The Santa Monica Unified School District (SMUSD) will resume classes via distance-learning this year. For Ms. Orah Gidanian, a special-education instructor at the Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH), this makes sense.
“While I am definitely nervous thinking about how this will impact our students’ academic futures and their families, I didn’t see how we could open up safely. I glanced at all the regulations that would be required to open schools again, and they seemed impossible.”
She’s talking about the CDC guidelines for schools to consider before reopening. These include requiring students to wear facemasks all day, offering individually plated meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria, closing playgrounds (or disinfecting them between uses), adding physical barriers – such as clear partitions – in many communal spaces, and banning the use of shared supplies.
“Kids not allowed to use sports equipment or the playground – how do we do P.E. and recess?” Gidanian asks. “No library books, no communal toys, no open cafeteria…I can’t imagine it. What about all the students congregating in hallways, between classes? And of course, if a child tests positive for COVID, are we going to shut down the whole school again?”
Distance-Learning Can Be Difficult for Teachers, Too
In-person classes would be easier for her and many of her SMASH colleagues, Gidanian says. “Distance learning is a whole new learning curve. It’s convenient for everyone to teach the way they’re used to teaching. But safety-wise, it was pretty unanimous on our end about not wanting to return.”
Distance-learning also works out better in the personal lives of some teachers. Ms. Gidanian has an infant at home, and she wouldn’t know what to do if schools were required to open brick-and-mortar campuses.
“Where do I find childcare during this time?” She asks. “With the rate of infections surging in California, how do I trust someone coming to my home every day?”
Her colleagues are in the same boat.
“Lots of teachers are caring for elderly parents or have family members who are considered high-risk, whether it’s diabetes or asthma.”
Gidanian’s sentiments echo those of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). After the Teachers Union administered a county-wide survey to its 35,000 teachers, the Union concluded that a distance-learning model would be best this fall.
“We all want to physically open schools and be back with our students,” they wrote in a statement, “but lives hang in the balance. Safety has to be the priority. We need to get this right for our communities.”
Not All Teachers Agree
At the same time, not all teachers agree with the decision. In fact, a teacher we spoke to feels it harms students, families, and the teachers themselves.
One LAUSD teacher, who prefers to remain anonymous, said she feels it’s morally wrong to keep schools closed this fall. Her school is located in a lower-income neighborhood of LA, and it doesn’t receive much parental support. She thinks distance learning this past spring was a disaster.
“When you don’t have parents helping with technical difficulties on Zoom, or printing homework, or helping with assignments, the kids suffer,” she said.
It’s not even about lack of access to an electronic device or fast wifi, she emphasizes, because LAUSD provided free internet and devices to all the students in their district. It’s all about a lack of parental support.
This past year, when schools shut down, she estimates that only about 60 percent of students consistently showed up to remote learning. Even less did their schoolwork. As a resource teacher, she also has a caseload of about 30 children.
“Only about 5 showed up a handful of times,” she said. “Every so often, I had to call each one of these students’ parents and beg them to help their kids. This is not what I signed up for.”
Which is why she’s ready to go back in the fall. “I’m usually a very structured teacher, and this whole distance-learning thing was not doing well for me or my kids. We are not doing our job properly when we do it virtually.”
Mainly, she worries about lost learning due to the lack of in-person instructional time.
“We are going to reopen school one day in the future, and our students are going to be [behind]. It’ll be more pressure on us to bring them up to par. While some teachers say this isn’t their problem, I do feel very strongly that this isn’t fair to the students. This whole idea of ‘kids will be fine; they’re resilient’… I don’t agree with it.”
Ms. Gidanian concedes these points. She predicts some students will fall behind academically – especially those coming from under-resourced backgrounds. And she agrees that distance-learning puts a huge burden on parents.
“But,” she continues, “It’s an illusion to think we can open up schools safely during this time.”
Forewarned is forearmed.
“There’s one silver lining to this whole situation: teachers and parents in my district and in LAUSD received advance notice about virtual learning,” Ms. Gidanian says.
“As teachers, we do so much of our planning over the summer. What we really didn’t want was to get all the info a week before school starts. So the nice part is we have time to prepare and plan for the new school year. I am already in touch with my colleagues to discuss how I can best provide my services, and what form these services will look like. It will be a lot more intentional, and not as chaotic.”