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San Diego Unified offers sneak peek at virtual learning plan for fall

The district said it is unlocking brand new tools for virtual learning this fall, while parents and kids are crafting plans of their own.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — School closures in San Diego will affect tens of thousands of students kindergarten through twelfth grade. The San Diego Unified School District announced a decision this week to return to virtual learning as the coronavirus crisis grows.

But some families are already struggling with the mere thought of it.

The district said it is unlocking brand new tools for virtual learning this fall, while parents and kids are crafting plans of their own.

As the untamed grass grows in schoolyards, Iver Spensley is tending to his garden at home. The 7-year-old is proud of the vegetables he planted in the spring as part of a remote-learning school project after his mom made it a point to log her son off Zoom.

"He wasn't getting the learning we were sending him to school for," said Stacy Spensley. 

She said the worksheets and videos simply didn't engage Iver.

"We unschooled and checked in with the teacher once a week," Stacy said. 

Not an ideal school scenario. But fast forward to the fall and Iver's mom said she knows what her son needs to get through the second grade online.

"If it's less screen-based and they have some actual stuff that he'll do then that's fine," Stacy said. "But we don't think it's fair to have kids and teachers go back to school and not interact."

More interaction and one-on-one time are just what San Diego Unified teachers are planning for this virtual school year.

"We all feel like the Zoom overload," said Lara Dickens who teaches science. 

She said cyber labs don't have the same impact. But she's cooking up some creative lesson plans for her students. 

"Is there anything around your house you've experienced or even a video you can find online that demonstrates what you've just learned?" she said as an example. 

The district acknowledges that every family has unique needs, some may be essential workers, some struggling financially or from a lack of access to the internet.

"When we started this, people were all over the place," said SDUSD Board Vice President Richard Barrera. "We're now clearer about the kind of support they need." 

He said schools are still ironing out the kinks and the curriculums but they don't have long to do it before classes resume Aug. 31.

But they've already promised an improved online learning model. 

"[It will be] more robust and more time being put in that will be consistent across the board," Barrera said. 

And even though classes will look and feel different, students will be graded like it's a normal school year. During the spring transition to distance learning grades couldn't go down - only up.

"One of the lessons from spring is that we need to introduce accountability into our system,' Barrera said. 

Advocates hope officials will be held accountable too.

Mahogany Taylor is president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. 

"We need the support of all levels of government – federal, state, and local - to be able to support opening schools in the safest manner possible," Taylor said. 

For now, working parents have started an online petition directed at Governor Gavin Newsom urging California to come up with financial support for parents who have to alter work schedules to help their kids learn from home.

"To make all these changes happen is just a huge undertaking," said Stacy Spensley. "We'll see what happens because you know none of us have a crystal ball." 

So how long will it last? Parents have heard this answer before: officials simply don't know yet. But they do expect to make another announcement on reopening plans before the start of the school year.

Follow the links below for online learning tools and other resources to help with virtual, distance and at-home learning: 

Wide Open Schoola free collection online learning experiences for kids curated by the editors at Common Sense. 

A Distance Learning Guide for San Diego FamiliesA digital guide by SDUSD to help families with the transition to distance learning. 

Learning in the Time of CoronaA private Facebook group for sharing "resources, tips, thoughts, frustrations, learnings, and findings" to help families with at-home learning. 

Distance Learning page by the California Department of Education: Guidance and resources for teachers and families in K–12 schools regarding high-quality distance learning.

Free Educational Resources for Distance Learning: A non-comprehensive list by the California Department of Education of publishers offering free distance learning resources. 

PBS LearningMedia: Videos and lessons for students on a variety of topics.

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