LCUSD Commits to ‘Quality’ Distance Learning to Start Year

The La Cañada Unified School District has mulled over scheduling and instruction for the upcoming school year for the past eight weeks, but its governing board’s disclosure this week that the district is going with distance learning simply confirmed an earlier decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The governor announced new guidelines last Friday that would prevent California schools, public and private, in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list — which monitors trends in infections and test positivity and hospitalization rates — from providing in-person instruction when the academic year begins.
“Learning is non-negotiable,” Newsom said. “The virus will be with us for a year or more, and school districts must provide meaningful instruction in the midst of this pandemic. In California, health data will determine when a school can physically open — and when it must close — but learning should never stop.”
In a special meeting Tuesday, the LCUSD announced it will open the school year with distance learning at all levels, but officials are hopeful of returning students to campus when it is safe to do so. Details of those plans, whether at half or full capacity, have not yet been finalized.
For the district’s schools to reopen, Los Angeles County must be taken off the watch list, which can happen only if coronavirus cases drop for 14 consecutive days. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases made California the state with the most confirmed infections in the nation, surpassing New York.
“The good news about our virtual academy is that it’s much better than it was before,” LCUSD board President Joe Radabaugh said by phone. “It’s going to be quality education.”
However, the biggest point of contention between community members and the district involved asking elementary parents interested in online learning to commit for the whole school year, a decision the parents must make by this Sunday. Under the current model, students whose parents committed to the district’s Virtual Learning Academy would be eligible to return to campus during the LCUSD reopening plan’s phase 3, which means schools are open at 100% capacity. But they would not be able to come back in the second phase, which means campuses are operating at 50% because of health guidelines.
“It is important people recognize that we have to create class placements,” said Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, explaining the district’s need for parents to commit. “Those class placements have to be with teachers who are willing to provide virtual instruction throughout the whole year. We have to make sure that all of the placements follow the agreed-upon ratios so that classes are not too big or too small.”
Sinnette emphasized the importance of establishing a strong relationship between teachers and students, especially in an online environment.
“We’re really trying to protect the instructional experience, and I think you need an established time frame by which people are committing to this experience,” she said. “ … Then you’re going to have students needing to join classes where they haven’t built a relationship with the teachers or the ratio doesn’t permit that student to join because it would throw the numbers off.”
Board Vice President Dan Jeffries also expressed his concerns about the one-year commitment.
“I think there may be parents who are concerned that at that time [when LCUSD schools can reopen at limited capacity], they would like their kids to be back on campus,” he said. “If the world returns to normal, suddenly they’d like to be back on campus. How do we account for that?”
The board ultimately approved the district staff’s memorandum of understanding, or MOU, for virtual instruction and the LCUSD will continue to work on its plan for in-person instruction at the elementary (transitional kindergarten through 6th grade) and secondary (7th-12th grade) levels.
Radabaugh admitted that parents opting out of their commitment to elementary virtual learning can provide logistical problems for the staff but said, “We have to go forward with the plan as stipulated. … If we can be flexible down the road, we’ll try to entertain that, but we can’t commit to that happening.”
District staff plans to send information about the upcoming school year to elementary parents by Monday, Aug. 3, giving them two weeks to plan accordingly. School is set to begin Monday, Aug. 17.
Negotiations with the teachers’ association are ongoing, but Sinnette provided an outline of how the district will provide a high-quality online learning experience, building off the feedback provided by teachers, students and parents regarding last spring’s distance learning.
According to the MOU, elementary teachers will provide daily live synchronous instruction for each cohort — one group receiving instruction during mornings, the other in the afternoon — during the time in which students would have been present in the classrooms had they been in school in either in an a.m. or p.m. schedule.
Daily instruction and interaction will be 155 minutes per cohort and teachers will use Google classroom or district-approved platforms to post assignments and monitor student engagement.
“When we pivoted in March and went to a distance learning environment, everyone was doing the absolute best that they could,” said Sinnette. “But we didn’t have clear, coherent guidelines. So these are the requirements for distance learning.”
Distance learning for grades 7-12 resembles the elementary model with an emphasis on communication and interaction between students and teachers, who will provide live daily instruction for each period, totaling 286 minutes. The board will periodically review virtual instruction for La Cañada High School 7-12.
It is currently the only model for the secondary school because health guidelines present logistical problems in scheduling. Staff members and the reopening committee will get back to developing a phase 2 plan for grades 7-12.

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