Distance Learning: Berkeley Must Make the Best of It

Becky O'Malley
Saturday July 18, 2020 - 02:14:00 PM

Parents of school age children in Berkeley and elsewhere got the bad news this week: the kids will be at home for a while longer. There’s no question that this will be hard at times for all concerned: parents, students and teachers. But there’s also no question, for anyone who can understand the scientific reports, that this is the right decision.

I’m just glad that all my daughters and now even my granddaughters are grown, so it’s not my decision. I have one granddaughter, two grand-nieces and two more young family friends who are scheduled to start college in the fall, and they all must decide whether the offering at their chosen schools (probably some version of online, plus perhaps a modicum of in-person teaching) will be worth what it costs.

My guess is that most will take a year off instead. That’s disappointing, but it’s reality-based.  

However, it can’t be a traditional “Gap Year”, devoted to educational travel or to a job to earn tuition. Such options won’t be available in a quarantined world with a deepening depression. These students-to-be will have to devise their own programs for worthy activities, probably as volunteers if their families can afford to keep them at home.  

But it’s not the college students who are the problem. It’s the younger ones, those who can’t be left at home alone to do the best they can on a computer or even, god forbid, with books.  

Universal public schools are an innovation that blossomed in the United States in the 20th century. Earlier education was limited in various ways in earlier times and other places to relatively privileged segments of the population: boys, White people or other dominant social segments. Today’s parents, though, reasonably expect that some sort of government-run school will keep all their kids off the street and out of trouble for the better part of five days a week.  

A related but different expectation is that such schools will also teach these future adults something: at a minimum, to read, write, and figure. And the kids might even learn to get along with one another.  

Berkeley Superintendent of Schools Brent Stephens created consternation earlier this week when he released a letter reporting his conclusion that getting Berkeley public schools ready for safe on-site learning would not be possible in the near future.  

Here are some of the challenges he outlined:  

“We are already planning to spend millions of dollars to reopen schools, but there is still a long list of work that will require even more time and financial resources. We’re adapting our facilities with plexiglass, handwashing stations, and air filtration units; all of these supplies are in high demand and installation will be taking place in phases over the next weeks and months. Every square foot of our schools requires new procedures for social distancing and student cohorts.”  

And that’s just the beginning. Even with ample financing, which will not be available, just the physical changes to allow students to congregate safely in buildings will take a long time. Luckily or unluckily for the school authorities, the decision has been pre-empted by the state and county.  

On Wednesday night, Superintendent Stephens told the Berkeley School Board of Directors that re-opening schools and other congregate settings, according to state and county criteria, is contingent on Covid-19 cases decreasing. But instead they’re going up, so BUSD will not yet be allowed to provide on-site education.  

Stephens’ announcement has provoked a certain amount of outrage in the seething commentariat graciously maintained by local websites. Some Berkeley school parents and other concerned citizens appear to believe that this whole coronavirus thing is a dastardly plot by the teachers’ union. They seem to think that the teachers are just using the shutdown as a way to get paid time off.  

Nothing could be farther from the truth.  

Evidently they don’t know any of the dedicated teachers who have been frantically trying to shift gears from hands-on learning to computer-mediated instruction. All the teachers I’ve talked to, family and friends who teach everything from a Head Start program for the children of essential workers to university graduate students and everyone in between think it’s a very hard job.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics didn’t illuminate the discussion by putting out a self-righteous statement that children would be much better off attending school in person. Of course they would, but if you think it through “back to normal” just isn’t one of the alternatives. They’ve since walked that back a bit.  

So how does the Berkeley district expect to accomplish what is now being called “distance” learning?  

Experienced teacher Shameem Patel does an excellent job of reviewing the two genuine alternatives on the Medium site. She discusses two possibilities:  

Option 1: reopen schools safely or Option 2: full virtual learning.  

Her sensible conclusion:  

“[M] aking the argument that virtual learning didn’t work in the spring, therefore it is not a viable option any longer, is deeply flawed. It didn’t work, perhaps, on the whole, because we had no time to prepare, we had very limited resources, and it was born out of a completely unexpected national shutdown.  

It wasn’t virtual education, it was emergency learning.  

If we are given the resources and time, it can be much more impactful and effective moving forward.”  

The same discussion has been taking place all over the country. I talked to a friend in North Carolina, a state which has lagged behind California in shutting down and mandating masks and is now reaping the whirlwind. She watched her local school board discussing a plan where small groups of students (a “pod”) would attend school in person for a week at a time, distancing and masking, and then be out for several weeks to work at home while other pods take their place.  

One parent speaking at this meeting said that her pediatrician claims that kids are doing fine wearing masks in his office. But another parent commented that little kids couldn’t be trusted to wear masks for seven hours a day for five days at a stretch. There’s a major difference between one child in an office wearing a mask for an hour and a bunch of kids masked all day in a classroom.  

President Trump and his spokesmodel Kayleigh McEnany have put their heavy thumbs on the scale by coming out loud and clear for opening the schools all up all the way. With Trump now firmly on the wrong side of history, the increasing majority of those polled, in any kind of poll, who think he’s made a mess of the coronavirus emergency think he’s wrong on the school question too.  

Kayleigh has been somewhat unfairly tagged with saying that we shouldn’t let science get in the way of re-opening, though in context it seems that she was simply trying to claim that the science is on their side. Of course she’s wrong about that too—it’s not, if the relevant scientists are epidemiologists instead of pediatricians.  

Educators everywhere are reluctantly accepting the reality that putting kids in indoor congregate settings is just too dangerous at the moment. Now they’re redirecting their energy toward plans to make the most of the new opportunities offered by distance learning.  

Here’s what Superintendent Stephens says he’ll do in Berkeley:  

There will be structured daily and weekly schedules for students, required attendance, daily live instruction on Zoom, engaging remote learning content, assignments that are graded and reviewed by teachers, and consistent communication with families.  

Several of the parents stressing online in East Bay venues mentioned “structure” as something their own kids badly needed. Everyone’s different, but my own experience bringing up children in Berkeley in the ’60 and‘70s is that their friends being raised in highly structured homes needed to be watched carefully when they came over to play or they’d get into trouble, while the ones from looser family regimes could generally be trusted not to.  

Individual distanced learning could be seen as an opportunity for all kinds of children to learn at their own pace. Several engineers and scientists that I know have told me that they read slowly but absorb the material thoroughly, and primary school schedules often move too fast for kids like that.  

On the other hand, there are those that get bored if things move slowly in class. A high school student wrote an eloquent letter to the New York Times after her school had been closed for a month saying how much more she enjoyed being able to speed through the required material  

A friend, raised in Africa by American missionary parents, got most of her early childhood education from mailed correspondence courses, which she remembers with enthusiasm. However she asked someone else raised in the same way what they thought of the experience, and the memory was of intense loneliness.  

There are many, many young people in Berkeley and elsewhere who don’t have the technical resources or the temperament to educate themselves at home, no matter how hard the school district tries to do right by them. Live Zoom meetings in particular are dependent on up-to-date computer or phone setups.  

But the major problem with distanced (read at home) individualized learning is that schools also serve as child care, which is why, for parents who must leave home to make a living, school closing is a major worry. Another friend has a sweet 10 year old with learning differences who can now be left alone for an hour or two when Mom goes out for groceries, but can’t be relied on to make safe judgments about what to do for many hours of every day—let alone to persist at her own school work with or without a computer.  

It’s my belief, based on what I’ve observed in my long life, that most people who’ve missed some school will eventually catch up. A high school friend got tuberculosis, and in those days the only treatment was a year of isolation in a sanitarium. She used the time to get caught up on her reading, graduated on schedule, and later (I was pleased to discover today via Google) became a distinguished investigative pathologist.  

In a rational universe, taking care of students offsite should the simplest problem to solve. Parents who rely on employment income should be paid by the government to take care of their own kids at home if they want to, or to pay someone else to do it if they can’t or don’t want to take time off work. Most civilized countries provide a child allowance, but the United States of America in 2020 during the Trump presidency is not such a country.  

In the absence of a rational government policy, is there anything that all of us here in Berkeley can do to help with the education and safety of everyone’s kids during the coronavirus crisis? Well, there are more adults at home than there used to be. Some of us are working from home, and many retirees are aging in place.  

It should be possible to establish a volunteer network of available adults, even with social distancing, who could be called to help students working at home whose parents must be elsewhere. People with computer skills can often solve technical glitches over the phone or with screen sharing—it’s been done for me. High school students can often do this well. Early readers can read along with older partners, especially seniors, on the telephone, both in their own neighborhood and elsewhere. Those who've postponed college for a year could do a lot of useful services.  

Neighbors can provide a safety net for home-based students in case of emergencies. When our kids were growing up in the seventies and eighties, everyone on the block relied on our neighborhood “househusband” John Cecil for all kinds of help. John recently died after decades struggling with dementia, but his kindness is fondly remembered by the many he helped out who are now parents of young adults themselves.  

Anecdotes like mine can provide some guidance for educators in the absence of real data about what works best for students who must study at a distance. Volunteers are great, but we have to depend in the long run on government action to make sure that all our children get the safe and appropriate education they will need for a difficult future. Let’s hope someone somewhere is collecting enough hard information to guide the next national administration (hopefully Trump-free) in the development of a reality-based family policy which will make sure that the quarantined kids can catch up if they must.