Confined to her home since San Benito High School closed on March 16 to stop the spread of the coronavirus, senior Victoria Flores resigned herself to the thought that her final year of high school was over and turned her focus to her family’s well being and deciding which college to attend. After two weeks of no academic instruction, Flores joined her 3,000-plus classmates in returning to the campus, though this time she entered through an online portal, beginning a journey into distance learning.
SBHS rolled out its distance learning program on March 30. The program is the brainchild of the district’s Instructional Leadership Team.
The team—consisting of administrators and a collection of teachers—followed guidance from the California Department of Education while networking with other school districts to design its distance learning model, said SBHS Director of Educational Services Elaine Klauer. The model aims to “meet students where they are,” she said, while providing them with synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. She added that student success will be measured by clear and consistent expectations set forth by subject area departments and carried out by teachers.
“We know that we cannot recreate our onsite course into an online one,” Klauer said. “Our delivery needs to change and learning goals need to be explicit.”
In courses ranging from physical education to history, students now receive their lessons on teleconferencing platforms like Google Classroom, where course announcements and assignments are posted weekly and where students can submit their completed work for grading. According to the district, SBHS has loaned out over 730 Chromebooks from its stockpile to students who lack access to a laptop, and has provided about 250 paper packet lessons per week that are picked upon request for those without access to the internet.
Nearly 2,000 physical education students are now using PLT4M, an online physical fitness app with a variety of cardiovascular workouts that teachers can assign to their students. Physical education teacher Brian DeCarli said students can watch videos showing proper exercise techniques and later track their progress. He said he’s encouraged students to get their parents and siblings involved in the remote fitness routines as well, to “promote health and wellness in this time of restrictive movement.”
DeCarli understands that motivating teenagers to complete self-directed activities is one of the biggest challenges for distance learning. His department’s solution: the P.E. Distancing Learning Award. Interested students can submit a 30-second video of themselves doing a workout, with or without their families, for a chance to win a Haybaler statuette, a visit from school mascot Haybaler Hank, and a shoutout on the school’s social media pages.
Besides motivation, some of DeCarli’s colleagues are finding other challenges with distance learning.
For special education teachers like Joan Burley, federal law meshes with the state’s education code in determining the services she must provide to her students. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act requires that special education students have an Individualized Education Plan.
Following the school’s closure, Burley and others in her department put together learning materials that they took to their students’ homes, fearing academic gains would be lost. Now that distance learning is taking place, she said she worries for her students.
“In a class it is easy to see when a student is struggling and needs support,” Burley said.
Above all else, Klauer said the school district and its teachers “need to display empathy” to students during this time of uncertainty. Some of that empathy is shown in the grading policy that SBHS recently instituted for the remainder of the academic year.
Instead of letter grades, student achievement will now be ranked at three levels: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Incomplete. The goal is that no student’s grade should drop below where it was before school closed on March 13. Students who were failing at that time are encouraged to improve their grades to avoid receiving an Incomplete at the semester’s end.
What do teachers, students and parents think of the new policy?
“I do believe it is fair and equitable,” U.S. history teacher Chris Lasley said. “Students should be encouraged to continue learning and developing during this closure, and high performing students should have the opportunity to earn a ‘pass with distinction’ on their transcripts.”
Like Lasley, high school senior Flores favors the policy and understands that it seeks to mitigate what her peers are confronting.
“The district is being considerate of the students who may have difficulty with online learning. [The new grading system] puts less pressure on grades and more pressure on learning,” she said.
Flores’ father Raul said that while he is thankful the high school has implemented its remote learning plan, he has doubts about its effectiveness and opposes the grading policy.
“I’m concerned about my daughter teaching herself the material. She may misinterpret a teacher’s lesson and will not know about her mistakes,” he said. “The new grading system is not fair for hardworking students and is making it easier for the slacker.”
Flores initially expressed reservations about the transition to online distance learning. In her first Zoom sessions, she didn’t participate in class discussions or volunteer to answer questions, an unusual occurrence for the articulate, college-bound teen. But after two weeks, she has grown more comfortable with teleconferencing and now looks forward to screen time with her classmates.
“Even though I love them, there is only so much family time I can take,” Flores said. “By attending Zoom meetings, I am essentially taking a breather.”
Victoria Flores is a student in BenitoLink reporter Frank Perez’s Ethnic Studies class at San Benito High School.
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