Moving beyond pitched debates about whether kids should be in school or not, California schools are participating in a giant experiment never attempted in the state — or anywhere in the world for that matter.

By Labor Day, nearly 6 million public school children will be taking all their classes online, along with hundreds of thousands more in private and parochial schools.

So far, half of the state’s 30 largest districts have started the school year in distance learning mode, and the rest will do so in the next two weeks. Yet to be revealed are the extent to which teachers are prepared to deliver instruction remotely, whether they will be able to hold students’ attention for weeks or months, and how much students will learn compared to being in a regular classroom. Also at issue is whether students who are already struggling will fall further behind, and whether achievement gaps will widen.

Schools are opening even as the state scrambles to come up with devices and ensure internet connectivity to ensure that all students can participate in remote learning. An estimated 700,000 students, disproportionately from low-income families, still need devices like laptops or Chromebooks, and 300,000 lack internet connectivity to ensure full participation in distance learning.

“As Californians, we have a shared commitment to ensure every student has access to the basic tools needed to connect to their learning, succeed in today’s world, and pursue their dreams,” said State Superintendent Of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond on Aug. 5 in announcing a partnership with Apple and T-Mobile to help close this digital divide.

What’s unknown is how long this full-time online regimen will last — a few weeks, months, the entire school year, or even part or all of the next school year. Another unknown is how many districts will apply for, and receive, waivers to teach K-6 students in person, or bring back small groups of special ed students and others with “acute needs,” as permitted by state law.

“You’ve got to be sure that teachers know how to teach effectively online, that they have the materials and the supports that are needed to do that in a very effective way,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, said in an NBC News podcast last week.

However, since the hurried closure of school last year spring, teachers have had to rely on a patchwork of offerings from districts, schools of education and other organizations like the California School Boards Association.

In some cases, offering professional development on distance learning has been delayed by lengthy negotiations with teachers unions in several large districts around just setting the basic conditions for how remote classes will be run.

One obstacle was that until Gov. Gavin Newsom issued new state guidance in mid-July requiring distance learning for most California school districts, many were still planning on in-school instruction in some form or another. That meant that, until about a month ago, districts were planning for multiple modes of instruction, including focusing more on how to teach kids safely in school, leaving less time to plan for distance learning.

California’s decision to open most of its schools only for distance learning now seems prescient in light of new reports showing a startling increase in the number of coronavirus infections among children and teenagers, as well as the quarantining of thousands of students and staff within days of children returning to school in Georgia and other states. Both developments represent potent rebuttals to President Donald Trump and others urging that schools open for in-person instruction regardless of the health risks.

Technological tools

California’s turn to full-time distance learning is feasible only because of technological tools like Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Hangout, Flipgrid, Seesaw and many others that have emerged in the last half dozen years or so. That’s in addition to the availability of high-quality online material offered by the nonprofit Khan Academy and other more commercial companies like Newsela, Raz-Kids and Lexia.

In prior pandemics, offering instruction to students at home on this scale would have been impossible. In the 1918 flu epidemic, not all districts closed. Those that did, like Los Angeles Unified, did the best they could by setting up a system based on the correspondence instruction model, requiring students to mail in homework assignments.

Now educators in Los Angeles and elsewhere have far more effective tools at their disposal. In fact, one challenge is that there are so many distance learning materials online that teachers can be easily overwhelmed before they get started.

Casting a shadow over this fall’s distance learning experiment is California’s experience in the spring.

In a non-representative EdSource survey of mostly smaller school districts in California, about one third of just over 100 superintendents rated their distance learning program last spring as unsatisfactory. L.A. Unified, one of the few districts in the state with a robust research capability, carefully tracked student online participation in the spring, and found relatively low participation of about 50,000 Black, Latino, English learner and low-income students. The district warned that this could result in “lost learning which could take students years to recoup.”

The researchers cautioned that these results shouldn’t be used to judge the overall value of distance learning, or what students could expect this fall. That’s because in the spring teachers were not required to interact with their students each day, track daily participation, or to grade students beyond awarding credit or no credit. This fall, however, they will be required to do so. Districts must also develop a weekly record for each student that documents how much instruction they received, and in what format.

State law on distance learning

State law requires that distance learning provide “a level of service and school connectedness” similar to what students might experience if they were physically in school.

Whether that will happen is still far from certain.

To get up to speed, teachers have turned in large numbers to online webinars and courses, such as the two-day “online teaching academy” organized by San Jose State’s Connie L. Lurie College of Education. Nearly 2,000 teachers signed up for one or more of the 23 sessions on topics such as “rethinking assessment for the Google generation,” and “leveraging YouTube for distance learning.”

Some districts also offered professional development programs over the summer. Stockton Unified interim Superintendent Brian Biederman said his approximately 40,000-student district had “a heavy professional development calendar to get teachers comfortable with technology.” Participation was voluntary, but teachers were paid. Over half of the district’s teachers participated, he said.

At the much smaller Taft Union High in Kern College, which enrolls 1,500 students, teachers had the option to join a four-day session in early August with trainers from Taft College, the local community college. For five hours a day, teachers learned how to navigate platforms like Zoom and Canvas.

Compared to when schools closed abruptly in March, teachers are now much better-prepared, said Superintendent Blanca Cavazos. “What we did under crisis teaching in the spring and what we’re going to do with distance learning now are very different,” said Cavazos, whose district opened for instruction on Aug. 13.

For the past two weeks, the California Teachers Association hosted a two-week-long “distance learning support” series of webinars for an hour each afternoon. Topics ranged from the basics of “organizing your virtual classroom” to “culturally relevant pedagogy,” “peer and students collaboration,” and “special education and homeless students support.”

On the first day of the CTA’s online course alone just over 1000 teachers joined in. Their questions, directed at Angela Young, a kindergarten teacher, showed how far some still had to go before their schools opened. “Where are you getting your materials?” was one. “If you have 30 students, how do you manage students all at once?” and “do you have a room in your house set up like a classroom?” were others.

Significantly, Young has honed her online instructional skills not in a regular public school, but at the California Virtual Academies, an online charter school where she currently teaches.

She explained that teachers have to be aware that their online audience will extend well beyond just their students. “You’ll have grandma, you’ll have mom, you’ll have brothers and sisters, you’ll have pets.” That’s because students’ computers may be in their living rooms, bedrooms or even bathrooms. “I’ve seen the gamut,” Young said.

It’s clear that distance learning is a mode of instruction that few of the key players in the teaching enterprise — parents, teachers, students, school administrators or politicians — would have voluntarily chosen in the absence of the pandemic. Now it will be up to everyone to seize the tools that at their disposal, and make it work as best they can.

Distance learning has the potential “to be as good or even more effective than in-person instruction,” at least for older students who are already spending large amounts of time online, state board president Darling-Hammond said on the NBC podcast. “But that requires that you have a really thoughtful curriculum, that kids are using interactive multimedia materials, doing small group work in a Zoom breakout room, getting information from the teacher and doing projects that engage them in using technology in exciting and interesting ways.”

* EdSource reporter Betty Marquez Rosales contributed to this report.

Story originally published by EdSource.