher Charles Donelan. “It becomes an unuseful thing because kids can be in and out. That’s a great example of why remote learning needs a whole new set of assessment tools.”
Donelan, who is also executive arts editor for the Independent, said his favorite tool is an app called Otter.ai, which transcribes his verbal instructions for student papers into six-minute segments.
“I like it because it’s asynchronous: You can listen whenever you want,” Donelan said. “And you are seeing the words highlighted on the screen as it’s being read to you. I think that drives it home harder for them.”
Though final plans are still being developed, the Santa Barbara Unified School District has been working diligently since last week and through spring break to come up with a long-term remote education plan for each grade level.
“We’re communicating differently,” said Santa Barbara High School principal Elise Simmons. “The learning style is different. We’re figuring out this shift in a time when there is high anxiety and high unknown.
“This is a time where we need to tap into our social emotional learning and make social connections,” Simmons said. “They are so much more important now. The academic piece will come, but we have to go back to our relationships with students first.”
And that is under consideration, too. CALM has provided one-on-one and group counseling, mental-health assessments, teacher support, and more for all nine Santa Barbara Unified elementary schools as well as Adelante Charter, La Patera in the Goleta Unified District, and Joe Nightingale Elementary in Orcutt. Now, they are grappling with how to best keep its services running virtually.
“We are still kind of figuring it out, too,” said Jennifer Mundy, program manager of school-based services at CALM. “Therapists will definitely continue to do therapy by video through telehealth or through phone calls.
“Right now we’re doing a lot to reach out to teachers and our parents and families to help them tolerate this time that can be challenging, and how to connect with the kids and deal with feelings,” Mundy continued.
Editor’s Note: What is yet to be examined are the local schools’ plans to address the needs of special education students. These students need different tools to receive a quality education. Stay tuned for The Independent’s examination.