When the new school year begins for Fresno Unified School District next Monday, students will spend their first two days getting to know teachers and classmates via their laptops and tablets.
School officials are making sure that students have the materials and devices, including Wi-Fi and broadband Internet connection, that they will need for their online classes, which will begin in earnest on Aug. 19.
Unlike the distance learning of last spring, when schools closed abruptly in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, parents will have more support this time around. This will include dedicated time to communicate with their child’s teacher and school site leader. Students will have specific schedules that their parents can access through the district’s ATLAS information system.
And this time around, schoolwork will be graded, and attendance will be mandatory.
Keeping Track of Kids
District staffers from the Prevention and Intervention department will be responsible for tracking down those students who aren’t showing up for class, just as they would have searched for students absent from school when they were open, Superintendent Bob Nelson said at a virtual news conference with several trustees Monday.
“We know that we will still need to listen, learn, and adjust as we experience distance learning, for the first time, the right way.” — Board president Keisha Thomas
The goal for this year, as it is for every year, is to “find every child,” he said. “That’s going to be even more crucial in a digital learning environment, where we have to potentially expose people to COVID to go out and find the kids that need us and can come back to school.”
Fresno Unified Board President Keshia Thomas said that the students’ schedules have been crafted to meet their academic and social-emotional needs.
But, Thomas said, students, parents, and staff need to remain flexible, because “we know that we will still need to listen, learn, and adjust as we experience distance learning, for the first time, the right way.”
The district has designated school sites as the information hub for students, with dedicated hotline phone numbers and weekly virtual meetings with school site leaders.
Instruction Starts at 9 a.m. Daily
Nelson said that creating school-day schedules with designated times for parents to meet with teachers and ask questions and for students to get individualized instruction provides structure and also clarity.
Teachers will start each Monday morning sharing that week’s lessons from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. On Tuesdays through Fridays, teachers will use that hour on two days for office hours to meet with students and parents, and the first hour on the remaining two days to work with their professional learning community on lesson plans and improving the distance learning experience for students.
The school day for all students in grades TK-12 will begin at 9 a.m. with periods and blocks of instruction that will vary in length, depending on the child’s age, he said.
Students will have live online instruction every day, most of which will be in the mornings before lunch. Teachers will provide individual instruction for students needing more assistance in the afternoons, while other students will use that time to participate in enrichment classes such as the arts, Nelson said.
Block Schedules Aid Social Distancing Later
Middle and high school students will be on block schedules of alternating classes (periods 1, 3 and 5 on some days, periods 2, 4, and 6 on others), which will be useful for maintaining social distancing once they are back in the classrooms, Nelson said.
The return to school buildings for in-person instruction hinges on whether Fresno County can lower its infection and hospitalization rates sufficiently to exit the state of California’s watchlist.
The district is not offering a school-connected alternative that would allow working parents more opportunity to supervise their children’s schoolwork at times more convenient for the family, as are other school districts.
Parents who want that flexibility and independence, and who are ready to take on the increased responsibility, can still sign up their kids for Fresno Unified’s eLearn Academy, Nelson said.
Keeping Students Connected
The district has taken steps to make sure each student has a device and access to the Internet, and requests for those devices and for assistance were heating up Monday, he said.
More than 2,000 calls were logged in just two hours Monday morning at the district’s Family Learning and Technology Support Center, he said.
Teachers will have the opportunity to decide whether they want to work from their empty classrooms or from home, Nelson said. He said the district will know after the start of the school year what percentage of teachers choose to work at school, where the broadband signal remains strong.
Younger teachers may also be responsible for their own children and would be loathed to leave them at home while working at school, he said.
Getting Help for Teacher-Parents
He said nonprofits and other organizations may be able to provide alternatives so that children of teachers can be supervised safely while their parents are working.
“We are having opportunities to partner with local nonprofits, local churches in the area, Boys and Girls Club, community leaders who are stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll provide a safe place for kids to work, socially distanced, while families are away at school.
“Community, that’s probably where we need your help, if you can rally around the people that are in your circle and try to provide supports for those working families. We can’t necessarily open childcare facilities, because if I do that it begs the question of why I’m not opening schools for primary age students. This is an opportunity for the community to pitch in and help us in a way of supporting working families.”