During coronavirus epidemic, let’s reimagine what’s possible for our students

Credit: Courtesy of Capistrano Unified School DistrictA Capistrano Unified preschool student enjoys online large group time with his teacher. More than 47,000 students in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County are using educational technologies such as Google Classrooms to stay connected and engage in distance learning.

Credit: Courtesy of Capistrano Unified School DistrictA Capistrano Unified preschool student enjoys online large group time with his teacher. More than 47,000 students in the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County are using educational technologies such as Google Classrooms to stay connected and engage in distance learning.

Over three weeks ago, school districts across Orange County made the difficult decision to temporarily dismiss students in response to coronavirus fears and calls for social distancing.
At the time we found it necessary to hit the pause button so we could better understand the novel coronavirus and its transmission. Many of our districts announced campus closures of two to three weeks and later extended those timelines based on guidance from state and local health officials.
This placed our schools in a holding pattern, and it has been difficult for families to make long-term plans. Now, as we enter a new phase in our understanding of the threat, we have to address the reality that our efforts to flatten the curve and keep students safe cannot be accomplished in the span of a few weeks or even a month. Even President Trump has called for social distancing measures to continue through April, which for many of our districts would leave only a few weeks to wrap up the school year.
Therefore, in alignment with strong statements from Governor Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, I have recommended that 28 districts in Orange County cancel student attendance on campuses through the end of this academic year and channel their efforts toward adopting robust and effective distance learning models.
Just a few weeks ago, no one could have imagined a circumstance that would prompt us to dismiss students from school for the rest of the semester. But the early guidance to thoroughly wash our hands and disinfect our facilities quickly turned into social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 rates in Orange County and across the U.S. have continued to climb, and the virus has intruded deeper into our lives, with reports of actors, athletes and musicians testing positive — and, for many, coworkers, friends and loved ones.
There is no doubt that our school districts made the right call to dismiss students when they did. And by and large, everyone connected to our schools — from educators and support staff to students and families — has done an excellent job since then communicating with each other and building classroom lessons that will help students succeed.
But we can and must do more.
Fatigued though many of us may be, the time has come to take a leap and create online systems that build knowledge and skills, allow for student work to be submitted and graded, support equity and social and emotional learning, and encourage vigorous interaction between young learners and their teachers.
In other words, distance learning must no longer be seen as a tool that augments the instructional program. It now must drive it.
This will be a colossal undertaking for our county — and that’s an understatement. Despite the wealth that is concentrated in and around our beach cities, we are home to high percentages of low-income families, English learners, students who are homeless and foster youth.
Yet, educators here and in other districts are finding new ways to connect with their families while building effective distance learning programs and many are eager to share their discoveries. State leaders have similarly signaled their commitment to ensuring universal access to the internet, with Governor Newsom announcing a partnership with Google to provide 100,000 high-quality wireless access points and thousands of Chromebooks for students.
Public schools are entering a watershed moment in regard to online learning, one born of necessity but with the potential to be transformative.
Our schools should be lighthouses in our communities, and students are best served in modern classrooms where they can learn face-to-face from highly qualified teachers and engage with their peers.
I still believe that, just as I believe those days will return, but that kind of physical interaction is not possible at the moment. We must also consider the possibility of future pandemics. The investments we make today are not only critical to serving our current students, they will also pay off down the road, positioning public schools to be more competitive and flexible.
We can be virtual lighthouses, if need be.
This is our time to aim high and re-imagine what’s possible as educators. And though we may be distanced temporarily, in the service of our students we are always together.
•••
Al Mijares is superintendent of schools in Orange County He is also a member of the EdSource board of directors. This commentary is adapted from a message Mijares sent to educators and others in his county on Friday April 3. 
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. EdSource is interested in hearing from schools and districts about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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