Berkeley teachers, families adjust to distance learning

Emma Drake/Staff

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At the beginning of March, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, closed all of its schools indefinitely, forcing teachers, parents and administrators to rapidly adapt to a situation unlike any other.

As of March 16, it seemed conditions would return to normal within a few weeks, leading administrators to issue guidelines for a temporary closure until April 6. Grades were suspended, athletic events were canceled and teachers were not expected to work.

But as time went on and the disease continued to spread, it became apparent that new virtual procedures and protocols would need to be developed for the long run.

On March 26, the district released a distance learning plan. In a letter to parents, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said the district is committed to reducing the negative impact of school closures on students but acknowledged the challenges posed by COVID-19.

“These efforts cannot possibly replicate the rich variety of experiences that we offer on our campuses,” Stephens said in the letter. “Many aspects of the BUSD experience will be lost during these closures.”

At Wednesday’s BUSD board meeting, a decision was made to extend school closures through the remainder of the academic year. For students and educators alike, a once-temporary fix has effectively become the new normal.

Learning from a distance

In creating BUSD’s distance learning plan, the district sought feedback from Berkeley teachers and counselors, eventually compiling answers from more than 600 survey respondents. Many K-12 teachers said they felt they could best support students with weekly email check-ins and online resources from the district.

Taking these suggestions into account, the district’s distance learning plan is composed of three elements: curated weekly distance learning activity sets, weekly assignments from individual teachers and weekly office hours, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott.

Curated activity sets are developed by Distance Learning Teacher Leader teams, which review weekly standards and objectives as well as create learning plans that students and parents can use to guide class work. Teachers must also offer at least 180 minutes of office hours every week, during which they can chat with students about progress or hold group activities.

“The plan also includes participation tracking,” McDermott said in an email. “Tracking student engagement helps teachers and schools solve any challenges students may have participating in distance learning.”

A new normal

Separated from their classrooms, teachers are grappling with new mediums of delivering equivalent instruction.

Cynthia Allman, a kindergarten teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School, spoke about her experience shifting to distance learning during public comment at the April 22 board meeting. Allman said teachers spend hours utilizing various online resources, including webinars, tutorials and YouTube channels, to prepare for teaching students from their homes.

There is also no shortage of communication with other teachers and parents, according to Allman.

“We’re checking in with colleagues constantly,” Allman said at the meeting. “How do you do this? What are we sending tomorrow? Is this the best way to keep kids engaged?”

BUSD’s distance learning plan notes that virtual instruction currently focuses on core content — language arts, math, social studies and science. Allman said video meetings have “serious limitations,” which makes it difficult to digitize many kinds of lessons.

The plan also acknowledges that older students are more likely to better adapt to online learning, as they can tolerate longer periods of screen time. It recommends that for younger students, especially ages 3 to 8, screen exposure should be limited and offset by free time activities.

Without teachers to supervise students, however, the onus falls on parents to keep track of their children’s class work. Robert Collier, president of the Berkeley PTA Council, said there has been a disparate impact on families throughout the district, with some parents complaining that their children are not getting an education, while others don’t have time to help their children navigate virtual schoolwork.

“There’s no way the district can give tailored situations for everyone, or anything even close to that,” Collier said. “Distance learning for K-12 is just inherently difficult.”

Bracing for the future

As the pandemic continues, worries extending beyond classroom instruction are beginning to surface.

The state is expected to finalize its budgets in May and approve them in June, with a strong likelihood of cuts to school programs, according to Collier. He added that impending changes to the state budget might threaten schools’ abilities to provide much-needed resources.

“We’ve already gotten run over by one freight train, and we’re trying to pick ourselves up,” Collier said. “But don’t look now, there’s another one coming in the other direction and it’s about to run us over again.”

BUSD has partnered with the Berkeley Public Schools Fund to open the Ed Hub, a drive-thru distribution site for Chromebooks, replacement cables and earbuds. The Ed Hub is open twice a week and will supply additional materials, such as activity kits and school supplies, in the near future, according to the program’s website.

McDermott said in an email that BUSD has provided 2,500 Chromebooks to students and is currently awaiting 130 hot spots. 

At the board meeting, Allman emphasized that teachers are doing their best to cultivate meaningful learning opportunities for under-resourced students, who she noted are least likely to participate in online classes.

“We are all stuck in silos now,” Allman said at the meeting. “I hope we can find a way to recognize all the great and passionate work teachers are doing when the camera is off.”

Contact Revati Thatte at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @revati_thatte.