Learning on a screen: Here's a look at what school will look like this fall for Bay Area high school students

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, August 6, 2020
What high school will look like under distance learning
'It's awkward talking to a computer screen': Will distance learning be less awkward for students and teachers this fall than it was in the spring? This is what high schoolers should expect.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- High school holds a special place in life. These teenage years are defined by back-to-school night, rallies and homecoming.

But as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise in the Bay Area, all these rites of passage in a high schooler's life are being put on hold or canceled altogether.

That's the case for Ysabella Ruvalcaba who is getting ready for her freshman year at Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose.

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"I feel for her, she is not going to have that experience with her friends, with any clubs that she wanted to go into, that whole first year freshman high school experience," said Ysabella's mom, Yanel Ruvalcaba.

Instead, Ysabella will spend the first part of the year the same way she spent her summer - in her room taking classes on Zoom.

"Online, it's harder because you can't talk to the teachers and you can't talk to your friends on Zoom. You just stare at the computer," said Ruvalcaba about her experience taking a summer math course.

Her teacher was Catherine Duhring, who isn't thrilled either about a year of distance learning. She has mostly been teaching the class from an empty classroom at the school so that she can have more privacy and use the white board to mirror her equations on the computer screen.

Duhring tries different techniques to connect with students. She begins the day with a set of fun questions to make sure the kids are awake and paying attention.

Engaging kids is a challenge since students are not required to have their camera turned on to ensure their privacy at home. Duhring said blank screen make it hard to see if students are understanding the lesson.

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"Those visual cues I have during class I don't have those here. So it is something I have been struggling with," said Duhring, who relies on other methods to connect with students

She's had success using Zoom features to connect with students.

"They have little icons they can click on that say they get it, or no, I don't get it. Or go faster, go slower, raise your hand," methods Duhring said students are more willing to use than the chat feature.

Mt. Pleasant High School is part of the East Side Union High School District, which serves a large portion of San Jose. With 19 schools and 22,000 students, it's the largest high school district in Northern California. Administrators made the decision in late June to start the school year with distance learning.

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"At East Side, we had four of the highest zip codes with the highest COVID-19 cases and really having the safety of our staff, students and families is our number one priority," said ESUHSD Superintendent Chris Funk.

The district changed to a block schedule, which means that instead of the students having daily classes on each subject like previous years, this fall students will have four days of instruction. Monday and Thursday is one set of classes. Tuesdays and Fridays is another set.

"Wednesday will be opportunities where counselors can meet with students to talk about college and financial aid, or social workers can meet virtually about mental health issues," said Funk.

That is not the only change. Classes have been extended to 90 minutes. Students will have the flexibility to sit through the entire class or work on their own.

"The student can leave and go do some work and then come back at the end of the meeting for a check-in and ask for help," explained Funk.

After teaching for a summer to blank screens, Duhring is looking at modifying her 90 minutes of class time. She wants to try a flipped classroom model.

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"I record my lessons and they can watch it on their own take and take notes at their own pace and then during our class time, it's more like office hours and I help them with their homework," said Duhring.

The district plans to bring small groups of students back when Santa Clara County is off the watch list. They will have the same block schedule implemented during distance learning so students have a consistent schedule.

The first students back would be those with special needs and English learners. Mt. Pleasant is getting classrooms ready for that possibility.

Principal David Brown explains how students will maintain six feet of social distancing inside the classroom.

"We have a desk where a student can sit with a chair, then there are two desks in between as kind of a spacer, to keep that buffer," said Brown. "We could not bring back 1,3000 students in this kind of setup. If we typically have a classroom of 30 kids and at most we can fit 12, we are at 40 percent of our capacity."

Bringing students back in shifts or on different days is one solution, but that causes stress on teachers and staff who may have to work different hours.

High schools in San Francisco will also start virtually. The first month of classes will be dedicated to helping students and teachers get acquainted with distance learning before more intense work begins.

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Roland Stevens will be a first year teacher at Mission High School. He took courses offered by the district over the summer to improve his virtual teaching skills.

"I have made my lessons a little more interactive so I am engaging with students. You have to be more intentional. You can't go over to them but you can still engage with that student, said Stevens, who plans to teach from his apartment using hand-held white board when necessary."

Marin Catholic High School pushed back the start of its school year to Sept. 8 hoping that COVID-19 cases start coming down and Marin County will be allowed to hold in person classes.

"We are preparing for both scenarios and it will depend on what we are allowed to do come September 8. If it is in-person, it will be a hybrid model," explained Director of Communications Roxanne Civarello.

One of the cohorts would be on campus Monday and Tuesday. The other on Thursday and Friday. Like the ESUHSD, Wednesday will be used for non-classroom support, like seminars, spiritual formation and spirit events.

Fall sports are also on hold. Last month, the California Interscholastic Federation announced it would delay all fall sports like football and volleyball until December and January.

Luis Guerrero already had his junior season of baseball canceled last year at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. The private school is starting the new year with distance learning as well.

Guerrero doesn't know what to expect from his last year in high school.

"It would have been my senior, when you have all the activities and it tends to be typically your most fun year. Instead it will all have to be done through a screen and it is not the same," he said.


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