California Students, Educators Share Distance Learning Experiences

California Students, Educators Share Distance Learning Experiences
Classroom objects arranged on a desk. (Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash)
David Lam

As the world has shifted from outings to “innings,” schools and families have found themselves navigating the new environment of distance learning.

Amid the hardships and changes, people have found silver linings and worked together to adapt. The Epoch Times contacted people involved with education in California, who shared their experiences with using distance learning for ongoing education during the pandemic.

“As educators, it is important we provide support to all technology users in order to not further the opportunity gaps that exists in education,” stated Chris Funk, superintendent of East Side Union High School District, in a San Jose Spotlight article.

Learn4Life Superintendent Dr. Caprice Young interacts with her students. (Ann Abajian, Learn4Life)
Learn4Life Superintendent Dr. Caprice Young interacts with her students. (Ann Abajian, Learn4Life)

Adapting to Online Learning

On March 13, Learn4Life Schools had one weekend to find out which of their students had access to technology before they had to go fully remote by March 16.

“The thoughts that we might lose touch with our kids was really kind of horrifying to our team,” Caprice Young, Ed.D., superintendent at Learn4Life, told The Epoch Times.

Staff delivered packets in hard copy to students until their computers arrived, which took about two weeks.

Young believes that, for students, access to a caring adult who can talk them through their fears is a big thing.

“It’s a very scary time for everybody—adults and youth alike,” she said.

Young said they also checked if students had access to food, because most of the students only eat when they come to school.

“We have quite a large number of students that are working in grocery stores ... because their parents have lost their jobs. So they’re doing less [schoolwork],” she said.

Teachers have had to be flexible 24 hours a day, helping students to focus on academics but at the same time being understanding about the increased stresses in their lives, Young said.

Students can have a job during the day and then connect with a teacher for tutoring by telephone in the evening.

“Some of our kids, especially with autism and Asperger’s, [are] thriving in the online environment,” Young said. “I don’t think I can get them to come back to school,” she joked.

“I’m really hoping that it becomes much more personalized, because what we have found is that the more that we can tailor the learning to the individual student, the more they’re learning. I think that’s something that we should keep. I never want to go back,” she said.

Young said that 20 percent of their teachers would not have guessed that the students would do as well as they have.

“When we’re finished with this, I want to build that better—more personalization and trusting our teachers more to do the right thing for students,” Young said. “We’ve given teachers more freedom to experiment in ways that would support the kids more effectively. And we’ve seen them making tremendous discoveries in very positive ways.”

UC Irvine student Johanna Refuerzo and her mother at the university’s campus. (Johanna Refuerzo)
UC Irvine student Johanna Refuerzo and her mother at the university’s campus. (Johanna Refuerzo)

A University Student’s Experience

Johanna Refuerzo, a student at UC Irvine, said there were rumors about her university closing down for a while.

“My initial reaction was confusion,” she told The Epoch Times via email.

She went from studying for finals one day to calling her mom and saying she had to move back home. All of her finals had been canceled.

Refuerzo felt that being home during the epidemic was the safest and most comfortable situation to be in.

“A part of me was still sad that I had to leave my first year of university,” she said.

Refuerzo said her motivation to do well in school has diminished with the “pass/no pass” grading option, as she feels the pressure has become “just get the minimum to pass.”

Watching lectures through a screen isn’t nearly as engaging as being in real-life classrooms, she said.

She believes this experience will teach her to be more careful in general and gain a good understanding of her personal habits.

“I’ve been cooking a lot more, which helps keep my own mind a little bit more sane during this quarantine,” said Refuerzo.

Challenges With Distance Learning

For Anne Tran’s school, there was a cut-off date, so assignments after March 13 were optional and would not negatively impact student grades.

Tran is a science teacher in California. With distance learning, there’s difficulty in finding alternatives for lab experiments.

Each school day has two class periods with roughly one and a half hours per period. There was about 90 percent online attendance for her class during the first session, but by the second session there was about 75 percent attendance, she told The Epoch Times.

Even when utilizing multiple tools such as Peardeck, Quizlet, and Jamboard, Tran said nothing can replace face-to-face experiences.

“One of the biggest challenges was not being able [to] engage them in hands-on science experiments,” Tran said.

A scientist holds a Petri dish at University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls. (Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash)
A scientist holds a Petri dish at University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls. (Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash)

She said that seeing their faces and joking with them are the little things that she misses.

Some companies have provided free wireless internet, and students can contact them and get it hooked up.

Steven La, a high school teacher in California, believes that distance learning is the best option in light of the circumstances.

“But of course having a physical classroom is preferred,” La told The Epoch Times via Instagram.

Along with putting assignments online, La has adapted by communicating with students via email or having them ask questions on Google Classroom or School Loop. He said most teachers use Zoom, but that is a learning process itself.

“One challenge is Zoom-bombing where savvy students are causing unwanted disruptions or hijacking the class sessions,” he said.

Supporting Each Other

Tran said the biggest concern is educational equity and to not judge students unfairly, as teachers have various skill levels.

“Some teachers are fantastic with face-to-face interaction, but could use additional support when it comes to technology,” she said.

Many of the teacher leaders took the responsibility to lead professional development, including Google Classroom and Zoom engagement, playing an integral role in implementation.

“It’s challenging for the student as well, because they are deprived of opportunities that they may never get back,” Tran said. “They may be missing out on prom and graduation on top of many other things.”

Tran said there are other challenges at home that we are unaware of.

“If we can just be kind to one another and be supportive of each other … then I think we can overcome this,” she said.

Kudos to Faculty and Families

Evergreen School District officially started distance learning on April 20, just when they were coming back from spring break.

Dan Deguara, assistant superintendent of the district, told The Epoch Times that they ordered additional Chromebooks for students.

He said the ratio is roughly one device for every two students, and they haven’t run out of devices yet.

“I think [with] the digital challenge it’s providing, we know that it’s not good for students to necessarily be online for six hours a day, and it’s difficult for teachers to be online six hours a day too,” he said.

Deguara gives his kudos to teachers and families.

“There’s also that social-emotional connection that our teachers have with their students on a daily basis that they’re not as easily able to facilitate in the digital world,” he said.

Teachers have dismantled carts in classrooms for kids to have devices at home.

With the postponement of school dances, science camp, and promotion ceremonies, Deguara said that principals are thinking outside the box.

“I think we’ll see some creative solutions as time goes on,” he said. “Those things are near and dear to students, family, and staff.”

High school student Rosanna Bongato (middle row, 2nd L) poses with friends. (Rosanna Bongato)
High school student Rosanna Bongato (middle row, 2nd L) poses with friends. (Rosanna Bongato)

‘Talking With Others Relieved My Stress’

Rosanna Bongato, a student at Fremont High School, told The Epoch Times via email that she initially was excited to not have to go to school.

“As soon as my classmates heard the news, they made plans to go out with friends,” she said.

Bongato said she knows that distance learning is essential but believes the lack of physical contact can take a toll on someone’s mental health.

“Most of the teens I know are struggling to keep their head straight. School kept us in check and with different people,” she said.

She said that she would not take her school for granted, and she realizes that it kept her busy.

“I would say the social aspect of education gave me happiness. Talking with others relieved my stress,” she said.