Del Mar Schools’ teachers adapt to ‘live’ remote learning

Del Mar Heights School teacher Paige Rollins starts the day with the pledge of allegiance with her second-grade class.

The Del Mar Union School District’s remote learning platform has continued to evolve during the pandemic. As more interactive sessions between teachers and students began this month, the district has prioritized lessons focused on essential content needed for students to make progress toward grade-level standards.

“We are not saying this is the ideal. This is temporary for us,” said DMUSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Shelley Petersen at the board’s April 22 board meeting. “Our kids need to be in school and we want to get them back in school and have teaching and learning occur in the best way we know.”

Remote learning has been rolled out in phases in Del Mar, starting on March 16. The district had to first ensure all students had access, distributing 1,200 Chromebooks on March 17. In the second week, an additional 450 Chromebooks were mailed to families via UPS—to date about 1,700 have been issued. Petersen said they are not aware of any family who does not have access to the internet.

Following spring break the week of April 6, the district launched into the next phase that included live interactions with teachers on Zoom. The week of April 13-17, week four, teachers hosted a minimum of one informal get-together with students and by April 20-24, they were hosting one informal get-together and one hour of combined live and recorded instruction each day.

The live and recorded sessions are sometimes with small groups or half a class, or a Zoom break-out room, some teachers do recorded lessons and a live check-back in later. Live sessions are at least once a week, with some teachers having them more often. “We don’t have any two classrooms that look exactly alike,” Petersen said.

DMUSD Clerk Gee Wah Mok said his kindergartner has been kept occupied but has loved the new opportunity to have a half an hour to see all of his classmates and talk to his teacher live: “It’s really his favorite part of the day.”

Petersen said that remote learning has been a big task for teachers as they have completely changed their educational platform and how they deliver instruction.

“It’s been one of the most difficult times for us as citizens, as neighbors, as parents, family members but especially as teachers,” said David Skinner, president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association. “We are finding ourselves, no matter how many years we’ve been teaching, in the unique situation of being a first-year student teacher. We’re learning the tools, techniques and strategies all while we’re delivering them and that’s a challenging thing to do.”

Skinner said during the past several weeks, teachers have been spending more hours than ever before to provide some continuity in the learning but, most importantly, to provide some human link to the students and their families.

“I’m proud to call these people my friends and my colleagues but I’m not going to lie, I’m really worried about them,” Skinner said. “They’re working under enormous pressure right now, many of them are also parents and also affected by the economy.”

During public comment, Ocean Air School parent Stephanie Sun made a request for more live instruction via Zoom, having teachers teaching materials as they would in the actual classroom and enabling children to participate.

“My third grader has always been an independent student but even she has trouble understanding the instructions so we end up spending an hour going over all the things that she would have to do,” she said.

Sun also suggested having small group projects for students via Zoom and asked for a more structured school day.

DMUSD President Erica Halpern said many parents share those same questions and concerns, particularly as they see some private schools are having Zoom class all day long.

Petersen said as far as structure, individual teachers have taken steps to incorporate scheduling and structure into the day. Principals have also created master schedules for when teachers are providing instruction and connect meetings as well as STEAM specialists’ schedules.

“Remote learning is not and wasn’t designed to take the place of a classroom,” Petersen said. “It was designed to be more self-paced to provide short sets or snippets of direction and instruction and then an opportunity for students to work independently on an activity.”

Live instruction will come in when there is a new concept to be taught as it is helpful for teachers to hear from students at that time. “Remote learning will not replicate our 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. school day,” Petersen said.

Petersen said they have to keep in mind that home situations are different for all teachers and for some it is not feasible to provide live instruction for an extended period because their spouse might be an essential worker and they are taking care of young children.

During public comment, parent Joe Smith questioned how county education officials are predicting school might look in the fall, with physical distancing possibly limiting the number of students who can be on campus on a given day. The county has presented options such as non-classroom based instruction, using schools as learning centers where students check-in face to face with teachers once a week and blended learning with students at school one or two days a week and the rest of the days online.

Faced with those prospects, Smith asked that the district push harder for in-classroom education five days a week.

“Online virtual education -- although it is a solution -- it’s not the functional equivalent to in-classroom learning,” Smith said.

DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg said as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Del Mar will collaborate with the county office and neighboring school districts but the decision to reopen will be theirs independently, taking direction from public health agencies.

“We are not alone in believing children need to be in school,” McClurg said. “I believe it’s premature to talk about what it looks like even in June, summertime or fall. We need to continue to be ready for any scenario but with the expectation that kids need to be in school. If they can be in school, we’re going to do everything we can to make our schools a place students can actually show up for school.”