As students and teachers in the Santa Clarita Valley continue to utilize an online approach to education, teachers with the William S. Hart Union School District believe that there is a “huge difference” between how distance learning first looked in the spring and how it is currently conducted in the fall.
Since the middle of March, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced students, teachers and parents to move away from traditional in-person classroom settings to an online, distance learning format.
While many have previously expressed frustration with the new educational model, teachers within the Hart District have seen it evolve from “crisis teaching” in the spring to the “polar opposite” in the fall.
A Spring of Uncertainty
On Friday, March 13, officials with Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital confirmed the first case of COVID-19 within the Santa Clarita Valley.
That same day, teachers within the Hart District were informed that all schools would transition to online “distance learning” for five weeks beginning the following Monday.
“When we were thrown into distance learning, it really threw us all off,” said Kerri Mitchell, a math teacher at Hart High School. “It felt like I was being thrown into a completely new job.”
The idea was to have students stay home until the district’s spring break, after which regular classes were planned to resume.
However, students did not physically return to school for the rest of the spring semester, as the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic caused state and county health officials to prohibit the reopening of school campuses.
“We didn’t know what to do,” said Kam Punpanichgul, a math teacher at La Mesa Junior High School. “We kind of had to learn on the fly. A lot of it was just what we teachers called ‘crisis teaching.’”
One of the main issues that teachers faced during the online spring semester was maintaining a connection with their students. Students were not required to attend live teaching hours, resulting in a number of students falling behind due to a “lack of accountability.”
“One of my fears was teaching math online,” Punpanichgul said. “In math, you need feedback. You need constant feedback to see that they understand what you’re teaching.”
Additionally, many students struggled with technology issues at home, despite efforts from the district to distribute Google Chromebook laptops to those in need.
“My favorite part of teaching is the connection with the students, but that was all basically gone,” Mitchell said. “There was never any direct interaction. I feel like that was the biggest struggle for most of us.”
To prevent students from suffering academically for circumstances largely out of their control, the district’s governing board adopted a temporary grading system that allowed students to earn the traditional letter grades of A, B and C, while the D and F grades are replaced by “Credit” or “No Credit.”
“In this sense, there are no fails,” said Hart District Superintendent Mike Kuhlman during a special meeting in May. “Students would either receive credit or not receive credit for a class.”
Teachers within the Hart District were also instructed not to administer final exams, and that only assignments that can help raise a student’s grade should be assigned.
“We were told ‘do no harm,’” said Clarissa Ressella, a science teacher from Castaic High School with 23 years of experience. “We had a lot of leeway for students. To not require student accountability was very tough for me.”
The Spring 2020 semester ended on June 4.
A Summer of Preparation
Following the conclusion of the “stressful” spring semester, district officials encouraged teachers to take a “well-deserved break.”
“The district was doing the right thing,” Ressella said. “They gave us time off. It was something that we truly needed, but we were still on the edge.”
At the time, the average number of daily COVID-19 deaths in Los Angeles County was decreasing, and the growth in the number of new cases was remaining steady within the county. Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger publicly stated that they hoped to have the county re-opened by July 4.
“We were still in flux,” Ressella said. “We didn’t know if we were coming back or if we weren’t coming back.”
While some hoped to have students back in the classroom in some manner in the fall, officials within the Hart District formed 14 different committees to prepare for what a “blended” or online model would look like if needed in the fall.
“I think I got more emails that summer than I ever have gotten in my career,” Mitchell said. ”We were all thinking about, ‘How can I make this better?’ There were a lot of those conversations.”
Though no formal training was mandated over the summer, district officials did inform teachers that “professional development” resources were available on the district’s website if they wanted to voluntarily participate.
Meanwhile, summer school was underway in the district. Many teachers, including Punpanichgul, used it as an opportunity to experiment with the online format. By the end of the summer, Punpanichgul and some of his fellow summer school teachers had tried out over a dozen different platforms and programs.
“I wanted to keep myself fresh,” he said. “It was a very valuable experience.”
By the end of June, district officials had been directed by the governing board to explore what a “blended” approach to re-opening campuses would look like.
A survey of over 7,500 parents within the Hart District at the time showed that 52 percent indicated that they would prefer their children to resume classes entirely on-campus, 34 percent of parents preferred a blended model and 14 percent preferred an entirely online learning experience for their children.
“We still weren’t sure what was going to happen,” Ressella said. “Some of us didn’t feel safe yet with a hybrid model. We ended up trying to plan as best as we could.”
However, the odds for a blended return to school were dramatically reduced in July. An average of nearly 2,800 new cases of COVID-19 were being reported within Los Angeles County every day, which was up over 1,100 from the month before.
On July 15, the Hart District Governing Board formally voted to begin the fall semester online for the first five weeks, with the goal of transitioning to a hybrid model after five weeks. Two days later, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that schools within counties on the state’s “watchlist” were to remain closed for the time being.
A Fall in Focus
Three days before the start of the fall semester, Hart District teachers began a training module developed by College of the Canyons to help prepare them for the incoming online semester.
“It taught us things like how to create Google classrooms, or how different programs work online,” Punpanichgul said.
One of the key differences between the spring and fall semesters was the introduction of a set online schedule. Students are now required to log on and attend live classes, which teachers say has made a “huge difference.”
“We expect them to be in our classroom,” Ressella said. “We’re teachers, we want kids to learn. We are in front of them, and we expect and want their attention.”
This change has helped teachers and students restore the connection that Mitchell felt was lost in the spring.
“I have found that I’m still making connections with my students, just in a completely different way,” she said.
Punpanichgul has constantly asked for feedback from his students in order to ensure that they continue to remain focused.
“The kids like it,” he said. “It’s getting better. It’s a learning process, with a lot of ups and downs, but there are a lot of positives.”
One of the positives to come out of this experience has been the opportunity for teachers to become more familiar with new technology and programs available to keep students engaged in their education.
“There’s always things I wanted to learn and incorporate into my physical classroom, but I wasn’t able to,” Punpanichgul said. “Distance learning allowed me to learn more, and make the content more accessible to the kids.”
Punpanichgul concluded that the experience overall will “enrich” his classroom once he is able to teach in an in-person class setting once again. Mitchell echoed similar sentiments.
“My technological skills have grown exponentially,” she said. “When we do get back, I feel like I’m going to be able to integrate more technology into my classroom.”
Ressella, who is currently teaching eight classes, said that distance learning has allowed her to find a “different avenue for teaching,” despite it being “one of the hardest things in my teaching career.”
“It’s freaking tough to hold teenagers attention when you’re talking into a box all day long,” she said. “It’s super tough, but it’s super rewarding in terms of having the kids still reach out to me.”
Ressella, Mitchell and Punpanichgul urged parents to be patient with both teachers and students, as both were still learning how to operate during such an unprecedented semester.
“We’re all struggling, but we’re here for a reason,” Ressella said. “We’re teachers for a reason. We love our students.”
As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, an official date for the return to physical classes within the Hart District had not been determined. Los Angeles County remains under “Tier 1” of the state’s tiered approach to re-opening, and in-person instruction for schools is not permitted until the county has been in the second tier for at least two weeks.
While other schools in Santa Clarita such as College of the Canyons have announced their plans to remain online for the duration of the Spring 2021 semester, no such announcements have been made for the Hart District, as officials wait to see where the county will be in the state’s re-opening process.
“I understand that it’s frustrating, I want to go back to school just as much as everybody else does, but attitude is everything,” Mitchell said. “This is the situation we’ve been given, let’s try and make this work. Let’s approach this with a positive attitude.”Do you have a news tip? Call us at (661) 298-1220, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t miss a thing. Get breaking KHTS Santa Clarita News Alerts delivered right to your inbox. Report a typo or error, email Corrections@hometownstation.com
KHTS FM 98.1 and AM 1220 is Santa Clarita’s only local radio station. KHTS mixes in a combination of news, traffic, sports, and features along with your favorite adult contemporary hits. Santa Clarita news and features are delivered throughout the day over our airwaves, on our website and through a variety of social media platforms. Our KHTS national award-winning daily news briefs are now read daily by 34,000+ residents. A vibrant member of the Santa Clarita community, the KHTS broadcast signal reaches all of the Santa Clarita Valley and parts of the high desert communities located in the Antelope Valley. The station streams its talk shows over the web, reaching a potentially worldwide audience. Follow @KHTSRadio on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.