Learning during a pandemic

OPUSD goes full distance learning


Jay Dugar/Talon

Science teacher Anastasia Kokiousis teaches her 4th period AP Environmental Science class about Genetically Modified Organisms, via Zoom.

To limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus, all students in the Oak Park Unified School District are partaking in a distance learning model for the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year.

This plan was finalized through a ParentSquare blast on July 15, to start the year virtually on Aug. 10.

The California Department of Education Coronavirus Response and School Reopening Guidance holds that schools should not reopen without a sustained decrease in new COVID-19 cases, a requirement which has not been met in the state of California, or Ventura County, where the number of new cases continues to rise.

With respect to this requirement by the California Department of Education, OPUSD Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight wrote in the July 15 StudentSquare blast, “Even though we have designed a high-quality Hybrid Learning model, it has become increasingly clear that bringing students back to campus even in a limited capacity in August would pose unacceptable levels of risk to both students and staff, as well as their families.”

Many of the decisions made regarding OPUSD’s fall plans for instruction were made by the Re-Entry Task Force and Return to Introduction Working Group. After noticing there were only teachers and administrators on the task force, senior Jackson Finch reached out to be a student representative for the Return to Instruction work group

“I provided input into how students perform working at home and being in classes through Google Meets. I gave basic input on what worked and didn’t work, which guided the process of planning the indefinite Distance Learning for the 2020-21 school year,” Finch wrote to the Talon. 

Initially, the plan was to give students the option to utilize a hybrid model, allowing students to attend in-person classes on alternating days. 

“The current plan, which is subject to change, is [to] be in Distance Learning for the first quarter of the school year. If the teachers, faculty, and administration feel that there is no significant risk to student and teacher health, we will go into a Hybrid schedule,” Finch wrote.

According to Finch, the COVID-19 pandemic is so “unpredictable” that there is no way to know if or when OPUSD will move to the hybrid model. 

“We may move to a hybrid schedule in Quarter 2, Semester 2, or not at all,” Finch wrote.

Junior Shreya Maddhali attends her classes from her room and, according to her, this “unpredictability” has taken a major toll on her ordinary way of life. 

She wakes up, gets ready for class and then goes to each of her classes for the day. After attending her classes, she typically takes a nap before starting her homework. 

“It feels really weird to work from home. Sometimes I like working from home because I have access to all of my materials (binders, Chromebook, etc.) that I would usually forget if we went to school, but I miss [the] social interaction that was a part of being at school,” Maddhali wrote to the Talon.

The administration will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and determine if and when moving back to regular in-person classes will be acceptable. Meanwhile, faculty is working to improve upon the Distance Learning program of the 2019-20 school year.

Oak Park teachers, administrators, and support staff are preparing to deliver an exemplary Distance Learning program,” Knight wrote in the blast. “Intensive professional development and planning are taking place this summer to build a completely new experience for our students.” 

According to counselor Julie Ross, while the Distance Learning experience will be different than that of the traditional classroom setting, the quality of education students receive at OPHS will not decrease. 

“I think our teachers are fabulous at delivering lessons and really educating themselves in a variety of online tools. Our district has been far ahead of others and has offered teachers a variety of professional development in order to help staff out with distance learning,” Ross wrote to the Talon. 

While teachers will be able to continue teaching online, according to Ross, “nothing can replace being in a classroom daily.”

“Now that we have settled in to a [Distance Learning] model, I think students are adjusting mentally. It is actually hard to assess where they are at,” Ross wrote. “I know at first, suddenly being only able to interact virtually was a huge adjustment. Seniors had to deal with the loss of activities they had looked forward to for years. This was quite a lot for them to manage emotionally.”

Knight agrees that the traditional classroom experience cannot be replicated through Distance Learning; however, it is a necessary, albeit difficult, exchange in favor of student health and safety.

“Along with all of you, I had hoped we would be experiencing a decline in infections in our communities and that we would be welcoming everyone back to school on August 10, even if it would be in a limited capacity,” Knight wrote in the blast.

The administration will continue to work on ways to resume in-person classes during the first few months of Distance Learning and until it is safe to return.

“Know that we are continuing to prepare our schools for an in-person return and will continue to improve our Hybrid model so that when it is safe to bring our students and staff back to campuses, we will be ready,” Knight wrote in the blast. “In the meantime, our focus is on delivering the best possible Distance Learning program possible.”

There are several requirements the district must meet before they are able to open specific to the county OPUSD is in. These requirements are related to a new color-category system, with color zones related to the state of the virus within the district. The tiers relevant to OPUSD are purple, where Ventura County is currently, and red.

“[The requirement to reopen school is] to be out of the purple tier [and into] the red tier for 14 days. So, to get into the red tier, you have to be out of the purple for 14 days. So that means once [we] start on the trajectory of a lower number of cases, you have to be in that [position] for 28 consecutive days. Ventura County has not yet been one day out of the purple,” Knight said in an interview with the Talon.

The situations for primary and secondary schools are very different, and may be treated as such in the return to instruction process. 

“We probably won’t open the secondary schools until after the second semester at the earliest, and we might open the elementary schools a little bit at a time, ” Knight said. “We would begin with the elementary schools and the youngest grades, and we will see how that goes to make sure that our systems are in place and are working well, and that the kids are staying safe. And then we would gradually add grade levels or classes to that model and work our way up.”

As of now, there is no set plan for when secondary school will be able to switch to a hybrid model or fully in-person classes.

“I don’t picture a day where we’re just going to open all the schools up like they were before March the 13th last year,” Knight said. I don’t even picture a day right now where we would open everything up under the hybrid model where we would have half the students.”