‘Plan on the fly’: Local districts hard at work to keep kids learning

Eureka, Arcata, Mack schools are talking with students weekly, using Google Classromm to stay connected

Northern Humboldt Union High School District superintendent Roger Macdonald applauded his district for the work they are putting in to keep kids learning amid a health crisis. (Ruth Schneider — The Times-Standard file)
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Local educators are adapting their coursework into modes conducive to distance learning.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shuttered all elementary, middle and high school campuses in the county through at least April 10 and perhaps through the end of the school year depending on how long Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide shelter-in-place order lasts.

Michael Davies-Hughes, assistant superintendent of education services for Eureka City Schools, said the challenge in converting classroom instruction into means of distance learning is maintaining equity in accessibility for the district’s socio-economically diverse student base.

“The question we are asking is how do we provide instruction for students who are not at school, because that’s not instruction,” Davies-Hughes said. “Distance learning can be done through the use of online tools, but we cannot assume everyone has access to the internet.”

Davies-Hughes said the district is currently using packets of classwork for its pre-school through fifth-graders, and a mix of online tools such as Google Classroom, as well as hard-copy packets of work, for its sixth-through 12th-grade students.

An estimated 70 percent of the district’s student population qualifies for free or reduced meals, which means quite a few students might not have access to technology equal to their peers.

To date, Eureka City Schools has lent out nearly 500 Chromebooks to students and another 150 to teachers and staff, making every effort to maintain normal connections between students and educators.

Davies-Hughes said the district is also looking at using radio and television broadcasts on public access channels to conduct classes and hold general meeting times for students.

“Think Sesame Street,” Davies-Hughes said. “It would be something engaging for our students that would also serve as an instructional tool.”

The most important aspect of distance learning, in Davies-Hughes’ eyes, is the weekly phone calls teachers in the district give their students.

“Teachers are very well aware of their students’ needs,” Davies-Hughes said. “No one, besides their families, knows those students better. I cannot stress enough how important that weekly call is. It is a time where teachers can not only offer instruction, but can also check in with a student and have those interactions which are as an important part of school as classwork.”

Teal Cody, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Winship Middle School in Cutten, said the sudden shift has been a difficult one.

“It’s been really hard making such a big change,” Cody said. “Especially for math and science, it’s tough for these students to work through most of this material on their own.”

Cody said she’s employed the use of Google Classroom to keep her students connected, and said she gives weekly calls to all her students.

“We’re still working on a lot of the plan for how we’ll do this going forward,” she said. “For now, we’re giving them packets of work and meeting online or over the phone. I am making sure to check in with all my students on a regular basis. We have students who are homeless and food-insecure on a good day so, making sure those students and their families know what services we have is huge. That’s all we really did for the first week, was making sure everyone knew what they could still access.”

The district is currently giving away free breakfasts and lunches to anyone under 18 years of age. Meal pickup times are from 11 a.m. through 1 p.m. at Eureka High and the district’s four elementary schools. The district’s buses are also running their normal routes and are giving away meals to anyone 18 years and younger. The district has been giving away on average 1,300 meals per day since the schools closed. Last week in a single day, 2,200 meals were served.

The Northern Humboldt Unified High School District is also giving away free meals twice a week, Monday and Thursday, from its Arcata and McKinleyville high school campuses. The Monday handout will have three days worth of school meals and the Thursday handout, two days worth.

Roger Macdonald, superintendent of the NHUHSD, said he’s seen his teachers come together and support one another through the transition to distance learning.

“Over the last week, what I’ve seen the most is our teachers coming together and taking care of each other,” Macdonald said. “I think we’ve all worked just about every day during March to plan and re-plan as the situation demands.

“It’s unprecedented how much work our district has done over the last few weeks to make this shift, I am extremely proud of not just NHUHSD but all districts across the county,” Macdonald said.

The district has so far given away over 200 Chromebooks to students and staff for instructional use.

The NHUHSD website has a list of tutorials for students and parents trying to figure out how to use various online learning tools such as Google Classroom and how to present a slide show in Google Meet.

Rachel Watson spent 18 years as a teacher at McKinleyville High before becoming an instructional coach for the NHUHSD.

“There was really no plan in place for what to do when you can’t hold school at school,” Watson said. “So a lot of kudos have to go to our leadership for coming up with a plan on the fly. As teachers, we’ve always worked in collaborative teams and I think in times of crisis we can always fall back on that.”

Kelsi Edmonds, a 7th-grade student at Winship, said she’s been able to transition to online and packet-driven work. But something’s still missing.

“Everyone at schools knows each other and helps each other,” Edmonds said. “When someone doesn’t know how to do something in class they can always get someone to help them and I think that’s hard to do from home when you’re alone.”

Edmonds said the class has tried to stay close by spending time sharing aspects of their home life over video chats.

“We took turns showing each other our pets the other day,” she said.

Andrew Butler can be reached at 707-441-0526.

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