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David Miyashiro has been pushing for smarter technology in the classroom for a long time. And at Cajon Valley Union School District in East County, where he is superintendent, teachers have been using “blended learning” – the jargon-y word for combining smart software and human capital – for the past seven years.
For Miyashiro, the pandemic highlighted the importance of this blended model in two important ways. Cajon Valley teachers, at least in his telling, were far more prepared to use distance learning, because they and their students were already very online. More importantly, it offered a look at the ways our fundamental ideas about schools might change in the future and how the typical Monday-through-Friday, 7-a.m.-to-3-p.m. school schedule might become a thing of the past.
On Thursday, Cajon Valley – a K-8 district with roughly 17,300 students – became one of the first San Diego County districts to finalize a back-to-school plan. Parents across the county have been in a frenzy trying to find out what next school year will look like. But so far few districts, if any, have settled on concrete plans.
Miyashiro’s plan allows parents to choose from three options: complete distance learning with no physical school, a hybrid model that combines some physical school with some distance learning and five-day-a-week regular school, space permitting. That could, in the long run, be similar to the plans other districts adopt. But Miyashiro is unique in so much as he believes his plan could contain seeds of the post-COVID future.
And that has brought out extreme anxiety in many parents in the district. So much anxiety that the district’s plans for reopening were nearly derailed this week when parents showed up to two different board meetings to protest.
“It’s looking like this is leaning toward a long-term plan and not just a response to the pandemic we’re in,” Jason Kaminsky, a Cajon Valley parent, told me on Tuesday. “Nothing in the plan addresses the criteria for what allows us to go back to normal.”
Kaminsky and dozens of other parents brought up their concerns at a special board meeting Tuesday. Board members had been set to approve Miyashiro’s reopening plan then, but pushed the vote back until Thursday to give parents more time to be heard.
On Tuesday, Miyashiro – in apparent frustration – said he actually didn’t even need board approval for his reopening plan, because he had been granted special powers when schools closed in March. On Thursday, when the board passed the new plan, he apologized: “I apologize for my behavior on Tuesday and will do better. But this plan is our plan.”
Miyashiro does admit he has designs on shaping the future of schools. “One thing we’ve learned: some of our parents have liked the flexibility. Why not continue to offer flexibility for parents who want it? Some parents might want to have their kids home on Friday. That could be an option,” he said.
In other words, he’s saying maybe not everyone needs to go to school five days a week – if that’s not what fits their schedules. For instance, in the hybrid education model that will be an option for Cajon Valley students this fall, they will only attend school two to three days a week.
In this quest to make schools better fit parents’ schedules, he’s also proposing that schools increase their childcare capabilities. During the pandemic, Cajon Valley started offering free childcare from 6:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. for essential workers. The district will continue to provide that service into next school year and Miyashiro would like to find to make the change permanent.
But it’s not just this talk of flexible schedules that has parents worried. The plan refers to teachers as advisers. It says that some students who are taking classes only digitally may have the same adviser as students who attend school every day. This makes it sound like teachers will be guiding students through digital lessons more than actually teaching themselves, said Kaminsky.
This passage caused some of the concerns: “At the core of this design is the reliance on an advisory model where students work in a cohort of students assigned to a credentialed teacher. Students have the benefit of one point person to set goals, monitor progress, and access the resources they need.”
Calling a class of students a “cohort” and a teacher a “point person” painted a hazy picture for some parents, and they weren’t sure they liked it.
In a world of true blended learning, software and algorithms do take on more of the heavy lifting. Computer programs handle much of the grading for teachers. And they also can let teachers know when students have mastered a subject.
Studies have shown blended learning can be effective, but when it is, it usually costs more money not less. In other words, just because machines are handling more of the process, doesn’t mean teachers are needed any less.
I asked Miyashiro if the advisory model would mean that students who go to physical school get less access to teaching.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s not taking away traditional school, for folks who want to go back to way it was. But why not take advantage of flexibility so we can say not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and.’”
Initial surveys conducted at Cajon Valley show that roughly 25 percent of parents don’t feel safe sending their kids back to school in the fall and would prefer to continue distance learning, Miyashiro said. That lines up with what other districts are hearing.
In Poway Unified, 16 percent of parents said they would prefer to stick with distance learning. In Del Mar Union, 39 percent of parents said the same. Neither of those districts has released a final learning plan yet.
As long as coronavirus is a problem, having an option to keep students out of school isn’t just good for the parents who want it. It’s also good for school districts. The more parents choose distance learning, the easier it will be for students who are in school to socially distance.
Allowing parents to choose also means districts won’t have to make tough decisions about who can actually come to campus.
Richard Barrera, board vice president of San Diego Unified, previously told me he might consider a plan that gave priority on physical campuses to underserved students, but that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.
If not enough families choose distance learning, tangible space might still be a problem. Cajon Valley’s plan says everyone can go to school five days a week who wants to – “based on site availability.”
Miyashiro said that if space is at a premium, the children of essential workers will have first priority to the physical space.
At Thursday’s meeting, board members injected a new clause into Miyashiro’s plan that mollified Kaminsky and some of the other parents. It said the board would review the plan and adapt it as soon as Gov. Gavin Newsom OK’d the full reopening of California.