.Are Santa Cruz County Students Ready for Distance Learning?

Calabasas Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Laura Arnow says she spent as many as three hours per day last week in virtual meetings with her fellow fourth-grade teachers, preparing for a new phase in California education. “We’re scrambling,” she told a reporter on Friday. 

Monday marked the beginning of online learning for students across Santa Cruz County, due to shelter-in-place orders from both state and local health officials aimed at stopping the spread of the new coronavirus, COVID-19.

And this could be just the beginning. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in a March 17 press conference that schools could be closed for months, and he encouraged families to plan for the worst. “Few, if any, will open before the summer break,” Newsom said of the state’s schools. 

After one week of preparation, teachers are now using video conferencing platforms like Zoom to remotely deliver lessons that were originally designed to be given in person. The new term for the teaching methods used in these virtual classrooms is “distance learning.”

Some families aren’t prepared for the changes, and Santa Cruz County Office of Education officials are trying to make sure everyone has the tools to follow along. 

Other kids already have the latest technology at their fingertips. Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says the district is providing about 15,000 Chromebooks, and some students are getting wireless internet access for the first time. Last week, PVUSD handed out 750 portable wireless hotspots. Both devices, officials say, filter out inappropriate content.

But some teachers worry that distance learning will be a burden for parents who work multiple jobs. “Ag workers are still expected to show up at work, and now they have this extra job of educating their kids,” Arnow says. 

Another trouble facing teachers, Arnow explains, is the difficulty of dialoguing with parents. Educators are supposed to stay in touch with families through the website Class Dojo. But encouraging parents to use the tool and communicate has been a challenge, she says. “I have 28 kids on my roster, and of those, 11 families aren’t responding,” she says. 

Arnow’s team, she says, is tasked with providing five hours of content for their students per day, only two hours of which can be online. But with the libraries closed countywide—and giving out books being all but impossible, thanks to social distancing requirements—those parameters can be a tall order, Arnow says. “It’s going to be interesting and unusual times for everyone. Kids are going to miss one-third of the year, and I don’t see any way to change that,” she says.

Rodriguez says she sees the digital rollout as an opportunity for the district to bridge a digital divide and level the playing field. Students who lacked access to the devices and services can now bolster their learning. “It opens up access for the whole community,” she says. Rodriguez says that the district is offering technological support for students and parents, including a hotline at 786-2493.

While PVUSD has enough devices for all of its students from second through 12th grade, there is still plenty of need elsewhere in the county. 

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah says there aren’t enough devices yet for all students countywide to access online lessons. And on top of that, he says, an estimated 30% of students don’t have internet access at home. 

For now, internet access is the biggest challenge, Sabbah says. The Santa Cruz County Office of Education is working with internet service providers, including Cruzio and Spectrum, to offer free and low-cost internet for qualified families, with more details available at sccoe.link/internet. The options typically include two months of free internet and access for $10-15 per month after that. 

The county’s been sharing hot spots with the community, and these measures are “good, but they’re also not perfect,” Sabbah says. 

“Depending on where you live, your connectivity can be very limited,” he says. Ensuring all students and their families have internet access is crucial right now not just for learning, he adds, but for staying updated on health and safety information about COVID-19. The county is just starting to get a clearer picture of how many families need internet connectivity and devices at home as online learning rolls out, Sabbah says. 

The schools will probably have to acquire more Chromebooks, but there is a “huge demand right now” for the laptops, and it could be weeks before more are delivered, Sabbah says. 

Having kids home from school doesn’t just mean changes to educational life. It can mean major adjustments for family, too.

Santa Cruz’s Sarah Renfro says she and her husband Brian have restructured everyone’s schedules to make sure their two sons have time for learning, exercise, chores and free time. The two boys attend Delaveaga Elementary, and the night before distance learning started up, the parents were predicting that their 10-year-old would adapt to working from home more quickly than their six-year-old might.

“For our 10-year-old—I think he will be OK. He has a longer attention span. And he has more experience using a computer screen,” Sarah Renfro says. “The 6-year-old—I’m a little concerned. He does get a little zonked out, distracted. Being on a computer for a few hours does have an impact on his behavior.”

Sabbah says that, in general, families and students may need to make some shifts, at least in the short-term. He says his office is working on developing parent-support forums online, so parents can connect with one another and find ways of helping to address the social and emotional needs of students. 

In the meantime, Sabbah says he’s been hearing from many parents about how appreciative they are of their teachers and the local school system. 

That sentiment has resonated in the Renfro household over the past week.

“It has definitely made me appreciate our teachers,” Brian Renfro says of the school closure. “They’re such an important piece of our community, and that has become apparent in the past six days. Teachers should get a raise.”

Additional reporting by Alisha Green and Jacob Pierce.

Coronavirus Coverage

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