(Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource

California schools facing inevitable closures because of coronavirus outbreaks are finding various ways to keep learning going as students are forced to stay home.

Across the state, more than 1,200 public and private K-12 schools announced this week that they will close or move to remote learning due to concerns about coronavirus, including the state’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, which announced Friday morning in a joint statement that they will close schools beginning Monday. Since Thursday night, districts including Berkeley, San Francisco, Sacramento City and others also announced they would close schools.

But while many colleges and universities in California have switched to online classes to keep students and staff home, most K-12 schools are not equipped with the infrastructure to do so. Now schools are exploring everything from take-home projects to partnerships with local media.

L.A. Unified, serving more than 600,000 students, plans to transition to teaching students remotely through a partnership with local public television. The district, which will close for at least two weeks, announced Thursday it will partner with public television stations KCET and PBS SoCal to broadcast educational programming to its students while they are forced to stay at home. Similar programming will also be available in other parts of the state. KQED, the PBS station in the San Francisco Bay Area, plans to air the same television schedule as PBS SoCal/KCET.

For many students in Los Angeles, the programming will be accompanied by lesson plans and take-home assignments for students to complete. Austin Beutner, the district’s superintendent, said in a statement that when students leave school Friday, they will leave with a plan to continue learning that will begin on Monday.

“For some students, it will be continuing the lesson plan and instruction they have already been working on with their classroom teacher. For others, it will be engaging with the curriculum and lessons which we and PBS SoCal will be providing. And for some, it will be a combination of the two,” he said.

In an interview Thursday with EdSource, Beutner said the partnership with public television will allow almost all students in the district to continue learning with schools closed, something that wouldn’t be possible if the district were to transition to exclusively online instruction since many students in the district don’t have internet at home.

“We think this is an issue of equity and access,” Beutner said. “We want to make sure every student has a chance to continue to learn. And we think this allows us to do that.”

For students that can access the internet from home, the district intends to supplement the television broadcasts with learning through online platforms that the district already uses, including Edgenuity and Schoology.

Transitioning to online learning presents several complications for L.A. Unified. The district only has enough devices to send about two-thirds of its students at traditional K-12 schools home with tablets. Beutner has asked the state for $50 million in emergency dollars to provide tablets to the rest of students.

Beutner has also asked internet providers to set up free access for families in the district who don’t have internet access. Those families make up an estimated 25 percent of L.A. Unified students. But “virtually all” families in the district have access to broadcast television, said Andrew Russell, president of KCET and PBS SoCal.

“Of course, there are some exceptions, but it’s the most broadly available technology to get to these kind of teaching resources,” Russell told EdSource in an interview.

PBS SoCal will broadcast programming daily for preschool through second grade students. KLCS-TV, a station operated by the district, will offer content for all grades. Programming for high school students will air on KCET.

The broadcasts will include shows such as “Peg + Cat” for pre-K through second grade students, “Nova” for middle school students and Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” documentary for high schoolers.

“We hope this is something that can be shared with other school districts in the state and perhaps serve as a model for the nation,” Beutner said.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner holds a press conference March 13.. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

The partnership is already being replicated in the San Francisco Bay Area, where KQED will begin broadcasting the programming as soon as next week, said Robin Mencher, the station’s executive director of education. KQED hasn’t yet entered into partnerships with any individual districts, but Mencher said such partnerships likely will “grow out of this initial offering as the new realities sink in.”

As of Friday at 10 a.m., there were 252 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness in California and four deaths, according to the New York Times.

Earlier this month, health and education officials told schools to prepare to “implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options as feasible and appropriate,” according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there’s no simple on-switch for schools thinking about moving from face-to-face to online instruction, especially for young kids.

“Closing schools to allow social distancing and ‘flatten the curve’ of this pandemic is absolutely crucial to not overwhelm our health system’s capacity,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development and parent-child interaction. “My biggest concern — and that of a lot of educators — is students’ access to computers at home.”

Even in the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto Unified said it would not be able to deliver online instruction to students if they are sent home because teachers are not prepared and both students and teachers might not have access to internet and computers at home.

There are also concerns about student health and safety if they are isolated at home and asked to spend more time in front of a screen. K-12 students might also be at very vastly different stages with maturity and the ability to self-direct their learning in an online setting.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to 1 hour per day for children ages 2 to 5 years old, and that parents should co-view media with children. For kids 6 and older, it recommends placing “consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media.”

It’s harder for young children to learn big picture concepts on screens, according to Radesky. Kids preschool age and older can learn concrete facts like letters and math concepts from screen media, but they need parents to conceptualize their learning and apply it to the world around them, she said.

“This will take more effort from parents,” she said. But “children learn these concepts through play — so hopefully parents will be able to find time to goof around, read, dance, or play games with their children — this relieves stress too.”

Talia Milgrom-Elcott, executive director of 100Kin10, a network of more than 300 organizations working on education and teacher retention, stresses that student well-being should be top-of-mind when thinking about any educational opportunities for kids at home.

“Parents will be under huge stress here. How do we come together to support parents who will be on the frontline with kids?” said Milgrom-Elcott. “We might want to try to maximize outcomes that aren’t about standards, but health, joy, creativity, and more than anything, stability and calm.”

She recommends that schools try to partner with museums and other local educational institutions — which might also be scrambling for plans related to the virus — and see if they have any resources to offer kids for at-home learning.