During its Sept. 16 regular meeting, the LBUSD Board of Education heard nearly two hours of public comment from parents and others on what they say is inordinate online Zoom time for district students.
Some also questioned how the board reached its recent decision to delay school openings from Oct. 5 to Jan. 28 and why it’s not providing choices like hybrid learning or guided independent study rather than synchronous learning that requires more screen time.
Internet connectivity is also still an issue for some students after three weeks of school, parents said, though the board indicated that it is distributing 1,000 additional wireless hotspots this week to students in need of them.
The board also heard from its assistant superintendents on the creative ways teachers are using Zoom to facilitate student interaction and minimize screen and homework time.
“The technology is failing us,” LBUSD District 3 representative Dr. Juan Benitez said, “but we’re not going to fail our students.”
During public comment, several parents complained about their children’s continuing issues with technology and missing classes.
They voiced the need for equipment such as internet hotspots and headsets, technical support for parents who don’t speak English and complained about attendance penalties for students who can’t connect.
Dr. Erin Simon, LBUSD’s director of student-support services, said Senate Bill 98, which passed this summer, requires schools to document daily participation by students through evidence of online activity or completing assignments.
However, she said if a student cannot participate because of connectivity issues, they or their parents can tell the school and the student will be counted as present rather than absent.
Dr. Robert Tagorda, LBUSD’s executive director of equity and access, said that technology help is available for parents and teachers, but acknowledged there may be an implementation gap.
Benitez said either parents don’t know about the resources available or don’t know how to access that help.
“Clearly something’s not happening with the parents,” he said.
Tagorda encouraged parents to contact their children’s schools when they have any concerns or problems.
“We can’t foresee everything so we need that feedback,” Tagorda said.
Dr. Tiffany Brown also affirmed that parents and students should contact the student’s school for help rather than struggle with a technology or connectivity issue.
“Call the school,” she stressed.
Dr. Christopher Lund, assistant superintendent of middle schools, noted that 85% of students have internet access and 7,000 have gotten or will soon get hotspots. He also said the district has issued 33,000 Chromebook laptops since spring that can be serviced on school campuses.
Benitez acknowledged that the first three weeks haven’t been the smoothest but it doesn’t mean the whole school year will remain this way or reduce student success.
“The glitches will get better,” Benitez said. “It may seem like your student’s whole future is at stake, but […] things will get better.”
An even bigger complaint parents voiced at the meeting was the amount of Zoom time– up to six hours per day– that they said district schools required of their children, some as young as five years old.
Some parents said that staring at screens is impacting their children’s eyesight and asked that instruction be reduced from five or six hours to three or four. One cited a study that more than two hours per day online damaged a child’s brain development.
Parents also described their children crying in frustration at having to be on Zoom for so long, or missing instruction when their connections dropped.
To minimize these frustrations, parents argued that schools should open for in-person instruction earlier than Jan. 28.
Brenda Durnin, PTA President for Rogers Middle School, said that while she can provide her own children the support they need, many others are not so fortunate.
“They are silently suffering in their homes, with no one there to help,” she said. “They are sitting there crying […]. They are the ones who really, truly need to back in schools the moment our county allows for it. ”
One parent said she feels betrayed because she expected schools to open Oct. 5 and is paying $1,000 per month for childcare while she works, not expecting an additional three months of her child being at home.
Some parents questioned the board’s decision to delay school openings past Oct. 5, which Superintendent Jill Baker announced Sept. 10.
“Without a vaccine, COVID will likely continue to be spread in our community,” Baker said. “We believe that not perpetuating a cycle of opening and closing classrooms and schools will best contribute to stabilizing the learning experience for our students, and will allow parents to plan for the coming weeks and months.”
Parent Amber Rice told the board that its decision was premature and that 80% of parents at Millikan High School wanted their children back at school, according to the district’s learning-option survey that parents completed in August.
Another parent said she pulled two of her children out of LBUSD to homeschool them instead of having them spend so much time online, adding that six hours of instruction shouldn’t mean six hours of screen time.
Though Simon didn’t connect it to online learning, she noted that total LBUSD enrollment is down by about 2% from 2019– or 1,444 students– and showed a graph indicating that pre-kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment had dropped by about 50% since last year and first-grade enrollment by about a third.
However, three of the district’s assistant superintendents said that part of the fatigue students are experiencing is normal and that teachers are being innovative in minimizing screen time and enhancing student interaction with them and each other.
Dr. Jay Camarino, assistant superintendent of high schools, said that students have lost the “muscle memory” of learning after six months at home.
Lund affirmed that student tiredness is normal at the start of any school year, even when they’re physically in classrooms.
Both noted that teachers are encouraging students to work independently or in groups through Zoom breakout rooms and that teachers allow time for student to complete homework in class before school ends.
In some cases, students are getting more individualized support than in in-person classrooms, Lund said.
However, Brian Moskovitz, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said that some of the teachers in his area may have had too-high expectations for their students, which he said he is addressing.
“Our teachers are working harder than they’ve ever worked before,” he said, but added that some need to let go of expecting their students to remain online as they do work.
Teachers will be trained so that students are only spending 2.5 to 3 hours in synchronous online instruction and can work asynchronously offline for parts of the school day, he said.
Moskovitz also encouraged parents to contact teachers if their children have different needs that the teacher is not considering.
“Things will get better,” Camarino said, “but it will take time.”
The next regular LBUSD Board of Education meeting will take place at 5pm on Wednesday, Oct. 7, at 1515 Hughes Way.