In between classes, Ify Chidi and her best friends catch up on weird dreams and funny moments from the day. But instead of walking side by side through their high school hallways, the three are on FaceTime in front of their laptops.
Along with introducing distance learning to teens, COVID-19 restrictions changed the way students learn and interact with one another.
There are advantages to distance learning classes during the pandemic — namely staying safe and re-thinking the middle school and high school learning structure. Schools now offer students more independence with synchronous and asynchronous alternating class periods. According to the CDC, the downside includes disengaged students whose lack of involvement may affect society, if the next generation falls behind academically.
Hemet Unified School District in Riverside County, California, is taking measures to ensure distance learning is as academically effective as possible.
In accordance with the CA SB 98 Bill, California schools have adopted a synchronous and asynchronous learning model. This model allows students to alternate the days on which they attend live online classes. For example, students may have science, math and history as synchronous live lessons on designated days. In between these classes they work independently on assignments for their asynchronous classes, while their teachers monitor their screens. The next day, the live lessons will be swapped.
While some students are improving academically, others may be falling through the cracks.
“Essentially, the federal government has abdicated its responsibility,” said Dr. Morgan Polikoff, Professor of Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education with expertise in K-12 education policy. “The current department of education is not particularly interested in education, but state departments of education and state legislatures are dealing with this in a number of different ways,” he said.
Nevaeh Martinez, a seventh grade student at Rancho Viejo Middle School in the Hemet Unified School District, said that if she were going to classes in person she would feel more confident speaking with her teachers. She does, however, feel comfortable around her writing teacher.
“I’ve always usually been the shy one,” she said.
Nevaeh finds her understanding of mathematics has improved since taking her online pre-algebra class. She believes it is because of her instructor’s teaching style.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot because in elementary school, I didn’t really do very good at math,” she said. “But for some reason it seems like now math is a lot easier.I’m passing most of my tests and I actually get what they’re talking about and what they’re doing.”
Nevaeh noted that in her algebra class, students are apt to speak up if they are having difficulty with a concept.
Students in other California school districts have had varying experiences with their distance learning classes.
Ify Chidi is an 11th grade student in a school in the Liberty Union School District, in Northern California. She said some of her teachers make classes more enjoyable than others.
“It’s been kind of difficult cause you have more homework and stuff, especially with AP classes. It’s like they make it more difficult,” the Heritage High 11th grader said.
“I feel like only one of my teachers has been really active and that’s my psych teacher,” she said. “She’s been interacting with students and trying to make it as normal as a classroom, which has felt really nice.”
Brandon Martinez, (unrelated to Nevaeh Martinez’s family) a professor at Rossier USC School of Education who studies K-12 education and distance learning, says students who are good at self-regulation “have probably carried over skills like avid note taking and time management,” helping them continue to excel academically during distance learning.
“They also might have a significant adult who modeled some of those things or who is checking up on them,” Martinez added.
Nevaeh and Ify both have a reliable support base and good study habits.
Jace Baca, a 10th grader in the Hemet Unified School District, also has these things but admits that distance learning is not ideal for many high schoolers.
“When everybody is in school, they can’t wait to get out of school. And now that we are out of school people are like ‘I wish we could see our friends again,’” said the 10th grader.
While Jace sits in his United States history class, echoes from his mother’s Zoom meeting float through the door. Jace and his mother, Jessica Clifford, are making distance learning work, despite Jace’s boredom.
Clifford does her best.
“[I] really check in to make sure he is staying on task with [school work] because it’s easy to get behind in online classes,” she said. “I’m in a situation where I’m at home 95% of the time now.”
Jace is a dedicated track and basketball athlete who hopes to attend college on a sports scholarship.
“Hopefully it doesn’t affect sports; that’s supposed to roll out in January,” Clifford said. “But I mean, we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do to be safe. I feel like it’s life and it’s not always easy.”
Clifford remains positive and hopes Jace will grow from this obstacle.
“I think they are great lessons to be teaching your child,” she added. Clifford finds it important for Jace to understand that life is complicated and things will not always pan out the way they were intended to.
Students who excelled academically in-person are likely to maintain their levels of achievement. However, some students who were less dedicated to their learning during in-person classes are improving at a distance, according to Martinez. It’s possible that they like the idea that they have a choice in regards to their classes and school work, and they feel empowered, said Martinez. The new structure of their classes may also be a factor.
“I have students that were almost expelled last year,” reported Wendy Soto, special education teacher and intervention specialist.
“One girl would have been expelled if we did not have the shut down on March 13.”
Soto taught at Rancho Viejo Middle School when the shutdown started. She has since transferred to Hemet High school, where she also teaches distance learning.
Not only are fewer students facing expulsion, but many others are seeing their grades improve.
“I had a student that every day I would have to walk him back to class and he just didn’t want to be in class. That same student now through online learning, has all A’s,” said Kim Jackson-Williams, Vice Principal of Rancho Viejo Middle School.
How the District is Meeting Challenges
With the absence of supervisors and bells, a number of students have used their independence to exercise self-accountability and keep logging in. Others, however, are less inclined to stay on top of their schoolwork without the regulations in-person school provides, according to Martinez.
“I went back and I looked at our attendance rate from last year,” Jackson-Williams said. “And our attendance is significantly lower.”
For students whose priorities lie elsewhere, or if they are facing adverse circumstances, it is seemingly easier than ever to take a raincheck on academics, according to Martinez.
“If they did not value school on-ground and if they did not like math or English… why would they choose to do it when they’ve got an opportunity not to?” explained professor Martinez. It has become easier for some students to play video games or to socialize instead of going to class, Martinez added.
“Some of these characteristics are not unique because of online or because of COVID, they were there already,” he said.
Hemet Unified School District has successfully leveraged reengagement teams to remediate students detached from their education online and to help failing students get back on track.
The schools’ teams support students and their families in navigating the new learning environment and strives to get students to log back on after missing significant amounts of class.
“We have our reengagement team that consists of our PBIS [Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports] Specialist, our support team, our campus supervisors… they go out and they help figure out what’s going on with those students who are not attending,” Jackson-Williams said.
Opportunities for Innovation
The pandemic also has created opportunities for innovation. Schools like Rancho Viejo Middle School are adjusting the curriculum as needed.
One way that schools assess student progress is through the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing. Polikoff, Professor of Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education, does not expect many districts will conduct testing at this time, even though the results could be valuable. But Hemet Unified has decided to continue administering tests during this period.
“We are administering the MAP testing online, and the kids are actually taking the test from home. We are testing fall, winter, and possibly the spring,” Jackson-Williams said. “We use that data from the assessment to drive our curriculum to see where our students need support.”
“If school leaders really want to change the game, this is the opportunity,” professor Martinez said. . He believes this is a time for new ideas, and hopes COVID-19 will lead to a revamp of the current antiquated structure.
With districts such as Hemet Unified addressing challenges quickly and adapting willingly to pedagogical innovation, its schools are on track to come out of distance learning stronger.
“Think of when movies first came out… the only way you could see them was in a theater,” Martinez said. Then film became available on VHS and DVDs. Now it streams to your living room or even your phone.
“If we’re still in the ‘going to the movie theater’ state,” he said, “let’s think about how we become the Hulu or the Netflix of education.”