Distance learning is expected to begin for South Pasadena Unified School District students on Monday, April 6, when they would have expected to return to their classrooms from spring break.
Instead, their classrooms will now be wherever they have set up their books, supplies and possibly school-issued Chromebooks in their homes, on account of the ongoing closure of school facilities in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The online education, formally called the Independent Study Distance Learning Program, has been in development by SPUSD administrators and teachers since the district ordered schools closed after Friday, March 13.
“We’ve had a tremendous network of parents who have stepped up to show their support, and it’s been appreciated,” Superintendent Geoff Yantz said in a phone interview this week. “I know that the classroom teachers will be looking to parents for things to support them as they roll things out.”
This week, the district worked to educate parents about the distance learning program and also how to take advantage of a Charter Communications offer to provide 60 days of free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi internet at homes that don’t already subscribe. For students who will need to use a school Chromebook, the devices will be distributed next week.
To create and implement distance learning, the district has been working virtually around the clock since COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that originated in November in China that has spread worldwide, has caused school districts nationwide to close their doors and local governments to severely restrict business activity and public life.
“It’s a lot of coordination,” Yantz explained, adding he gets around 400 emails daily. “It starts first thing in the morning with a conference call with the county office of education. We get briefings from them and that typically rolls into a series of meetings I have scheduled with principals and the leadership team and school board members. Then we go through correspondence and other communications. That goes all through 9 or 10 at night, and then we wake up in the morning and do it all again.”
Dr. Michele Kipke, president of the SPUSD Board of Education, praised the “smart, thoughtful, passionate and hardworking team” in the district for building this new programming from scratch.
“A small district like ours, we couldn’t imagine how we’d be able to do that,” Kipke said in a phone interview. “We didn’t have the infrastructure to do that, and yet we’re creating that infrastructure as we speak.”
In addition to having to design these programs often from the ground up, many school districts have had to contend with what they say is unclear guidance on providing equal opportunity access to the education programming to special education students, which is a federal mandate. Part of the work to get this up and running has included a variety of virtual meetings and conference calls with law firms, but even then, inconsistent guidance still leaves a maze for officials to navigate.
“We’re working through it,” Yantz said. “There’s been a real lack of guidance and direction from the federal government and state government regarding special education and general education services, so you kind of have to synthesize what various agencies are telling you.”
“At the end of the day,” the superintendent added, “you have to do what’s best for kids without placing the school district at risk.”
SPUSD is this week wrapping up its pre-spring break round of daily meal pickups for all South Pasadena kids. Starting on April 6, the district hopes to resume providing the packaged breakfast and lunch meals even though it does not qualify for needs-based federal funding. After initially distributing not quite 300 meals per day, the district has been consistently handing out more than 400 a day to families.
“We felt it was our ethical, our moral responsibility to do this,” Yantz said. “We have submitted a request to the state — in effect the federal government — for reimbursement for a portion of it, but there’s a chance that we won’t get it. This was a calculated risk that we chose to take. Of course, it’s our hope to serve these meals through the end of the school year.”
Presently, the district plans to reopen schools on Monday, May 4, after extending from an April 6 date. That being said, the fluidity of the situation means restrictions are escalating every day, and Gov. Gavin Newsom himself told state residents in a speech last week to expect schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
Kipke credited Yantz for the leadership behind the decision to make SPUSD one of the county’s first districts to shut down in the wake of COVID-19.
“We just have this extraordinary leadership team in the district and they were very, very quickly able to mobilize,” she added. “We just knew it was the right thing to do. It was a tough decision to make, but it was obviously the right decision. Keeping our kids and employees safe has been so important. Our superintendent and our team just immediately kicked into gear with how to do that.”
After leaving buildings entirely unattended for a week, to allow any possible COVID-19 contamination to die off, some custodial staff began working this week to clean and disinfect the school sites. Additionally, maintenance workers have been able to get a head start on some work orders that would have needed to wait until spring break or summer vacation, such as the replacement of a fire alarm panel at one school.
“Most employees are working from home remotely as best as they can,” Yantz said. “We do have some employees who are coming in. Maintenance and custodial staff are coming in on a staggered work schedule.”
For up-to-date information, visit spusd.net. To contact Charter regarding new internet service, call (844) 488-8395.
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