Courtesy photo

The Santa Monica Malibu-Unified School District has completed its first four weeks of distance learning and will soon be releasing a survey to assess family satisfaction and plan adjustments. While many parents are pleased with the improvements to spring’s distance learning model, some voiced concerns about screen time and scheduling at last week’s School Board meeting, and the District seeks to incorporate this feedback into its response.

“We have one cohort of our community that are happy with what they have right now and would like to continue with what they have right now. We also have a cohort of people that do not like the distance learning model, that either want something in person or something that works better for them,” said Jon Kean, School Board President. “The survey will be addressing both of these issues. That way, the response is not going to be anecdotal based on who comes to the Board meeting or who sends more emails, but will be based on data from all of our schools.”

This fall’s model of distance learning was based on parent, student, and staff feedback from distance learning in the spring and the educational requirements outlined in Senate Bill 98. It includes a mix of live instruction and asynchronous work time, enforced attendance requirements, and daily social emotional learning.

There are weekly professional development sessions for teachers to share problems and best practices and receive additional training in engaging students through the online model.

Despite the strong efforts put forward by the District, there are still some parents and teachers experiencing stress and difficulties with the current model. Several of these parents spoke up at last Thursday’s School Board meeting asking for decreased screen time and increased scheduling flexibility.

“I’ve got four kids. Life is crazy right now. I’m working full time. What I’m seeing every day is heartbreaking as I have to convince my kids to log in to Zoom multiple times a day and they’re resisting it. I’ve never heard them tell me before that they hate school, that they don’t like math, and they don’t want to read online,” said parent Jaye Fenderson. “What I’m asking for is to reduce the screen time, to give us some flexible options, and to align the lunch schedules across grade levels.”

Parents and Board members both noted that the challenges of distance learning are particularly acute for younger students who struggle to focus on a computer for long periods of time.

“Screen time increases disengagement, complacency, and can increase the risk of lower long-term academic performance and even whether learners advance in their academic career years later,” said parent Julie Rousseau. “My five-year-old kindergarten child has been imposed to watch a screen for 180 minutes per day. I’m asking you to consider giving families the flexibility to opt out of live Zoom sessions, and or administer curriculum independently, and or grant a sabbatical so that families will not lose their spots.”

SB98 requires 180 instructional minutes in kindergarten, 230 in grades 1 to 3, and 240 in grades 4 to 12. The District has made efforts to include small group work, project work, and out-of-the-seat activities during these instructional minutes.

“I think we have to listen to some of the families that are having a hard time and listen to the teachers that are very stressed out and overwhelmed. I’m hoping that if we allow everybody involved to give their input, the leadership team would be able to come up with a better approach,” said Maria Leon-Vazquez, School Board member. “We are at one month and we’re already getting to a breaking point, so I think we have to stop and reassess where we’re going.”

The upcoming survey is one method the District will use to assess distance learning in addition to considering comments shared at Board meetings and working with guardians of English learners, foster youth, and low-income students.

“We are hearing from parents directly that they are overwhelmingly happy with distance learning this fall,” said a District spokeswoman. “We all long for the days of our students in class as was the experience prior to the pandemic. This is not the reality now. District teachers and staff are committed to making this situation as good as possible. We have resources and partners who are assisting parents to best support their students during this challenging time.”