Eleanor, 14, and Harper Ragle, 12, left and right, are sisters working on a nature journal for class while on the sidewalk near their home in Echo Park. They are students at Renaissance Arts Academy, a charter school in Los Angeles. (Photo by Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times/ Polaris, via EdSource)

This “spring break” is like no other for California.

Even as public schools are making a big push to ramp up their “distance learning” curriculum, millions of students, along with their teachers, are out on spring break last week.

A worrisome question is whether spring break at this crucial time will slow the implementation of distance learning, or whether it has given teachers much-needed breathing space to gear up for a more intensive online teaching regimen that many districts have begun or are planning to introduce in the coming weeks. Most teachers interviewed by EdSource welcomed the respite and the time to prepare, while parents and their children were more divided.

One thing is true: No one is making college tours or getting in one last ski trip to the Sierras. Even hanging out with friends at the beach or making a road trip to visit relatives is out of the question.

Those limitations haven’t stopped districts from moving ahead with their previously scheduled spring breaks. Last week and the week prior was the peak spring break season. Thirteen of California’s largest 30 districts serving 1.1 million students had their spring breaks last week, while nearly a half-million students in 13 more of the 30 districts had theirs the week before. The remaining four districts will start their breaks this week or later.

It’s a different story in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic. The nation’s largest school district canceled its spring break, which due to start last week, mainly due to concerns that if students didn’t have some distance learning to occupy them at home, they might be less likely to follow social distancing regulations.

“For the health and well-being of all New Yorkers, the city and the state are in agreement that schools must continue to offer remote learning, including during days that were previously scheduled as breaks,” said schools chancellor Richard Carranza, who was previously superintendent in San Francisco.

In contrast, Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district after New York, embraced the time off. In his video address last week, Superintendent Austin Beutner said that the L.A school community is on a “much-needed break.”

“I hope all of you are able to rest and spend time with your family,” he said. “Amidst all of the uncertainty, we are reminded how important our loved ones are.”

Still, this spring break comes at a crucial time in implementing the distance-learning regimen, a massive challenge even for the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles.

“We face the largest adaptive challenge for large urban public education systems in a generation,” Beutner and San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten said in a joint statement just a few weeks ago.Pick your metaphor: This is the moon shot, the Manhattan Project, the Normandy landing, and the Marshall Plan, and the clock is ticking.”

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond has underscored the urgency of the task at hand. “There are probably about six weeks of school left for most school districts in terms of their calendar,” Thurmond told EdSource. “We’ve got to move very fast.”

Stephanie Gregson, the chief deputy superintendent in the California Department of Education, said that just because school districts are out on spring break doesn’t mean that work has come to a halt. “Some are using the time to making sure students are connected and also experimenting on providing instruction through a distance learning model,” she said.

But responses to a questionnaire from 60 parents and teachers around the state through the newly established EdSource Community Network underscored the challenge of making generalizations in a state as large, and with as much diversity, as California. Much depends on what is happening in individual districts.

A much-needed break

Some parents say that their districts have already implemented demanding distance learning programs and that they, along with their students, actually could benefit from a break.

“My kids worked during the first two weeks of remote learning so they seemed to appreciate having a few days off,” said Beth Meyerhoff, who has two high school students in Palos Verde Peninsula Unified, near the ocean south of L.A. “As a parent, I appreciated having a few days off from monitoring emails, checking up on homework assignments and attending Zoom meetings, which will start up again this coming week.”

So what did Meyerhoff and her family do during the break?

“We had more blocks of time not interrupted by scheduled Zoom calls or homework, so we were able to go walking or running together as a family until all trails were completely closed,” she said. “We cooked more together as a family, but, otherwise, we didn’t do many things differently since there weren’t too many options of things to do.”

Craig Lazzeretti has two children at Alhambra High School in Martinez, whose spring break was last week. He also fully supports keeping to the previously planned schedule. Yet he concedes the break has been pretty meaningless for his children.

“It feels depressing not to be able to experience a real ‘spring break,’ where we are able to leave home and do something as a family,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers almost uniformly said in interviews with EdSource that they either needed a break from the stress of the first several weeks of “sheltering in place,” or that they used the valuable time free of teaching responsibilities to prepare for classes.

Jeff Fillingham-Selk, who teaches history and social studies at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, said he used his spring break to begin planning his distance learning curriculum — and began implementing what he had put together last week. He has been designated the “distance learning leader” in his department, so he thinks the time was well-spent.

In fact, he believes the vast majority of teachers would, like him, “use their time during their spring break productively getting ready for the big change in education we have in front of us.”

Radha Bala, a special education teacher at Cherrywood Elementary in the Berryessa Union School District in San Jose said, “Teachers need their ‘spring break’ time to rest and recuperate so we can be ready for the ending of the year.”

“These last few weeks have been extremely busy for us,” she said. “We have had to learn and adapt to a brand new way of teaching — distance learning. We have had endless meetings, taken webinar training (on our own time) and tried to keep connected with our families. Although all of this has taken a toll, and we are much busier now, we still do whatever it takes.”

The case for no break

But not everyone thought spring break was a good idea.

Some parents thought it made no sense at all.

“We were unable to do anything but stay at home,” said Brandy Kollenborn, who has three children in the Rescue Union District east of Sacramento.

Tor Ormseth, a teacher in the STEAM Academy in El Rancho Unified in Pico Rivera near Los Angeles, wasn’t so sure that sticking with the school’s spring break last week was the best idea. He recognized that his district probably didn’t have time to go though all the logistics that would have been involved in moving the break. And he agrees it gave teachers with families “a chance to stabilize their lives at home” before taking on the challenges of online instruction head on.

On the other hand, the time off could result in “a serious break in momentum,” he said. “By the end of three weeks, parents, students and teachers were kind of getting used to the routine, and now we will have to restart it all when we get back from break.”

Clearly there is no playbook for how to handle a pandemic, so districts had to decide on their own how to handle spring breaks. In fast-moving situations, like the one schools are in now, changing schedules and requiring teachers to work during their breaks could have taken more time than the school calendar allowed.

As for New York’s decision to cancel spring break, Erin Hilliard, a teacher at Twentynine Palms High School in Morongo Unified just north of Joshua Tree National Park, said that on one level it made sense in light of the far greater impact of the virus there than in California, so far at least.

At the same time, she said, she could understand that without something to keep students occupied, they and their families might be tempted to stray outside of social distancing guidelines. “I see their (New York’s) logic, as California beaches and Joshua Tree National Park were overcome by people who should have been home.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Louis Freedberg