San Diego Unified School District Trustee Richard Barrera speaks at press conference announcing school closures. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

As officials are rushing to gear up for the “soft launch” of San Diego Unified School District’s online learning plan by Monday, key details are starting to emerge:

  • Students grades can only go up, not down, depending on the amount of work they accomplish, said board vice president Richard Barrera.
  • Teachers will be able to choose from one of three levels, depending on whether they are beginners or advanced, to deliver an online curriculum, according to emails obtained by Voice of San Diego.
  • District officials will create new learning objectives, which are significantly reduced compared with traditional common core standards.
  • Officials also hope they will be able to expand the school year by several weeks or at least be able to offer an expanded version of summer school.
  • Special education services will not be delivered to the same extent they were before schools shut down.

The new online learning system will officially launch on April 27. That’s when graded work will begin. Until then, educators are expected to be learning the new systems and working with their students to the extent they are able, Barrera said.

“This is really building the plane as you are trying to fly it,” said Mark Schwarz, a fifth-grade teacher at Alice Birney Elementary. “Our No. 1 concern is our students and making sure they get some modicum of instruction.”

Like other teachers, Schwarz is watching online trainings and working to create virtual classrooms on Zoom and Google Classroom. The district will also lean heavily on Canvas and Seesaw, two other online learning platforms.

Minjuan Wang, a professor who studies online learning at San Diego State University, said those are some of the best platforms currently available for online learning. Wang teaches all of her classes online and uses Zoom, among other programs. SDSU will also soon move to using Canvas, which is one of the best learning management systems available, she said.

San Diego Unified is currently in the process of running professional development seminars to help teachers get up to speed on teaching online. But Schwarz said he is also turning to his peers at school for support and feedback.

An email sent to teachers referred to three different models of online learning that will be available to teachers, depending on their experience level with online teaching.

The first level is “recommended for schools and educators at the emerging stage of delivering instruction through distance learning.” Educators at the first level will receive “district-provided instructional materials.” There is also an advanced level for “educator-led blended instruction” and a middle level for “hybrid instruction.”

It’s unclear how much online interaction beginner-level teachers might have with their students and exactly what district-provided materials will be given to those teachers.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the district’s online learning model. Wendy Rank-Buhr and Tavga Bustani, two administrators heading up the development of the new program, also did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think even Level 1, in order to do this in a meaningful way, is going to require some investment” from teachers, said Schwarz, who is in his 21st year of teaching.

Barrera was unable to provide detailed information on the three models available to teachers. He did say, however, that the district plans to only allow students’ grades to go up from where they were when schools closed. State guidelines include that approach as an option for educators to consider, although it’s unclear if mandating that plan would violate state laws indicating teachers have the final say over student grades.

“The general idea is that no students are harmed, but students can improve,” said Barrera. If a student had a “B” in geometry before the shutdown, for instance, that student would maintain a “B” regardless of how much work they complete, once official online learning begins.

That means seniors whose grades might be slightly below what’s needed to graduate, will have the opportunity to raise their grades enough to get a high school diploma.

Barrera said district officials anticipate fewer students will participate in online learning than generally show up to class every day during normal circumstances. District officials are working on a plan to distribute computer devices with internet to students who need one beginning Monday and continuing in the following weeks. Unlike some other districts, San Diego Unified already has student devices available paid for by past local bond measures. Barrera said the district will provide free internet to all students who need it, but no deal has been struck with providers yet.

The state’s Common Core standards lay out what a student is supposed to learn in a given course during the school year. But it would be impossible to try to achieve the same standards through online learning, said Barrera. District administrators are accordingly working to whittle down the standards to their most essential elements for online learning.

Wang, the online learning expert, agrees this is the correct path to take.

“Online learning is perfect for adults and graduate students,” she said. “But for high school and elementary school students it is too early for them to be completely online.”

Kindergarten through 12th grade students are usually captives to the educational experience, Wang said. Now, they will likely be presented with more opportunities to get out of their work. She juxtaposed that with graduate students and adult learners, who are usually taking online courses because they want to.

Barrera said non-classroom teachers will bear much of the burden of trying to track down students who aren’t logging on.

Teachers still have lots of questions about how online learning will work, said Kisha Borden, president of the local teacher’s union, the San Diego Education Association.

“We are not going to be spending an entire school day on a computer, so what is that going to look like? What are the expectations of time spent?” she asked.

Barrera was not able to provide a detailed answer to that question, but he did say the amount of time spent on the computer will vary significantly between grade levels and the kinds of lessons teachers design. Some teachers might offer full classroom Zoom meetings, while others might assign projects.

“Right now, we are hearing a lot from parents with varying levels of stress, frankly,” Borden said. “I think we have to be cognizant of the impact this is going to have on families as well. Some families are very lucky and have the means to support their children.”

Parents at home and not working “have a lot more time to sit down and support children at home,” said Borden. While “parents doing full-time jobs, working from home, or are not at home and are going out of the house working are not able to help, so that’s going to be very difficult for a lot of people, or people with three to four of their own children.”

How to provide special education for students with physical and learning disabilities will also be a huge problem for educators to figure out. Borden said teachers have not yet received guidance about how they are supposed to handle Individual Education Programs, or IEPs, for students who require special services.

“It’s a matter of figuring out how to provide those services at a distance,” she said.

Barrera acknowledged special education services would be diminished from their usual standard.

“We know for students with disabilities in particular and English learners and a lot of other students, the best of what we can do online will never be good enough,” he said.

Doing nothing, however, would have created even bigger equity issues, said Barrera. Had the district not moved to some form of official online learning, many students who lack resources would have been left behind, as more well-heeled parents found ways to continue their children’s education.

The “ideal” would be for state officials to pay for an extended school year, Barrera said. San Diego Unified would like to extend the school year by five weeks, he said, or at bare minimum be able to offer an extended version of summer school. Barrera said this would give the district the maximum opportunity to make sure no students fall massively behind while California schools and businesses remain closed prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But that will certainly cost more money, he said. The biggest cost for school districts is people, by far. And paying to keep staff on for an extra five weeks would be costly. San Diego Unified and Los Angeles Unified have asked the state for an additional $500 per student for districts all across the state. For San Diego Unified, that adds up to about $50 million, and Barrera says it would likely be enough to extend the school year.

Without an extension, it’s possible new costs to transition to purely online learning will be offset by some savings from classroom closures and allow the district to break even in the final months of the year, Barrera said. Utility costs, for instance, will not be as high, and finance staff is analyzing those savings, he said.

So far, state officials have only agreed to increase funding due to COVID-19 closures by roughly $17 per student, according the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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