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Manhattan Beach Schools, Students Tackle Remote Learning

Mar 25, 2020 08:49AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Playgrounds and fields are empty at Pennekamp Elementary during the COVID-19 school shutdown.

One student decided she likes remote learning better than regular school. One student was so bored he surprised his mother by vacuuming the house. And at least one family's dog is living his best life with stuck-at-home kids taking him on "12,000 walks per day."

It has been one of the strangest periods in Manhattan Beach in recent memory: the first ten days with all schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Not only did teachers and administrators have to scramble to create meaningful remote learning programs with only a few days' notice, but students and parents also had to jump right in to distance learning. And with all extracurricular activities and social gatherings banned, everyone had to adjust to "social distancing" and lots of time in the house.

To get a sense of how things are going in these unusual circumstances, DigMB talked with MBUSD administrators as well as parents from a wide cross-section of schools and age groups around town.

School leaders agreed that a lot had been accomplished in just a few days, although there would continue to be ongoing adaptations and improvement.

"We’re going to get through this," MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews told DigMB. "In general, our teachers are far ahead of where we thought we we would be a little over a week into this. In my opinion, we will get better as we continue."

Matthews added that there is constant movement as schools and teachers seek to improve the process. "At every level, the teachers are talking, the departments are talking, the schools are talking, I'm talking with the L.A. County Office of Education. There’s so much changing so fast and we’re all trying to keep up with it as best we can."

Similarly, most parents who talked with DigMB praised the MBUSD teachers for being able to deliver the entire curriculum remotely on such little notice.

"I’m impressed with how well students, teachers and administrators adapted in such a short period of time," said Andrea Hynes, parent of a high schooler and middle schooler. "As a parent, one of the most important thing we can give our kids during this uncertain and ever-evolving time is a sense of safety and security. A small part of that includes a modicum of consistency and normalcy. The fact that teachers were ready to provide that was incredibly powerful. By keeping learning on track, that kept our kids focused on what they can control. I’m incredibly grateful."

Kathy Clarke, a parent of two elementary school students, agreed. "I’m very thankful for the dedication of our teachers during this trying time. They are juggling teaching along with their families being home, so it’s not easy for anyone."

Adapting to a New Format

Many parents said they were pleased with how well the new learning format was working out at home.

Betsey Keely, parent of two middle schoolers, said that the first week went surprisingly well. "I love to see the boys in Zoom as a class or with other friends completing assignments together, but separately," she said. "It’s something I never anticipated seeing and is surreal at times, but it seems to be working for week one. The teachers, staff, and administrators are truly remarkable for their efforts to pull this together so quickly. We are so very lucky that our town can make this happen."

Elementary school parent Samantha Moss said that she thought that the teachers were doing "an amazing job."

"I like that my fifth grader has two hours of schooling a day online. It provides routine and structure," said Moss. "Hearing from other districts that just post assignments online - that sounds so much harder. I'm so grateful for what MBUSD can provide us."

Parent Angela Bennett noted that her two Mira Costa seniors have to watch a video lecture for math and turn in homework by the end of the day - and that they both appreciate the new format. "They say they like it because if they don’t get the concept at first, they can re-watch it," she added.

However, one high school parent estimated that her son was only learning about 40 percent of what he would be learning in a regular school format. "It's not because he isn't paying attention, but because everything takes more time," she said. "For example, in math they worked through two lessons instead of the normal four or five. In science, they worked through one lesson instead of three. And the hands-on stuff obviously suffers - that's the biggest bummer because it's his favorite part of learning."

Additionally, one elementary school parent complained that students were just sent home with assignments during the first week, with no further learning. "My second grader basically just got his homework for the week. There was nothing online except for a few minutes on Friday," she said.

And one parent of both middle- and elementary school-aged children, when asked how the first week had gone, responded simply, "One word: Hell."

Some Special Challenges for Students

Many students have adapted to the new situation well - especially those students whose parents described them as "organized" or "self-disciplined" by nature. For example, several parents mentioned that their children were keeping track of all of the assignments with white boards and calendars next to their work areas.

Yet the dramatic shift in routine posed challenges for other students for a variety of different reasons.

Clarke, the parent of elementary school students, pointed out that it was difficult for some of the youngest students to understand the need for the dramatic changes. 

"The hardest part is for my children to understand why everything has stopped," she said. "My kindergartener wants play dates so badly and doesn’t understand why he can’t see his friends - and my fourth grader is having a lot of anxiety about the coronavirus."

One parent of a middle-schooler said that her son had a harder time "self-regulating" and needed to sit next to a parent in order to stay on task with work. "If we weren't in a position to commit 6-7 hours per day to sitting beside him and keeping him on task, we'd be in a whole lot of hurt," she said. "I really feel for my friends with kids who have special needs or friends with two working parents where both parents are still working intense jobs."

And one parent of a special needs child specifically asked DigMB to remember parents of special needs children, especially those who rely on the regular support of an aide. "Many of those parents are really, really struggling... let alone getting any academics accomplished. If they have multiple children, those children are really suffering."

MBUSD Adapting Quickly

Katherine Whittaker Stopp, MBUSD's assistant superintendent for educational services, told DigMB that she had heard those concerns and that the MBUSD team was constantly at work to improve the process for all students. 

The first few days may have been a little uneven from class to class, she said, because there were many variables across the board due to teacher personality, teaching strategy, and subject matter. Some teachers were able to "jump right in and step on the gas" while others needed more time to launch such an enormous undertaking, she said. "We’ll get there," she added.

For now, she noted that all of the TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) were working at full speed to help their colleagues, and that the "job-alikes" (administrators in the same position) at every level from district to district were comparing notes and sharing resources.

(For parents and teachers who have questions about remote learning, Stopp pointed to an FAQ page built by Instructional Technology TOSA Jason Marshall. The MBUSD Distance Learning page gives a variety of help and instructional videos for parents and others to assist with remote learning.)

Stopp also said that MBUSD is also working quickly to get special education services up to speed, but special education is "a different beast" because instructions on how to move forward must come from the state. "We want to reassure parents that those students will get the support they need," she said. "If it’s not already coming, it will be."

Additionally, Stopp echoed a sentiment that several parents had expressed to DigMB - that some students seemed to prefer and even thrive under the new arrangement. She said, for example, that one parent said that her her son is now doing a better job at advocating for himself because he can ask questions online rather than raising his hand in class. "It’s interesting some of the things that come out of this," Stopp said.

Jennifer Cochran, a MBUSD school board member as well as a parent, concurred that the district was working hard to make the best of the situation. "From a behind-the-scenes perspective, I know that administrators are all working together and trying to support teachers on an ongoing basis," she said. "There are continually new resources being shared and teams are all working together over Zoom to help one another. I think we will continue to see it evolve and improve."

Worth noting: Stopp shared that while Manhattan Beach went straight into online schooling and assignments, some other districts had closed but had yet to even begin providing any remote instruction within the first week.

Focusing on Gratitude

Regardless of whether their kids are taking to the new format or not, parents all seemed to agree for a need to focus on the positive.

High school parent Julie Birkel said that she was grateful that her boys had a chance to experience life the way it was when she grew up, with games and family nights at home.

"I feel blessed to be working from home, while my boys are too," said Birkel. "Being a working mom, it can be hard to be there at just the moment your boys feel like talking about something, and now being in each other’s orbits all day, the conversation just flows – still sporadically, but I feel so much more up to speed on their lives. And they’re interested in mine!"

Stacy Myrose, the parent of a middle and high schooler, said that she appreciated the newfound time together. "Our lives were so busy that we had maybe one night a week - if we were lucky - that we could sit down and have dinner together as a family," she said. "Now we are eating at least two meals a day together."

Myrose added, "In the midst of all this confusion and uncertainty, I am grateful to the MBUSD teachers and administration for doing everything they can to allow learning to continue. I'm also  grateful for the extra time I get to spend with my family, and I am hopeful that when we come out the other side of this, we will all be kinder and more considerate of one another. "

(Editor's note: On Monday, Superintendent Matthews told families that MBUSD schools are currently planning to re-open for teachers on May 4, and for students on May 5 - as per the advice of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.)

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