As school starts, anxiety and excitement build for Online 2.0

Every new school year – for students, teachers and parents alike – starts with a mix of hope and nerves. But there’s never been anything like the anxiety coming with the start of the 2020-21 school year.

With coronavirus not yet under control, Gov. Gavin Newsom has ordered that most schools statewide start the academic year as online-only operations.

And many families fear a repeat of what they saw in spring, when the pandemic forced schools to switch, almost instantly, from traditional classrooms to online education.

The results of that switch weren’t good. Teachers were unprepared to go online, some students checked out, and many didn’t have the technology, or home environment, to keep up.

But this year will be different, say educators across Southern California.

Accountability, for teachers and students, is now legally mandated. Grades will be earned. Attendance will be taken. And communication – between teachers and students and parents – will be routine.

“It will look and feel a lot more like regular school,” said Fullerton School District Superintendent Bob Pletka. “The rigor level of the teaching and learning will be higher.”

Santa Ana Unified spokesman Fermin Leal called it “distance learning 2.0.”

“It’s going to look a lot different than it did in the spring,” Leal said.

Lots of questions, some answers

For now, the fact that most schools in Southern California are looking to open online is sparking all sorts of questions, only some of which have clear answers.

Who’ll care for kids while parents are working? Who can help English learners? What about students with special needs? How can we make sure every student has the technology to attend school online?

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where parents have expressed these concerns and more, administrators and the teachers’ union are expected to finalize an agreement next week on what remote learning will look like.

The deal gives teachers some flexibility to mix up their lessons, offering  live instruction, pre-recorded lectures or independent assignments. Students will have to keep a regular daily schedule, although a bit shorter, from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m, than traditional school.

“The goal is to have as much teacher-led interaction with students as possible,” L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said during a pre-recorded address last Monday.

“This is the core of public education, the learning that happens when students and teachers are connected.”

Across the region, such statements are being met with skepticism.

“Parents are not optimistic,” said Costa Mesa resident Jamie Karutz, a moderator for an Orange County Facebook page where parents, teachers and others discuss schools reopening.

“You can see that people are worried and frustrated. And they don’t know what to do,” Karutz added.

Parents are divided on the question of online or in-person education. Karutz, whose older daughter has diabetes and is at higher risk, wants both her kids home for now.

To be clear, Karutz has no interest in homeschooling.

“It’s hard to be home with everybody. My kids don’t want me to be their teacher,” she said. “I don’t want to be their teacher.”

Tustin resident Syndie Ly, on the other hand, doesn’t know what she will do if her kids can’t go back to school. She’s a single working mom with four boys in the Tustin Unified School District.

“I have to juggle work, being a single mom, and three different school schedules. It’s just crazy.”

The YMCA is offering daycare. But, she noted, “I can’t afford it.”

“I’m fine with them wearing masks and social distancing. As long as they reopen,” Ly said. “Even the (Centers for Disease Control) has come out saying that schools should reopen.”

Parents also are frustrated because they aren’t getting specific information about what’s happening in the fall and, in some cases, new options to remain in online schools all year.

Karutz, whose children attend schools in Newport-Mesa Unified School District, said officials have been slow to provide answers to parents’ questions, including specifics about the district’s new online school, Cloud Campus, or how it will work with students with special needs.

The district released new information on Friday.

For teachers, communication in the online world will be routine.

Sarah Trobaugh, a math teacher at Eisenhower High School in Rialto Unified, will be inviting her students into a virtual classroom when the new school year begins on Monday. Trobaugh has spent the summer building on the distance learning lessons from the spring and connecting with other teachers online to learn new tools and techniques to better engage with students this year.

Sarah Trobaugh, who teaches math at Eisenhower High in Rialto, said a big difference for the new year is a simple one: live instruction will be offered every day.

“They told us that was something they had missed,” Trobaugh said.

Online isn’t a fad

Last spring, each district seemed to do its own thing. But Senate Bill 98, a rider to the state budget approved by the governor last month, changed that.

The new law set standards and added accountability measures for public schools. Among other things, it establishes a minimum amount of time teachers must interact with students, and mandated that the connection happen daily. That interaction can be online, by phone, or any other means allowed under public health orders.

Assistance Principal Jospeh Tomaseli, left, and Ivette Mejia, instructional technology assistance, facilitate a drive-thru electronic distribution in preparation for the new school year, which will begin with distance learning, at Elementary School in Rialto on Monday, August 3, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

There are other expectations as well. Students who need technology to work online – from devices to hotspots for WiFi – will be able to get them from their district. Also, school districts will track attendance and how often students interact with teachers.

“Before, we offered some general guidelines and teachers decided what worked best,” said Santa Ana Unified spokesman Leal.

“Now, we want a uniform policy, where everyone has the same expectation across the board.”

Some districts, pre-pandemic, had online schools and many others have scrambled to create them. Some of those online schools figure to become permanent options, even after in-person instruction returns.

“E-learning has been in existence for a long time. There’s already a precedent for that,” said Michael Matsuda, superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District. Matsuda’s district is opening a new online school, Cambridge Virtual Academy, that will include project-based learning, internships, and a plan that leads to a speedier college degree.

At Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, an online independent study program will be available for children in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. Teachers will assign work, set deadlines and meet weekly with students virtually to answer questions and monitor progress.

“We had a lot of parents express different needs,” Palos Verdes Superintendent Alexander Cherniss wrote in an e-mail.

“Some said, we don’t want our kids in front of a computer all day; others said we have to go to work and need a non traditional schedule for our kids to do school; and others just said give us the work and we’ll complete it in the manner that works best for our family.”

“The intent is not only to support students who learn differently, but to retain enrollment,” Cherniss added.

“Many districts fear we will lose students to homeschooling organizations if we don’t create our own.”

Then there’s the Fullerton School District, a K-8 district, which is offering families a home school option. Families that join the MyFSD Academy will have the support of a credentialed teacher. Once health conditions permit, the program will include field trips designed specifically for the home schooled students, said Superintendent Bob Pletka.

P.E. and arts

The new world will mean changes for some classes, like physical education and the arts.

At Santiago High in Garden Grove, P.E. teacher Brandon Croft expects to “tap a little more into the academic side of physical education.” That will include the science of movement, nutrition, stress management and sleep management. “Sleep is a huge thing right now,” he said.

Croft expects his 80-minute online classes, in activities such as yoga, to engage up to 60 students at a time. He’ll be viewing students from a 50-inch monitor in his converted gym in his garage.

“I’m hoping that when I can see that screen I can get up close and kind of see the kids and what they’re able to do.”

At the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, educators will offer the state-required number of instructional minutes (240 minutes a day for grades 7 through 12), and add up to 120 minutes, depending on grade level, for the school’s art conservatory programs.

Some of those classes – creative writing, digital media, music – figure to translate well online, said Maria Lazarova, dean of arts.

Big musical groups, she said, can be split into smaller groups, with students doing exercises individually on their own. And, via Zoom, students can break down into online breakout rooms with the conductor jumping in to offer instruction, Lazarova said.

Other changes: theater and acting programs will focus more on digital and TV projects. Culinary arts students will pick up staples from school but work in their home kitchens, watching online tutorials given by the school’s chef working in the school’s commercial kitchen.

And all students – at arts schools and traditional schools – will be expected to show up and earn grades. That wasn’t always the case last spring, when not all students could get online and districts chose to ease up on some standards.

Fresh problems, fresh ideas

For teachers, online learning creates new challenges and, some say, new opportunities.

“We will have to teach differently,” said Ken Mushinskie, who teaches social studies at Ramona High School in Riverside and works with students to get them ready for college.

Ramona’s Head Coach Ken Mushinskie addresses his players in 2019. (Photo by Milka Soko, Contributing Photographer)

“I’m a football coach. If I see something that is working for another team, or a coach, I’m going to ask questions and try to learn something new,” Mushinskie said.

“I think we have to do the same thing as teachers now… Everybody has a chance to learn during these times, and that includes the teachers.”

Michelle Whieldon, a sixth-grade teacher at Lincoln Fundamental Elementary School in Corona, said she’s excited about using new teaching tools.

“I can take my students on virtual field trips, like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. These are the kinds of things we might never have known about if we weren’t in a situation like this,” Whiedon said.

“I plan to keep on using these programs even when the students return to school. I think we’ve jumped a few years into the future of education, and it’s going to be something to benefit from.”

Getting caught up with online teaching and the various platforms used has been one of the biggest challenges for many educators.

“The kids of this generation are used to working with technology,” said Jon Cabrera, a 10th grade history teacher at Norco High School. “It’s now up to the teachers to try to catch up on that and meet the needs of their students.”

Brandon Baker, who teaches ninth-grade biology at Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, said he’s training to teach online.

“I’ve been busier these past weeks than I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “Teachers are learning along the way, just like all of our students.”

Many teachers are relieved to be starting online. Their unions have consistently fought to ensure that educators return to the classroom only after the number of coronavirus cases go down.

Still, some are worried about their health. Only 28% of teachers in the Hermosa Beach City School District said they would “confidently return” to work, even if local health authorities say it’s safe. And 57% would be interested in applying for an online-only teaching position if it became available.

Natasha Schottland, who teaches social studies at Portola High in Irvine, has mixed feelings about the start of the school year.

“We teach because we love the kids,” she said. “And I love that face-to-face interaction with my kids.”

But with coronavirus spreading in Orange County, Schottland said she had questions about the hybrid learning model that, until Newsom’s order, was on tap for her school.

“How much (personal protection equipment) would we get? What would that look like?

“I’m a little relieved that I don’t really have to deal with that fear now.”

What’s coming

Under any format, online only or hybrid learning, the coming school year will require patience, said Brandon Ford, who teaches psychology and ethnic studies at Redlands High.

“We have to get the students used to being students again,” Ford said.

“This is not a perfect system, or ideal situation, by any means. But this is what we have to work with,” he added. “We have to make sure the students are engaged in the process.”

Brent Brubaker, who teaches English at Arlington High in Riverside, is unabashedly bullish on online learning.

“I’ve been of the opinion that public school education has needed a bit of a shakeup for quite some time,” Brubaker said. “Sure, I’m a little nervous about how things will ultimately play out. But I’m excited at the same time.

“We don’t know exactly how things are going to look on the other side, but what if the virtual model turns out to be a positive benefit and helps change the system?”

Students, parents and teachers will soon find out.

SCNG staff writers Beau Yarbrough,Tarek Fattal and Robert Morales contributed to this story.