California is in the midst of a massive push to provide “distance learning” to all its students in response to the coronavirus, which has resulted in all its students being ordered to “shelter in place.” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond talked with Louis Freedberg and John Fensterwald for EdSource’s podcast “This Week in California Education” about how distance learning will work, including for students who are struggling or have fallen behind. You can listen to the podcast here. You can also read Thurmond’s lightly edited remarks below.
We previously talked with State Board of Education Linda Darling Darling-Hammond on our podcast, which you can listen to here.
EdSource: How successful do you think distance learning will be in reaching students on the margins of the public school system?
Thurmond: These are uncharted territories for us. We’ve never experienced a pandemic of this magnitude. The impacts are so great that we know it is simply not safe for our students to be on campus at this time. So distance learning is our best opportunity to provide an education for our students. But it’s different, and we will need to provide training for our teachers. We also need to be able to provide more devices to students. We have surveyed every school district in the state to see how many of them have students who need a device at home, or are working through an internet barrier.
We’re working through all those challenges, but yet we know there are some students who haven’t even been accounted for in some districts. Literally, some students have not checked in at all since March 13 when many of our schools closed.
We intend to work through some of our mental health providers, social workers and others because we think those families are probably scrambling to meet basic needs. We need to give our families some time to get used to how distance learning works. For most of our school districts, they’ve been doing this now for about two or three weeks, and we’re providing training to support them in how to do that. We’ll be following up every week with more guidance, and more training for our educators and families on how it will work.
EdSource: You’ve just outlined one problem — that we don’t really know who all those kids are who don’t have devices. When do you think those kids will be getting them and do you have any way to know whether they will?
Thurmond: We are counting on districts to give us information about when the matching of devices with students who need them has happened. As we have surveyed essentially a thousand districts, we are counting on them to give us the information that they need, and we have invited districts to send that information to us directly. It is an enormous operation to get the devices, and we’re grateful to companies like Google that have offered to help procure or provide devices. They’re working with other companies to help us streamline what we can provide to our students throughout the state.
We’ve got to move fast. There are probably about six weeks of school left for most school districts in terms of their calendar. We’ve got to move very fast. We are rapidly working through matching school districts with donors, and then making the operation as seamless as possible to get them to those school districts. We’ll keep you posted.
EdSource: A number of parents are wondering whether the state is going to set minimum expectations for what districts should do in terms of distance learning, such when they would transition from enrichment activities to actual course materials, whether you would expect a certain number of instructional minutes per day and so on. Will the state be issuing either guidance or stronger expectations along those lines?
Thurmond: CDE has provided guidance on distance learning, and we will continue to do so on a weekly basis. We have not mandated instructional minutes. If you follow the governor’s executive order going back to March 13th, it has not mandated minutes, but it has created a framework that allows flexibility to school districts to create what makes sense for their districts, their students and their communities.
So it is different from the landscape that we are used to. But we are working closely with a number of organizations that have expertise around online education to make sure that we can provide examples of what quality learning consists of as it relates to distance learning. We intend shortly to be providing a webinar on distance learning. We also have teachers who have experience in distance learning who can provide coaching and professional development for those for whom this is new.
EdSource: Is it your expectation though that every district would provide some form of distance learning that you hope will be effective?
Thurmond: We do expect that and we think it’s absolutely necessary given the health challenges that we are facing. It is just not safe for our students to return to campuses at this time, and we don’t have a clear indication of when they might be able to. Based on what we’re hearing from public health officials and other experts that it could be longer than the school year. For those reasons, we have really encouraged school districts to move directly to distance learning, and to tell us where they need more support so that we can make the most of the school year. Our school campuses are closed, but school for the year is not done. We really want to make sure that we support them.
What I also want our students to know is that we are working closely with our higher education partners to make sure that there are opportunities for our students to graduate from high school this year and to move on to postsecondary educational opportunities. All the institutions in California of higher education have created the most flexible ways to support our students, including suspending the SAT and ACT as it relates to admission decisions, allowing for pass/fail grades to be considered, and allowing students to take their Advanced Placement exams at home.
This is a situation where the circumstances could not have been predicted, but we don’t want our students to be disadvantaged as a result. We believe that through the combination of distance learning and the flexibility being provided by our higher education partners that we will be able to help our students be successful this year and going forward.