Students, parents need more say in how distance learning is implemented

Photo: EdSourcePhoto: EdSourceEvelyn G. AlemánMay 20, 2020While many celebrated the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles’ agreement last month giving educators more say on how to carry out distance learning, many parents wondered how they can ensure their children will receive instruction responsive to their needs.
It’s important that Los Angeles Unified and the union include parents in critical conversations and decisions around the education of our children — especially amid a public health crisis.
There are two problems with the new distance learning guidelines:
They do not take into account the different ways students learn. My 16-year-old daughter, for example, is a visual learner and would benefit from live online video instruction — where she can see and hear her teacher and classmates — more than from any other approach.
There is no clear technology requirement: Some teachers use online instruction with chat access, others submit videos for review with no live student-teacher interaction and still others provide homework packets that students turn in at a given date and time. Initially, only one of my daughter’s teachers consistently used the live video conferencing platform Zoom.
Now, she has two teachers using Zoom. This has made a tremendous difference for her, as live video and audio instruction is the method that best resembles a classroom environment.
When I reached out to the school principal to ask when teachers would be connecting via live video conferencing, the principal said she was following newly established district guidelines whereby teachers could choose their method of distance learning, and video conferencing was not a requirement. Articles in my local newspaper verified both the newly developed guidelines and that live video is not required.
It would be helpful if my daughter and the other students struggling to adapt to distance learning had a say in how it is implemented. The school district should establish committees comprised of students, parents and educators who can provide feedback. These committees should exist at the local level, where local leaders can work directly with school communities they already know.
While we know that there is no substitute for classroom instruction, students should be able to connect with their teachers and classmates using the same kinds of video conferencing technology that many families and friends are using to communicate with loved ones, and that has been around for at least the last decade.
The district’s instructions to staff for continued learning during the coronavirus-required school closures suggest using online video-conferencing to stay in touch with students. While talking on Zoom is different from teaching on Zoom, the district missed an opportunity to express the benefits of live online video as a valuable instructional tool for teachers.
When United Teachers of Los Angeles head Alex Caputo-Pearl announced the union agreement via Facebook live, I wondered if Caputo-Pearl believed he would have the same engagement with the public were he limited to online chat without video and audio. If the union and Los Angeles Unified leadership could use live online video to connect with their audiences, then teachers should too.
As a parent who served on the Los Angeles Unified’s Information Technology Initiative Taskforce many years ago, one of many efforts by the district to encourage digital access districtwide, I’m not surprised that the transition to distance learning has been so bumpy. The taskforce made several recommendations, but it was unclear they would be adopted districtwide. If they had, perhaps the transition to distance learning might have been a lot smoother a lot sooner.
It’s now been two months since Los Angeles Unified closed more than 1,300 schools and centers and moved to distance learning for its nearly 700,000 students. While the superintendent reassures us that the schools are “doing OK,” we’ve since learned that thousands of students are skipping online classes and assignments.
Students are missing friends, teachers, the classroom environment and their entire school communities. There is a lot of physical, psychological and emotional upheaval for all students, especially those who need the most assistance to learn.
District leaders should be identifying the best distance learning methods for students and, as part of this transition, encouraging teachers to use online live video conferencing regularly to keep students connected and learning.
Evelyn G. Alemán is the mother of high school and college students and a parent and student advocate. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her family and is an alumna of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy.
The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers, parents and students about how distance learning is working for them. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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