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Calls Grow for Better Online Learning in Los Angeles Schools

As the coronavirus pandemic shows little signs of slowing down, calls are growing for the Los Angeles Unified School District to improve upon a hastily launched system of online learning for the coming academic year.

by Ariella Plachta, Daily News / June 29, 2020

(TNS) — As the coronavirus pandemic shows little signs of slowing down, calls are growing for the Los Angeles Unified School District to improve upon a hastily launched system of online learning for the coming academic year.

A report compiled by parent advocacy organization Speak Up found the district’s distance-learning program has been “inconsistent at best and discriminatory at worst.” The report added that live online instruction, mandatory grades and consistent scheduling are critical to online schooling.

The state legislature, meanwhile, has made it clear that some form of daily live instruction and regular school communication with parents will be obligatory in order to receive funding for the upcoming school year.

An unscientific survey of 430 Speak Up members and other families, using a sample size that over-represented white students and under-represented low-income families in the district, found that nearly 40% of student respondents received live online instruction every day.

Black and Latino students, the survey found, were more likely to have received less online instruction or not at all. Otherwise disadvantaged students — including English learners and students with special needs — were also taught with less live online instruction on the whole.

Respondents to the survey reflected a mix of students attending traditional public schools, affiliated charters and independent charters.

“Live online learning is critical, otherwise the entire burden is on parents” said Jenny Hontz, communications director of Speak Up. “Obviously, there were many teachers that did an incredible job and went above and beyond, but it was just hugely inconsistent.”

In the state legislature this week, meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights groups and education advocates called on lawmakers to strengthen school reopening provisions to include a baseline of at least three hours of live face-to-face instruction online.

In mid-March, LAUSD shuttered its more than 700 schools with the aim of preventing the spread of COVID-19 and sent schools into a mad rush to implement “distance learning” plans. The first several weeks of remote learning ranged from paper-and-pencil packets to lectures on Zoom as teachers struggled to reach their students.

The transition illuminated a dearth in technological resources available to the 600,000 district students who overwhelmingly belong to low-income Latino and Black families. LAUSD spent the next two months making emergency purchases and distributing laptops and internet hotspots, but internet connectivity issues remain.

As teachers navigated their new non-classroom realities, they also underwent hours of training — from subject-specific professional development to online learning pedagogy and the operation of such district platforms as Schoology.

An agreement reached between teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles and LA Unified in March on the terms of distance learning made teaching classes using live video conferencing platforms optional. It expires at the end of June.

Like most districts across California, L.A. Unified has said it may reopen in the fall with a hybrid campus model of learning to restrict the number of students on campus, while warning that fully remote learning could be the reality just as well.

By distributing more than 30 million meals at dozens of school sites across the district since schools closed, LAUSD also became one of the nation’s largest food aid organizations since schools closed. It is now offering online summer school to some 100,000 registered students.

Hoping for relief from projected state funding cuts, Superintendent Austin Beutner talked about the need to streamline different learning platforms and make distance learning more straightforward.

“We are in discussions with the various providers of the tools and technologies now, trying to answer two basic questions – do they have a viable business so we know they’ll be around for a while and are they willing to work with our educators to help improve their products to better serve the needs of teachers and students?” he said in a weekly coronavirus update, adding that he expected that work to be completed in August.

As the economy opens up and parents return to work or work full-time from home, parents have cried out about the difficulties guiding young children through a school day. Worries about significant learning loss and even drop outs for older students abound.

Parents active with Speak Up have been attending board meetings and calling on teachers union leaders to establish what they see as baselines for quality online instruction.

Speak Up member Sharnell Blevins, whose three children attended Hamilton High School this spring, said she saw a lack of synchronized schedules, unfamiliarity with technology and inconsistency across different classes.

“For two of my daughters’ AP classes, they taught their teachers how to use Zoom because the system the district was using couldn’t handle the volume of video,” said Blevins. “My kids had maybe live interaction face-to-face with about a quarter of their teachers.”

Distance learning has proven to be especially challenging for families with students who have disabilities or other special needs.

Another Speak Up member, Elizabeth Gomez, whose son is a student with Down Syndrome at Marina Del Ray middle school, said she felt the pandemic “magnified a broken system” when she saw his teacher decline to make subsequent efforts at live instruction when a first Zoom meeting with his class went poorly.

Martha Infate Thorpe, a teacher at Taft High School in the San Fernando Valley with decades of experience in Southeast LA, said screen time is not necessarily the key to distance learning and one size does not fit all.

“It’s a very common error to think that traditional school can be replicated online in the exact same way,” she said, adding that a survey of her own students found that most preferred viewing pre-recorded lessons at their own pace.

“I think this report spells out the obvious but the problem is not the district, it’s systemic poverty … you’re going to have different results in different households. So you should address that before talking about system-wide synchronous instruction.”

L.A. Unified board member Nick Melvoin said he plans to take board action that asks for more to ensure distance learning is successful and that more rigor is necessary — but not without striving for equity.

“I’ve heard stories of teachers that are doing amazing work under tough circumstances and I’ve heard frustrations from parents and principals as well that it’s not meeting their standards,” said Melvoin of distance-learning feedback.

“Obviously, there were going to be some kinks to work out … my only caveat with calls for live instruction is to make sure we’re looking at equity as well. Because we have some students who are working and can’t always hop on a zoom at 10 a.m.”

©2020 the Daily News (Los Angeles). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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