School districts across the state entered largely uncharted territory this week, opening the 2020-21 academic year with distance learning due to state and county restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Burbank Unified School District Superintendent Matt Hill could not help but feel the exhilaration that typically comes with the first day of classes.
“[I want to] thank everyone for a very unusual, very challenging start of the school year, but at the same time still exciting,” he said during Thursday’s virtual board of education meeting. “It’s different, I will say. I’ve had my ups and downs this week.
“I miss seeing students with their backpacks and kindergartners having snack time for the first time and meeting their teachers,” Hill added, referring to the absence of students from BUSD campuses. “We miss that excitement, but what we gained, I think, is this doubling down and commitment to education.”
Virtual instruction commenced Monday with a few glitches that can be attributed to ongoing internet connectivity issues in Burbank. The district extended the hours of its help desk to assist any families with tech issues.
“We acknowledge the challenge we have,” Hill said. “Technology, when you go virtually, is going to become glitchy. We know there’s going to be that.”
BUSD has distributed hotspots and Chromebooks to families and more are on the way. The superintendent said many families signed up to receive the devices, which are scheduled to arrive next week — a lag caused by the nationwide demand for them.
Hill also addressed the importance of class attendance and the district’s emphasis on the need for students to engage and participate on camera.
“We know it’s a complicated process,” he said. “State and county wants different ways to track data. It’s complicated, it’s a Rubik’s Cube, but we’re figuring out a way to streamline that.”
District officials are also concerned about the mental and emotional well-being of students, faculty, parents and staff, advising community members to reach out in these challenging times. Hill recommended that families and staff visit the BUSD website for available resources.
“This pandemic is unrelenting; it’s ongoing,” Hill said. “We get good news one day, and we get challenging news the next. … We need to lean on each other and check in on each other. So many people are stressed or depressed. It’s difficult times, and it’s just ongoing. It wears on us. That goes for our employees, that goes for our parents, that goes for our students. … Lean on each other and lean on the experts to help us through this.”
Reports of a decline in COVID-19 cases have sparked conversation about the possibility of bringing students back to school, even if at a limited capacity. However, Hill advised the community that the district will not make a decision until it gets the green light from county and state health officials.
“We’re not going to just decide off a news headline,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we have an official document from public health [officials] as well as state and local government. And when we have those guidelines and documents, we’re going to sit down with our employees, with our parents, and we’re going to talk about what is a thoughtful transition plan back to in-person [instruction].
“The last thing we want to do is make the mistake that other universities and school districts are making where they rush to bring our students back to campus and people start to get sick, and then you have to close down, and then you’re going back to a very disruptive school environment. [We] want to make sure that we have a thoughtful plan that embraces continuity, acknowledges our desire to bring students back, but we want our students back for the long term. We don’t want to bring them back and then shut down, and then bring them back and people are scrambling for child care and support and [figuring out] what to do on a daily basis. That’s not the approach that we’re going to take here in Burbank.”