The greatest test in education

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

The greatest test in educationOn Monday morning, Sierra Sands Unified School District begins its new academic year. But instead of the first-day photos, nostalgic walks to the bus stop and ritual school-supply lists, students and teachers and parents are embarking on a shared journey into the new, and largely unknown, world of Distance Learning 2.0.

A major focus of this week has been continued rollouts of training for all users of the new “Canvas” learning-management tool. But while faculty and staff have done their best to preemptively meet every possible challenge in virtual education, parents continue to express trepidation about the unforeseeable implications and needs that will surface with the launch of the coming year.

“I realize a lot has changed. One thing that I can ensure our parents that has not changed is our people,” said SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash. “Our entire workforce is eager to reconnect with and support our students. That dedication is going to be the constant moving forward into this next year.”

Teachers have been through rigorous training and professional development — also remotely — this week in hopes of preparing them to shepherd their charges through the changes in the coming year.

“I think we’ve all come to terms with the fact that no school district in the country is going to get everything right by the first day. There is nothing magical about the date Aug. 17.

“But we are anticipating a number of successes on that first day, and we are adjusting our mindsets so that we can learn everything we can to ensure continued student success.”

District officials have distributed Chromebooks to every student, and internet access to those who need it, to ensure access to the Canvas portal.

“We have built out the school schedules to include active engagement, live instruction and even practice time for students. The format will very much approximate the regular school day, with flexibility and teacher discretion to include independent work or group break-out sessions where it is necessary,” said Ostash.

“We don’t know what we don’t know yet, and we know we are taking a leap of faith in implementing the new distance-learning system. The public school system has been evolving for decades. This is certainly the most extreme shift I have experienced , but the philosophy to adapt to our students’ needs continues even during these turbulent times.”

Sierra Sands officials noted that the program implemented in March was done so in a landscape of guidelines that changed by the day – if not the hour. What started as a two-week stop-gap rambled into a 12-week patchwork of policies crafted nearly in realtime.

While that flux in requirements has continued throughout the summer — for example, Sierra Sands learned days after adopting an on-campus return that they would be prohibited in doing so, indefinitely — a team of teachers and other stakeholders have been working for months to refine the distance learning system.

“People have canceled their vacations, lost money, worked harder than they should have to — under the most painful and emotionally draining circumstances imaginable,” said Ostash.

“As we proceed, I think we must show each other empathy and grace. This is a challenge we will only solve together. We need to have the humility to evaluate the system we have implemented, and the courage to embrace whatever changes need to be made.”

According to orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom, counties on the state’s “monitoring list” may not reopen schools until they have been off the list for a consecutive 14 days.

While the local numbers associated with COVID-19 infection remain within those guidelines, transmission in the Bakersfield area have prompted public health officials to speculate that we won’t make it off the governor’s list any time soon.

“Our board, our faculty and our administration, remain committed to a return to campus as soon as we are able,” said Ostash. “We just don’t know when that will be.”

Pictured: Back-to-school prep in 2020: Human Resources Technician Carol Brewster unpacks boxes of personal protective gear to protect staff in the coming year. - Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2020-08-14