Minding the gap: Tahoe Truckee Unified Schools help students, families connect for distance learning
The Sierra Sun continues its “Investigating the Impact” series to discuss how the community is coping with the COVID-19 crisis, focusing on the toll the pandemic has had on the economy, government services, education, the environment, health care, housing, nonprofits and arts & culture — and the situation each sector faces and what resources are available to help the community move forward.
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As schools grapple with the sudden shift to distance learning created by coronavirus, they face a critical resource gap necessary to provide free public education — internet access.
According to Gov. Gavin Newsom, California’s “Digital Divide,” one in five students do not have high-speed internet or a digital device at home. A parent survey distributed by the state in early April indicates a ratio exacerbated in low-income families and families of color.
Ed Hilton, director of technology and information services, said the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has defied those statistics to undermine the social inequities that follow.
“Anyone who wants a connection,” Hilton stressed, “has a connection.”
So far, that’s meant the district has made approximately 100 broadband connections via DSL or hotspot, and distributed 4,000 Chromebooks to its students in elementary, middle and high schools. This, in a district where 40% of the households are socioeconomically disadvantaged, Hilton said.
“Our community wraps around our youth like no other community I’ve seen,” said Valerie Simpson, the district’s executive director of educational services. “The commitment is so apparent.”
Following the March 13 school closures, administrators and staff flexed into unprecedented responsibilities to provide comprehensive outreach to students, Simpson said. In the week that followed, district teachers connected with families via phone or email to prepare some semblance of a virtual classroom. If teachers were unable to make contact, administrators conducted home visits to make sure the child and family were OK, and had the tools necessary.
Hilton said before the pandemic, the district was aware that 1% of its student body lacked an in-home web connection.
“We knew 40 kids or families were without access to the internet and had that in mind going into distance learning,” he said. “That was our baseline, but it actually ended up higher than that.”
Between AT&T or T-Mobile hotspots and wired connections, Hilton and his office ultimately equipped 100 students with a broadband connection they previously lacked. The arrangements vary depending on where families live in the North Lake Tahoe region, Hilton said, but most took advantage of permanent service providers’ Covid-inspired generosity.
“We do have people in the community who cannot get internet wired in their house — even if they wanted to,” Hilton said. “We prioritized hotspots for those families.”
Meanwhile, Altice-Charter offered new subscribers signing up for broadband free service through June.
Hilton purchased 25 hotspots right away from T-Mobile, then TTUSD received 25 more through the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) Broadband in Schools Initiative which distributed a total of $30 million statewide to support students’ connectivity.
“Those ship next week,” Hilton said. “If we had waited for California to act, there would have been families who wouldn’t have had access this whole time.”
Long term, the district is considering all iterations of a hybridized classroom this fall, Hilton said. That means reckoning with the financial realities of families whose breadwinners remain unemployed.
“That’s something we need to discuss — what happens after, if parents contact us in the fall and say ‘I couldn’t pay?’” Hilton said. “We have to do something, whether it’s something we do as a school district or activism, to make sure that our providers are serving our communities in a way that’s equitable.”
Beyond its connection to classroom education, the technology is integral to sustaining valuable social connections between the school district and families. Simpson said at this point, the district is concerned with far more than its students’ education.
“The role of a community agency during a pandemic is to make sure families’ and students’ basic needs are being met,” Simpson said. “As far as school goes, it offers structure and routine.”
Volunteers have prepared more than 100,000 meals to date district-wide, Tahoe Lake Elementary’s school psychologist continues to provide one-on-one virtual sessions with students, Principal Stephanie Foucek said.
“Social emotional wellbeing is a very large priority in our whole district,” Foucek said. “Our school counselor has started a support group on how to support your child.”
The additional support is useful, because parents are needed more than ever to facilitate education in the home, Simpson said, a task not all of them are prepared for.
“It’s been a huge adjustment for everybody,”she added. “All parents are doing the best they can for their children. Coming from that premise alone, it’s really about how we partner with them to make sure they have what they need to support their child in education.”
Teachers are providing curbside pickup for learning materials like books, construction paper and science equipment, to enrich the at-home learning experience. The situation has provided an opportunity to strengthen bonds between parents and their children’s education.
“When you do teach virtually you are in the child’s home,” Foucek said. “The parent is sitting right there at the computer watching, so they’re part of the learning.”
Although the district does not judge parents’ varied capacities, Simpson said it is quick to offer support via home visits.
“Even if the family has a high level of education, they may not be familiar with certain educational strategies,” Simpson said. “We don’t place unrealistic expectations upon families.”
CURRICULUM & ACCOUNTABILITY
Tahoe Truckee Unified and the state’s education department, has made sure students are not punished for difficulties faced while transitioning to online education.
“The accountability part can be a bit challenging, because the state asked us to make sure we didn’t harm the kids,” Simpson said.
“This isn’t their fault — we’re not going to ding them for this.”
According to Simpson, high school teachers agreed that no student would fail this year unless they went into distance learning with an F already. For the rest of the students, their grades will be determined by their performance prior to and during distance learning.
“It really comes down to the relationship that teachers and students have with each other,” Simpson said.
The situation has provided an opportunity for teachers to fine tune the focus of their curriculum.
“We’ve been moving towards how to teach students to critically think, to collaborate with one another,” Simpson said. “In some ways, distance learning has created a space for teachers and learners to experiment or participate even more in that.”
Foucek said after two days of professional development where teachers were introduced to the technological platforms necessary to support students virtually, they put their “noses to the grindstone” to adapt core curriculum right away.
“Our curriculum comes from California state standards, so they’re pretty much set,” Simpson said. “There’s way more than you can cover in a school year.”
Simpson said teachers’ and students’ time must be used intentionally to focus on “essentials” given the mass of material combined with the digital platform’s limited capacity.
As the teachers think critically about adapting integral information for their students’ development, renovated lesson plans come up against a new infrastructural obstacle.
Suddenlink/Altice capped bandwidth in the Truckee area, Hilton said, meaning that for some, unlimited data plans are not an option.
“Our teachers were forced to stay at home by the order from the governor, and many of them had regular internet service,” Hilton said.
Now, classroom interruptions come from Suddenlink/Altice, instead of the class clown. In a letter dated late April to the service provider, Hilton explained how interrupting instruction with splash pages poses a problem for educators trying to meet the academic and mental needs of students during Covid-19. The additional charges on monthly bills “add insult to injury,” Hilton said.
“All customers are responsible for knowing their plan limits,” Altice’s corporate executive customer relations representative replied, and recommended teachers contact Suddenlink to have their account options reviewed.
Hilton is working with the Town of Truckee’s clerk to examine and reconsider the district’s franchise agreement with Suddenlink/Altice. In the meantime, TTUSD is incurring each of the incremented $15 overcharge fees.
“If you ask me, I would love for internet to be a public utility,” said Hilton, who began working for TTUSD in 2005 as a math and science high school teacher. “It needs to be provided to every person along with gas, heat, water, housing.”
Technology cannot replace a teacher, Hilton said, but must be embraced as an integral part of 21st century education.
Hilton said although the future is unknown, TTUSD is equipped for whatever hybridized version of remote to in-person learning may take place in the fall.
“This crucible of a new experience has provided us with perspective,” Hilton said. “We’ve made a few mistakes, we’ve run into problems, but we’re prepared for whatever comes.”
“Tahoe is a great community,” Hilton said. “I think our district is modeling for our kids what it means to collaborate and problem solve.
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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From classroom sessions behind a computer screen to missed dances and games, the class of 2021 has endured much during the pandemic.