California’s San Bernardino Unified Pushes Virtual Learning for Another Month

Most school districts across California have resumed some form of in-person learning, but there are a few outliers that are sticking to virtual learning for the safety of their communities.

Palm trees line a San Bernardino street that seemingly stretches to snow-capped peaks. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

(CN) — From kitchen tables and rooms busy with the noise of restless children, the parents and grandparents of San Bernardino call in for another Zoom town hall meeting with school officials.

While students from across the country head back into classrooms for some of their first in-person lessons during the pandemic, San Bernardino City Unified School District is going to wait just a bit longer. The district of roughly 53,000 students serves a predominantly Latino and Black population. Roughly 10% of the student population is homeless according to available state data, 90% of the student body is socioeconomically disadvantaged and a large portion of the student body are immigrants who do not have easy access to health care.

“We have great need,” said Assistant Superintendent Rachel Monarrez when reached by phone in late April.

The schools’ economic and demographic makeup played a large part in the district’s decision last November to extend distance learning through the end of the spring semester.

“The district is concerned that the community would be at a disadvantage if another outbreak of Covid-19 spread,” Monarrez said.

In the last year Monarrez said the district has had to be like Gumby, the green clay character that can roll into just about any shape to solve complex problems. For the district, that has meant learning to work around the capricious nature of the pandemic.

Last November, just ahead of California’s deadliest surge, the district’s executive board voted to extend distance learning. Around the same time, San Bernardino County’s average weekly rate of new Covid-19 infections was roughly 600, but by December 2020 that jumped to 2,200. That’s when Governor Gavin Newsom laid out the guidelines behind the state’s “Safe Schools for All” which emphasized in-person learning, which included $2 billion in funding for districts across the state.

“We can do this,” Newsom said during a press briefing earlier this month. “I understand the hesitancy. I understand the stress and anxiety, but that does not compare to the stress and anxiety we’ll have and the dream of regretting that we could have, would have, should have prioritized our children.”

San Bernardino understood the measures it needed to take, but officials were not convinced.

Given the district’s demographic makeup, officials were wary of rising infections and deaths. Latinos between the ages of 20 to 54 years are 2.3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than non-Latinos in California, according to a recent study from Keck School of Medicine of USC. Foreign-born Latinos are 11 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than U.S.-born, non-Latinos. The disparities in access to health care during the pandemic weighed heavily on school officials.

“Not everybody had access to health care and the board was cautious about the health and safety of the families,” said Monarrez.

Rather than shift students back to in-person learning for a few weeks, the district would focus and prepare its 72 schools for the summer and fall semesters.

But after a year of distance learning, fatigue has set in and some anxiety flared up during the online town hall meeting in late April.

A sticking point for several parents was the feeling that their children were not effective virtual students. Adeline Garcia logged into the meeting to ask what were the chances that her granddaughter Alyssa could get help from her teachers when she starts her next school year.

“She didn’t do virtual learning very well. Now I’m just so worried,” said Garcia. “She’s wonderful, but she did run into little problems.”

Howana Lundy, special education director, chimed in and went over tutoring options and said a coordinator would connect with Garcia to put together a specific plan for her granddaughter.

“Thank you so much, I don’t know if you see the little heart,” Garcia said, holding her hands up to her camera in the shape of a heart.

For other parents, the adjustment to online learning was a steep curve, but with practice, they managed. Erika Fortuna-Huizar called to say she was concerned about whether her daughter, who is going to middle school for the first time, fell into a routine.

“We’ve been able to navigate. I can hold my daughter accountable to her work,” said Fortuna-Huizar when reached by phone. “I set an agenda for my daughter. She did well. Well, we both did pretty well with it. She’s looking forward to seeing her friends.”

Fortuna-Huizar is fine with another month of online learning given that her daughter is old enough to understand the concept of working online throughout the day. During the town hall meeting, a mother named Kandice said her kindergartener was struggling to keep up with his lessons. Her son did well during pre-school before the pandemic, but he’s languished over the last year.

“He doesn’t do well with this online learning thing. Are they possibly going to hold him back due to that?” Kandice asked. “This whole covid thing that happened was not his fault. I’ve done everything I can to help him. But I’m not a teacher. I’m a mom.”

Tasha Doizan, elementary instruction director, said the first-grade curriculum includes a review of what students learned in kindergarten, including phonics and other subjects. Doizan said holding a student back is based on a group decision that the parent would be involved in. She asked Kandice to reach out so they could connect after the meeting.

From her kitchen table, Kandice paused and said she’s usually on top of her children’s learning.

“I’m not used to my kids not thriving and my son, he’s very smart, very bright. It’s just sitting front of the monitor all day, doing repetitive things all day,” said Kandice. “He’s five.”

The district officials went on to detail infection control guidelines and what it will mean once students are back in the classroom and many of the rules they will have to follow.

“I know that they will mess up, because they’re just kids,” said mother of four Erin Pacheco when reached by phone. “Kids are going to want to hug their friends or touch things they’re not supposed to touch right now, but that’s going to happen.”

Pacheco said that the last year has been a challenge, but she also hopes that her second grader Frankie, and her third grader Adriana take away one important lesson from the last year.

“Gratitude, patience and being in school with their friends. Really appreciating what their teachers do for them,” said Pacheco.

Monarrez said it’s been difficult, because there are some parents who focus on the “doom and gloom” of distance learning.

“I hear people ask, ‘What’s going to happen to our students?’ They will surpass us,” said Monarrez. “My conversations revolve around to make sure the child is safe and has consistency in their schooling. We miss them and we know they miss their friends. As soon as we can offer them something that is consistent and that can keep them safe and their families safe then we can return.”

Summer school, with in-person instruction, begins June 7.

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