Teachers, Students Hope for Success With Distance Learning


Photo By Nicolas Gorman

Lockers will remain empty for the first weeks of the school year, and likely the first semester. Students received their schedules for distance learning, and await the start of Zoom courses.

Students arrived at campus this week, but instead of claiming a locker and finding their classrooms, they were picking up their virtual schedules and textbooks to keep at home. 

Exactly five months after school was closed because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, students and staff will begin the 2020-2021 school year online.

The district announced that school would be online, following a July 15 decision by the Sacramento County Office of Education that schools in the county would remain closed at the start of the school year because of increasing cases of Covid-19 and concerns for student and staff safety. 

On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that public and private schools in counties on California’s coronavirus watchlist won’t be allowed to hold in-class instruction and have to follow strict rules in order to reopen.

With 2,964 new cases in the past 14 days (as of Aug. 13), Sacramento County remains on the state watch list, averaging 196 new cases per 100,000 residents. 

“Our students, our teachers, staff, and certainly, parents — we all prefer in-classroom instructions for all the obvious reasons,” Newsom said in a press conference announcing the school standards. “But only, only if it can be done safely.”

San Juan meets technology needs

Schools across the state plan to take steps to enhance distance learning from last spring, including the distribution of more technology and internet access.

According to the California Department of Education, the state is still in need of 700,000 laptops and 35,000 hotspots for students to successfully attend school online and has been given a $5.3 billion budget fund to invest in student resources.

San Juan Unified School District hopes to meet all the needs of its students and has 35,000 computers available to hand out according to spokesperson Trent Allen. Rio students were able to check out a computer in the library when they picked up their textbooks.

New block schedule aims for organization, accountability

Even with all the resources available, distance learning poses a new challenge for both teachers and students.

Social interaction is critical for children and adolescents, yet student engagement was not optimal when distance learning first began in April.

Senior Kara Catelliar anticipates better communication this semester about online classes.

“I hope to see more organization and consistency in the class schedules,” Catelliar said. “I think that will happen since the school has had a chance to prepare, all the teachers have been trained, and students are more accustomed to the online classes.”

I hope to see more organization and consistency in the class schedules.”

— Senior Kara Catelliar

At Rio last spring, faculty accumulated a list of about 285 students who were not making regular contact with their teachers, but once staff members called families to encourage students to engage in online class the number decreased.

“We got that list down to about 20, maybe 15, kids that didn’t do anything at all,” said Principal Brian Ginter. “Which isn’t so bad, but it still wasn’t as good as we would like. It wasn’t as good as when we’re all here.”

Attendance is required for all virtual classes this semester and will be reflected on students’ records.

Students will sign into their San Juan Portal at the beginning of the school day, which will be equivalent to walking on campus. To “enter” their classrooms, students will sign in to Google Classroom, the main platform that will be used to connect teachers and students in the distance learning model.

The model requires at least 270 minutes of instruction per day. Rio will use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction, allowing teachers to decide what balance works best with their class. 

Teachers can embed outside learning platforms into their Google Classroom page, such as Edulastic, to improve their ability to provide instruction.

District high schools with six-period days, such as Rio,  will start a block schedule including three 90 minute classes a day, four days of the week. Virtual classes will entail a minimum of 30 minutes of synchronous instruction via Zoom, 15 of which must be at the beginning of that period.

Resources offered are affected by virtual format

While teachers will be answering questions during live class and via email, traditional learning supplements like tutoring and services usually offered in the library will be impacted.

“Unfortunately tutoring and supports like that we are not going to have like we normally do,” Ginter said.

New to this school year, students’ shortened day will be Wednesday, as opposed to Thursday.

On Wednesdays, students will attend all six periods for 15 minutes and have the rest of the day to work on assigned work.

Principal Ginter hopes the unique schedule on Wednesdays will provide an opportunity for students to get help. In the morning, students will have the opportunity to check in with teachers to ask for clarification or help with the week’s material.

“The afternoons are there for teachers to be able to support kids who are struggling and help them out,” Ginter said. 

The school is trying to build in support for EL students or Special Education students with some of the flexibility in the online model but is still developing such tools.

New curriculum, schedule

This format sets up a different style of teaching, affecting both the classes students plan to take and what courses will entail.

Senior Hunter Dadigan elected to take classes online over summer. He assumed school would be online in the fall anyway, and he had the ability to do so while in isolation.

“Because the coronavirus kept me away from my friends and family over the summer, I decided to take advantage of the extra time and get ahead for next school year,” Dadigan said.

Principal Ginter and the P.E. department had a meeting Aug. 12 to discuss plans for the upcoming semester, and they expect the district to offer suggestions.

Students in visual and performing arts will receive communication directly from their teachers regarding the plan for such classes. 

Band will not be able to rehearse or perform at this time, but Director Josh Murray hopes to enhance students’ foundation of music theory.

“Mr. Evett and I will be working together to provide the digital version of a Rio band education, and we’re actually excited to be able to focus on skills and concepts that we often don’t have enough time to teach,” Murray said. “It will not be the same, but we are hopeful that we will find opportunities to teach life lessons and create an online community that bands together.” 

It will not be the same, but we are hopeful that we will find opportunities to teach life lessons and create an online community that bands together.”

— Josh Murray

Science classes, valued for their hands-on nature, will have to adapt laboratory experiments to distance learning, as well. 

Science Boosters has supplied teachers with additional funds to perform laboratory activities on their own and share results with students so they can watch and do post-lab discussions and calculations. 

The district is also searching for virtual lab alternatives, like online simulations, but is yet to select a program.

Chemistry teacher Phillip Montbriand shared what his chemistry class may look like on a regular day.

“The first 15 minutes will be a Zoom where I take attendance and instruct my students on what to do during the 45 minutes of asynchronous time,” Montbriand said.

This asynchronous time would likely be filled watching Montbriand’s instructional videos and practicing problems. 

“Then, the last 30 minutes of class, I will hold another Zoom meeting (synchronous) in which students can ask questions and I can assist them in their processing of the information and learning,” Montbriand said. “I am hoping that I will be able to provide the best instruction and learning of my curriculum under the circumstances.”

Montbriand worked hard, as many staff did, over summer and prepared 195 videos that he published on YouTube. While teachers put forth their best effort to provide the same level of education as in person schooling, many details still need to be worked out or will be adapted as students provide feedback.

Much like how administrators observe teachers on campus, Principal Ginter will make surprise visits on Zoom meetings to ensure not only the students are held accountable, but teachers are, too.

Course catalogue affected by changes in staff, not COVID-19

While no courses will be terminated due to the pandemic, changes among the Rio teaching staff has affected some student’s schedules. 

Some courses will not be offered because the school no longer has credentialed staff to teach them.

Among the courses cancelled are Digital Art and Woodshop. Jonathan Feld, who taught Digital Art and Photography, and Michael Waltz, who instructed Wood Technology I and II, recently took teaching jobs in Roseville.

The school is also actively trying to hire somebody to continue to the Medical Careers program, the most recent applicant backing out Aug. 3, a little over a week before the start of school.

The status of the program is unknown due to the current staff situation.

As the students picked up their textbooks on the mostly deserted campus, California and Sacramento hit grim milestones. The state reached 10,000 COVID-19 deaths and the city surpassed 100. With 100,000 new cases in the past two weeks statewide, California schools can expect to be online for the foreseeable future.