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Open letter: Distance learning failed too many LAUSD kids in the spring. Parents expect better this fall.

Katie Braude and Wendy Zacuto | August 6, 2020

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Venice High School in Los Angeles remains shuttered. (Getty Images)

Updated August 6

Los Angeles Unified will reopen for the fall semester in less than two weeks, with campuses closed and students learning from home. The district and United Teachers Los Angeles struck a tentative agreement Sunday night over what distance learning will look like, but parents were excluded from the negotiations and largely kept in the dark. In fact, the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education did not hold a single public board meeting to discuss fall instruction before announcing a plan, so parents were denied their only available public platform to put on record their concerns and demands about how to reverse the catastrophic inequities and learning loss that played out in the spring.

Parents are right to be concerned. The legacy of lost learning and trauma caused by the pandemic leaves real marks on our children, especially those with the fewest at-home resources. For months we have heard from all corners about the failures of distance learning: Teachers weren’t provided adequate preparation. Kids received spotty live instruction and support. Parents struggled to be “co-teachers” (in some cases their only teachers), while also balancing their own jobs with having children at home. The absence of devices and Wi-Fi impeded access to online learning for many low-income families months into campus closures.

As distance learning continued through the spring, Speak UP heard stories from our members in different parts of the district that were deeply concerning, especially with respect to which children were engaged in meaningful instruction. In an effort to get a more detailed picture of what families experienced, Speak UP surveyed 430 parents across the district in June. We asked about their level of engagement and satisfaction with distance learning and what they would like to see change. The results, detailed in this report, confirmed our worst suspicions. Because the district made live online instruction optional for teachers, huge disparities in the amount of instruction and teacher contact emerged for L.A.’s most vulnerable students, including low-income kids, Black and Latino kids, kids with special needs and English Learners.

A report released earlier this month by LAUSD measuring student engagement in online instruction underscored our findings. The Los Angeles Times reported that “low-income students and Black and Latino students showed participation rates between 10 and 20 percentage points lower than white and Asian peers. English learners, students with disabilities, homeless students and those in the foster-care system had lower rates of online participation.”

At the start of the school closures, McKinsey & Co. looked at the potential for significant learning loss concluding that it would “probably be greatest among low-income black and Hispanic students.” For those students already suffering from the academic opportunity gap, the impact of the pandemic could be catastrophic, exacerbating the deeply rooted educational injustice affecting Black and brown children in particular.

In other words, the students who most needed the live instruction received the least.

Parents were clear on a few key changes they insisted on this fall:

● Parents want live, synchronous instruction for a minimum number of hours each day — three hours on average, adjusted by grade level.

● Parents want a structured schedule every day that will allow them to plan for their own work and for supporting their children.

● Parents want their kids to receive grades and they want assessments to measure their students’ learning loss and growth.

● Parents of children with disabilities want LAUSD to guarantee that special education services, accommodations and modifications will be delivered in an appropriate format.

We are pleased that LAUSD’s new distance learning plan incorporates several of the elements our parents demanded. There will be more consistent schedules this fall from 9 a.m.-2:15 p.m. and a minimum mandated number of live instructional minutes. LAUSD is making it clear that special education service providers must work with families to deliver services live over Zoom or in person, if parents and providers agree. We’re pleased to see that whole-group and small group instruction is mandated, with extra tutoring afterschool and on Saturdays for kids who need additional help to make up for learning loss this spring.

While the framework is much improved, parents are still very concerned about the number of hours of live online instruction, especially for older children. Just 2.5 hours to 2 hours and 50 minutes a day for secondary school students is not adequate to prepare them for graduation and college.

Likewise, LAUSD has not yet created a grading policy or discussed how students will be assessed for learning loss. Instead, the district left that to a working group made up of five UTLA appointees and five district appointees. There was no mention in the agreement of including parents in those working groups, even though parents will be responsible for making sure their students successfully participate in distance learning and will certainly be the first to flag issues that arise as their kids learn at home.

The digital divide remains a challenge. Los Angeles Unified was at the forefront of securing devices and Wi-Fi hotspots for every student, but parents accessing technology for the first time also need help getting their kids into the virtual classroom. Speak UP has been offering free 1:1 tech training to parents through our new iFamily program, and LAUSD is also offering YouTube videos, a help line and a “smart start” to the new school year focused on making sure parents and students understand how to log on, participate in online classes and turn in their work.

One of the most pressing unaddressed issues involves childcare for working parents during distance learning. LAUSD should be commended for offering childcare on campus to the kids of staff members so teachers will be freed up to teach. However, there’s been no childcare solution offered to working parents who are not on staff, and many still have no idea how they will juggle jobs outside their homes while their kids are not allowed on campus. In the absence of any public leadership, parents are frantically forming do-it-yourself learning pods that are rife with potential safety and equity pitfalls. We need a societal solution.

And even if the structural framework for successful distance learning is put into place, that alone does not guarantee high-quality instruction. Despite the fact that teachers are moving to an entirely new mode of teaching, the new distance learning agreement specifies that permanent teachers will not be evaluated. A failure to offer constructive feedback to help teachers improve their craft as they shift to this new model is short-sighted and counter-productive.

We are experiencing extraordinary circumstances that require bold, innovative local leadership in public education, especially in the absence of national direction. And while we hope that distance learning never fully replaces classroom instruction, we believe that the current situation presents opportunities to find ways for educators, parents and other members of the school community to use technology creatively to support student learning.

Los Angeles is rich with innovation. Let’s find the independent thinkers, the quietly dedicated teachers and the bold leaders in administration, and task them with finding new solutions for the district’s challenges. What have we learned from our attempts in the spring? How can we build on these new, if challenging, experiences?

● Build on successes and aim high.

● Engage parents and non-certificated personnel as partners to help when possible.

● Pair General Education teachers with Special Education teachers and other partners to share instructional approaches that meet the needs of diverse learners.

● Create school-wide communication for support, calling in psychological help when needed or on a monthly basis to share ideas for parents and teachers.

● Create opportunities for coming together as a community. Have schools host evening parent Zoom meetings on a regular basis and open the school or other venues for those who can come, outside and six feet apart with masks.

● Create a library of grade level-tested lessons separated by discipline, so children who miss the lessons can find a way to make it up, and new teachers can make use of the experience of seasoned teachers.

● Create digital enrichment lessons that can be shared by schools over the district to engage students while teachers meet one-on-one for conferencing about work or social-emotional support or in breakout rooms for small group instruction.

LAUSD has had four months since schools shut down to figure out how to do this well. Parents need to know that their kids can return to schools online that provide focused, high-quality, inclusive and engaging instruction. And there needs to be a formal mechanism for parents to provide ongoing feedback on how well distance learning is working and how to improve it over the course of this pandemic, however long it lasts.

Katie Braude is Founder & CEO of Speak UP, a grassroots parent advocacy organization based in Los Angeles. Wendy Zacuto is a Speak UP parent leader and Education Consultant.

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