Ryan McDonald

Hermosa Beach teachers absorb lessons of spring shutdown as they ready for first day of school

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Lia Navas, a second grade teacher at Hermosa View, readies her classroom for the first day of school next week. Photo by JP Cordero

by Ryan McDonald

It’s tough to conceive of a class that is simultaneously less suited to social distancing and harder to replicate over the internet than the Sparks Lab at Hermosa View School. The class, funded primarily through philanthropy, teaches STEM principles to first, second and third graders through what educators call “project-based learning.” In practice, that means gathering in an indoor lab, with students from multiple classes, for sessions heavy on up-close collaboration and sharing materials, set to a soundtrack of open-mouthed oohs-and-ahhs.

In the pre-pandemic era, students in the Sparks Lab have created short-films using stop-motion animation, and assembled balloon floats like smaller versions of those seen in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This spring, with campuses in the Hermosa Beach City School District shuttered, Sparks lab teacher Malinda Gill began asking herself what sorts of experiments her students might be able to cobble together at home. It did not take her long to hit on an answer: packaging, of the kind that Amazon and other online retailers were using to encase e-commerce at record rates. She devised online lessons instructing her students to turn the mountains of cardboard and plastic accumulating daily on doorsteps into vessels they could sail in their bathtub.

“I really did not want to send students or parents out to get materials. So I tried to find activities that they could do using things around the house,” Gill said.

When campuses were open, Gill often kept her room open during lunch, and it was not unusual to see 30 to 40 students piling in to spend their free time there. When Hermosa schools resume next week, Sparks will be offered only as an online “lunch” club, with details still to be worked out, and Gill will be stepping back into what she calls her “roll as a regular teacher.”

There is little that is likely to be regular about the coming school year. Hermosa and most other districts in California are beginning the year exclusively with distance learning. (District classes resumed this week in Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach.) Earlier this month, the district debuted a detailed plan that covers both the start of the year with distance learning and the hybrid model, a blend of online learning and a few days a week of in-person instruction, that will begin when public health conditions permit a return to campus. (It also covers a third option, for students and families wishing to remain in distance learning even after conditions permit a return.) The Board of Education voted on the plan Wednesday evening, (after press time for this story). But in a meeting earlier this month, board members received the plan with praise and positivity.

This will be the second-go-round with distance learning, after the frightening progression of COVID-19 prompted schools to shutter on the fittingly ominous date of Friday the 13th of March. With the reopening plan, the district is promising a smoother and more standardized experience. Teachers, included in the shaping of Hermosa’s coming school year from the beginning, say they are better prepared this time around. Both allow that there are challenges that no amount of planning can address.

Tammy Loudermilk has taught social studies in Hermosa for two decades, serving as the eighth grade U.S. history teacher. She takes students through the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention. Faces of presidents peer down at students from her class room’s north wall. Desks look out over Hermosa Valley Schools’s blacktop, and the room has such abundant natural light that some of the rectangular windows on its high, lofted ceiling are partially papered over.

She speaks of her role preparing her students for high school as a solemn responsibility, and, despite the challenges that the abrupt closure created, said she “felt great” about the job she did last spring, and the experience her students had.

“We really had very few kids who dropped off. In fact, at the end I had 35 graded assignments, and I would say that two-thirds of the kids turned in all 35, so I was very, very pleased,” she said.

But unlike last spring, where she ventured into the unknown with a crew of kids she had spent six months getting to know, next week she’ll be leading about 160 students without any stored-up memories, and at a digital remove from many of the subtle but critical cues that are fundamental to the teacher-student relationship.

“My main concern, what I have heavy on my mind, is I won’t know these kids. They’ll be brand new to me, and I’ll be new to them. They’ve seen my face around campus, but I won’t know them, and that will be the hard part,” she said. “It kind of hurts my heart, that I won’t be able to get to know them, and greet them at the door. You can kind of tell by the look on their faces on any particular day how things are going to go.”

Friday the 13th

An empty blacktop Hermosa View School. Students will be relying exclusively on distance learning until transmission rates for COVID-19 decline. Photo by JP Cordero

Rafael Sánchez, a third grade teacher in Hermosa, recalled the period surrounding the closure of campuses and the beginning of distance learning as “a whirlwind.”

“It was like being in the middle of a tornado. Things happened so, so fast,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez began by trying to replicate the classroom schedule, a decision he called his “biggest mistake,” and which he abandoned after a few weeks.

“I thought, ‘Okay, there’s six hours in the classroom per day, there’s X amount of instructional minutes, let’s just flop it all over onto a digital format,’” Sánchez said. “And I quickly discovered that even a traditional, normal-paced school day on campus in a digital format feels 100 times accelerated.”

Ali Peng, who teaches transitional kindergarten at Hermosa View, described the first week of distance learning as “pretty bananas.” Peng said that she and other kindergarten teachers joked that, despite being away from campus, they grew closer than ever in the early stages as they tried to figure out how to teach in a new world. The collaboration helped, she said, but did not necessarily produce uniform results.

“Everyone in the country was going through the same thing. There were a lot of resources online that started popping up: blogs, Facebook groups, all of these different avenues of learning were handling this. I think everyone just kind of grabbed what worked for them. I mean, who knew anything about Zoom before March? Certainly not me. And all of a sudden it was like, ‘Okay, now we’re Zooming,’” Peng said.

The multiplicity of distance learning approaches was one of the biggest problems that parents reported to the district. Some students reported spending hours doing menial tasks like clicking boxes to verify that they had completed assignments. Parents complained about having to juggle passwords and master multiple platforms.

“Your experience with distance learning shouldn’t be totally different based on what teacher you have. Every teacher is going to be different, but those differences should be stylistic,” HBCSD Superintendent Jason Johnson said in an interview.

This year, a more standardized “learning management system,” Schools PLP, is expected to cut down on formalities and create a smoother, more standardized experience. Schools in neighboring Manhattan and Redondo have also adopted SchoolsPLP, which means that parents with a kid in kindergarten through eighth grade in Hermosa, and another child attending high school at Mira Costa or Redondo Union, will all be on the same system. Teachers said they anticipated the system would benefit most families. Along with SchoolsPLP, the reopening plan also contains a framework schedule that designates time for attendance taking, social and emotional wellness, and periods of synchronous and asynchronous learning.

The synchronous blocks could involve all of the students at once. Or it could mean dividing the class up into smaller groups, with each group getting a turn to work with the teacher in real time. Peng attempted to gather her whole kindergarten class in a Zoom chat, but found them easily distracted,  and shifted to sessions with smaller bunches.

“I quickly realized that you cannot actually Zoom with 23 five-year-olds,” she said.

Peng’s changing tactics suggest that, for all the detail of the reopening plans, teachers’ experiences seeing what did and did not work last spring will be at least as influential in shaping the learning experience when classes resume.

Sánchez learned that his students have a capacity to be in front of a screen for “probably an absolute maximum of an hour” and that even that hour needs to be carefully plotted out. In the classroom, traditional precepts dictate that a teacher overseeing younger kids should talk for no more than 20 minutes; on Zoom, he realized that has to be cut down to no more than 10. Teachers must fill in the time with practice problems, questions and humor, including making light of technological foibles, like dogs or family members suddenly interrupting a class.

In a brief released last week by EdResearch for Recovery, H. Alix Gallagher and Benjamin Cottingham of Policy Analysis for California Education outlined strategies to improve “blended and distance learning.” Like Sánchez, they recommended avoiding asking students to “watch expository instruction for multiple hours each day.” They also advised against “punitive practices for students who are not meeting expectations,” warning that this will “likely discourage student engagement even further.”

That advice may come hard for parents who resented the relaxation of school’s formalities. Some of Loudermilk’s students, for example, freed from the strictures of a traditional schedule, turned in some digital assignments as late as 2 a.m.. Rather than try to mold her students’ habits in a topsy-turvy time, Loudermilk gave them flexibility, setting a deadline of Friday at midnight for all of the week’s assignments. It also, she said, helped students in families that had to share workspace and internet bandwidth. 

 

Hitting and fielding

Tammy Loudermilk, an eighth grade teacher at Hermosa Valley, said connecting online with students she’s never met in person will be challenging. Photo by JP Cordero

Earlier in the summer, many districts in California seemed headed for an ugly clash between parents eager for a return to traditional schedules and teachers worried about contracting COVID-19 or passing it on to family members. In the end, the coronavirus and higher authorities made it a moot point, rendering on-campus instruction an impossibility until transmission metrics in Los Angeles County fall below thresholds set by the state and the county. But instead of lingering resentment or mistrust, teachers in Hermosa described a harmonious relationship with the district and optimism about the coming year.

Johnson’s official first day in the district was July 1, when virus numbers were surging, and he began meeting with teachers and staff, and hammering out the reopening plan and a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hermosa Beach Educators Association for the coming year. For the last month, his counterpart has been Lia Navas, a second grade teacher and the president of the HBEA.

“People truly did attempt to bring forth the best program under the circumstances,” Navas said of the spring. “Now, months later, there are still so many things we don’t know. But I think the consensus, among HBEA and also the district administration, is that we really want to reassure our families that we are working diligently to provide our students with the absolute best education and social-emotional support.”

The district, Johnson said, is preparing for two first days of school: one next week, and another at a date uncertain, when it is permitted to reopen for in-person instruction. He compared it to someone new to the game of baseball attempting to learn to hit and field at the same time.

The former special education teacher has been especially involved in the reopening plans’ provisions for students with special needs. Hermosa’s hybrid model calls for five days a week of on-campus learning for students with disabilities, and he is trying to secure permission for some immediate in-person instruction. 

“I personally have pushed on [Los Angeles County Public Health Director] Dr. [Barbara] Ferrer in briefings to give us some flexibility to try to provide in-person services for our students with special needs on a limited basis,” Johnson said at a school board meeting earlier this month. Discussions about the issue are ongoing, he said.

And when the county and state health departments do give the go-ahead for schools to reopen to in-person instruction, it will take at least two weeks, and perhaps as many as four, for the district to begin the hybrid model. 

“I don’t think it’s smart to rush reopening,” Johnson said, pointing to outbreaks that occurred soon after schools reopened in other parts of the country.

Given that uncertainty, the focus has been on beginning the year with distance learning.

To try to address the lack of a traditional meet-and-greet, teachers will be creating video orientations designed to simulate the first day of school, and to walk parents and students through the logistics of the school day. The district is also “rolling up” cohorts from the 2019-20 academic year, meaning most students will be grouped with the same set of peers that they were matched with the previous year. And teachers, especially those in the younger grades, will be tweaking their learning plans. 

“We’re definitely not going to be able to dive right into learning. It’s going to be a lot of team building and building a community, and getting to know each other and hearing about the things they like. Because they need to feel like they’re really a part of a classroom, and a team, without being in a classroom,” Peng, the transitional kindergarten teacher, said. 

Most teachers interviewed for this story described the last three months of the past year as the busiest and most challenging of their teaching careers. Even after he stopped trying to replicate a traditional school day, Sánchez felt like he had two jobs: one instructing kids, and another to maintain the infrastructure of a fully online classroom. After Loudermilk’s Fridays-at-midnight deadline rolled around, she spent Saturdays grading and Sundays devising lesson plans. 

Some of that may fade with standardization. But as distance learning enters its second year, the pandemic’s impact on teaching is starting to resemble the way the internet has upended the nature of work in other fields. What was once done at a designated place and time became flexible enough to allow for noon-time dog walks; the price is that it’s much harder to ever feel like you’re off-duty.

“The work is different, because you’re at home. Would I take a break sometimes to do yoga because I was super stressed? Yeah. Obviously I couldn’t do that in my classroom. So there were moments that I felt were easier, because I was able to step away and come back. But, I mean, I would start from the moment I woke up and find myself still working on stuff at night. To this day, I got to bed and I’m scrolling online and reading blogs and looking at groups, and sometimes I just have to shut it off, because you never leave, like at school,” Peng said.

Loudermilk recognized that, despite concerns about workload and the challenge of remote connection, some of the changes brought about by the pandemic will likely be permanent. Not all of them, she said, will be for the worse.

“Learning new ways of doing things, even under all this pressure, has been good for education. Overall, I think some of the things we’ve had to learn to do will stick. We’ll be able to move forward with more choices for children and families, which is always a good thing,” Loudermilk said. 

Bit by bit, teachers have found things to be optimistic about with distance learning. Navas recalled a student who, facing a lack of in person interaction, became markedly more independent. The student would email Navas with questions about the class, and when Navas spoke with the student’s parents, they were pleasantly surprised in the growth in their child’s ability to self-advocate.

“It’s not ideal, but let’s find the positive in this,” Sánchez said. “Things could be much, much worse. If this is the catastrophic event of my career, I would much rather take something like this than a hurricane, a tornado, or God forbid a school shooting. If this is what it is, we can do this. As long as I’m healthy, my family is healthy, my students are healthy, okay, let’s put it in perspective and roll with the punches. It’ll be a learning experience, to say the least.”

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