Learning Pods, Education Inequity and Waivers: Back to School in the Covid Age

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

GLENDALE, Calif. (CN) — Back to school this year in Southern California will be — like most other tasks during the era of the novel coronavirus — unprecedented.

LA County continues to see roughly 2,000 confirmed daily infections due to a high rate of community transmission. Five months after the global pandemic was declared the threshold to resume in-person classes in LA County is still a work in progress as the daily rate is too high under the state’s health order.

Alternatives to teaching students outside of the classroom vary to follow the state’s strict health guidelines to slow the spread of Covid-19. One school district near downtown LA wants parents to embrace the learning pod.

With 26,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) will attempt to provide parents of younger children with child care while maintaining social distancing in a classroom setting via “learning pods.” Students will learn from their instructors at remote locations and will be able to play during recess — although that too will involve physical distancing and face masks.

A thousand elementary students will attend learning pod classes at GUSD this upcoming semester. Temperature checks before the start of the school day will also be routine, according to an instruction video from the school district.

In a statement, GUSD said many parents viewed child care as a top priority for the upcoming school year and the learning technology pod program is meant to help parents who cannot work from home, students in foster care and other groups who received priority in being accepted into the program.

Jimmy Shimabukuro’s 6-year-old son, Jeremy, will be part of a pod this upcoming school semester.

Shimabukuro, a GUSD parent and Courthouse News Service’s office manager, said he wants Jeremy to be immersed in a learning environment that isn’t just the family dining room table.

“He’s nervous, obviously,” Shimabukuro said of his son. “I’ve explained to him that it’s a learning pod and it wasn’t like what he had at the end of his last school year. Play is not the same play he had before.”

Shimabukuro noted a certain level of interaction is missing with online learning, which is how most students in California ended the last school year.

“A screen can only do so much in presenting a perspective in what you’re able to see. With other children being around physically, regardless if he’s able to interact with them in close contact, Jeremy’s surrounded by a group of his peers,” said Shimabukuro, whose son is enrolled in a dual-language immersion program where he will learn Japanese and English simultaneously.

Johnna Shapiro, another GUSD parent, said she sees the appeal of the learning pod model but does not want to risk exposing her family to the virus, including her children who are entering kindergarten and the third grade.

Shapiro said she might try and make a go at a social pod with families in her community, so her children can experience some form of interaction with their peers.

The school district has approached the pandemic with all the thought and care that seems suitable, Shapiro said, adding she feels privileged that she and her husband are able to work from home during this time.

“It’s a very hard situation that can be inequitable, because of the pandemic doesn’t change in a few months, I mean, if we were waiting tables right now, not only would we need to drop our kids at school for child care, but we would have to worry about our own health,” said Shapiro.

The pandemic has exacerbated the wealth gap among students across the country. Parents who can work from home are able to tutor their children, while 1 in 5 students in California do not have high-speed internet or a computer at home, according to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office.

Because its 700,000 students won’t be learning from the classroom anytime soon, LA Unified School District reportedly spent $100 million to purchase and loan out Chromebooks this year to meet the sudden demand of educating students at home.

But equity and access are not a level playing field outside of the classroom. Low-income students who lack reliable access to internet or a laptop are often sidelined, and parents often can’t work from home to make sure their children receive the best education or afford a private tutor.

In the city of Inglewood, putting a laptop in front of students can still be a challenge says Inglewood Unified School District second grade teacher Andrew Gin.

“A lot of students understand the value of education, but the few that don’t can’t equate education with distance learning,” said Gin, who has taught at Payne Elementary School, now Payne Steam Academy, since 1998. “If they don’t have to be somewhere then they don’t really value distance learning.”

“I don’t think it was fair to parents, teachers, students. It was an unprecedented event and nobody really knew really how to handle it,” said Gin.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the city of Inglewood has a poverty rate between 18% and 20%, with a majority Latino and Black population.

Essential workers who are unable to work from home are left with the difficult question of how their children will be able to participate in distance learning or even be present when classes start online. The question was posed to the Inglewood Unified School District during a virtual townhall earlier this month.

“If you’re facing challenges around your child accessing school during the day, please reach out,” said Bernadette Lucas, Inglewood Unified’s chief academic officer. “It’s going to be differentiative support, it’s going to take communication between home, school and district, it’s going to take thinking of alternative plans, it’s going to take whatever it takes. We cannot let this crisis echo into their future in a way that frankly cripples them.”

To the south, many elementary schools in Orange County — mostly private or religious — are handling the pandemic in a completely different way: they’ve applied for waivers to reopen with in-class learning once the local infection rate drops below the state-mandated threshold.

Work on processing waivers is on hold due to a backlog in test confirmations at the state level. No waivers will be approved if Orange County has more than 100 cases per 100,000 people in a 14-day period.

On Monday, Orange County reported 216 cases in a 24-hour period. Since the pandemic began, nearly 44,000 Orange County residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

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