By Teri Stevens
Social distance learning. A concept unfamiliar to most of us until it became the new normal during the last trimester of 2019-2020 when it was mandated due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Initially, my three, a seventh grader and two sixth graders, took it well. Getting up to speed on Google Classroom (Zoom for students), but then spring break hit, giving them time to ponder their new reality. My thirteen year-old-son seemed unfazed, joining friends online in the gaming world of Fortnite when his computer screen time would allow and then plowing through the Star Wars saga, all nine films. The girls, twelve-year-old twins, had each other to hang out with, and much of their time was spent playing with the six baby chicks we recently acquired.
Reality set in after the break. For two out of three, it was easy to be up, dressed and fed by their first 10 a.m. online class. For one, not so much. She was often munching on Cheerios or a bagel during her first class. Our biggest hurdle was connectivity, making sure three kids could get Wi-Fi at the same time their father was fielding Zoom calls non-stop from our home office. The panic that set in when one of the kids got kicked out of a class mid-lesson because of our limited Wi-Fi elicited frustration and anger at the other two who were still connected. A few times, one or two kids and I would jump in the car, Chromebooks in hand, and drive a few minutes to Silverado Country Club so they could finish their classes pirating Wi-Fi from the parking lot. Thank you, Silverado!
And then there was math. Are you smarter than a sixth grader? I’m not, without the internet. Several evenings were spent Googling various math tutorials to help my daughter with her homework. At one point she commented, “Before Coronavirus there were days I didn’t want to go to school, now I do.”
Other families had similar experiences. Vichy Elementary fifth grader Anna Tompkins missed being with friends and connecting in person with her teacher who made learning fun, and hugged every student as they filed out of the classroom at the end of the day. To demonstrate fractions, Anna’s teacher picked her up and turned her upside down, eliciting laughter, but also imparting an indelible learning experience. Google classroom, while helpful in some ways, limited the physical connection of teaching which is so important for students. There was also the disappointment of canceled field trips and the end of year fifth grade promotion ceremony.
Like many schools, Vichy found a way honor its departing students, from a distance, with a drive through ceremony. The Vine radio station helped make the event special by announcing song dedications from parents to their students on air throughout the ceremony. At their designated time, Anna’s family drove their car (a festive unicorn floatie adorned the roof) through the parking lot where fifth grade teachers handed out promotion certificates through the window along with a heartfelt written tribute to their students. The first line reads…
“When you thought we weren’t looking, we were on the other side of Zoom, dazzled and amazed by your patience, your resilience, and your perseverance in a time when the entire world shifted, and school became something that we have never known. We walked alongside each other, and you are an important part of our story.”
For Erica Salese, a friend with four students in four different schools (one in high school, two in middle and one in elementary) social distance learning was a struggle for her second-grade son Leo. “It was easy for the older kids to log in and do their thing. But focusing on a screen was harder for him.” Initially, the worksheet packets the school sent home were doable, but when learning moved to an online platform, it became more difficult. A lefty, the boxes that needed to be checked using a mouse to answer questions were hard for him to fill out.
While the online classroom environment wasn’t successful, many online resources were. “There are some really cool educational programs like Prodigy, Epic and Storytime, where books are read to your child,” according to Erica. Additionally, she and Leo enjoyed discovering virtual zoo and museum tours.
For Justin Siena High School senior, Lexi deLeuze, the transition from attending classes in person to online distance learning was easier, but not the end of the year experience she envisioned. “It was disappointing not being on campus to wind down my senior year. It would have been fun to be at school during that tme.”
Unlike other Napa high schools, Justin students were given letter grades at the end of the year, opposed to pass/fail marks. Additionally, students attended school, virtually, from 9 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. Because of cancelled school days wrought by the 2017 Napa fire, the school had a skeleton plan for distance learning, which they transitioned to when shelter in place was ordered.
Although Zoom classes kept her focused-on school, Lexi felt her lessons were mostly review. “From a learning standpoint, I didn’t absorb any new information during the last trimester, but it was nice not to be isolated. Online you got to see people.” Lexi expressed concern about a friend who didn’t attend a single Zoom class because she was helping raise siblings and most likely doesn’t have access to Wi-Fi. “How can you focus on school when you don’t have access to the internet?” Lexi said.
Justin Siena honored its 2020 graduating class on July 3 with a drive-up ceremony on the school’s immense north lawn. From parked cars, students and families heard Valedictorian and Salutatorian speeches presented from a stage. Each student, dressed in their cap and gown, was announced and walked in front of the stage to pick up a diploma cover and pose for graduation pictures, thirteen years in the making.
The District will announce Napa Valley’s back-to-school plan after this article’s mid-July deadline. It’s anybody’s guess how school will resume in August, but one thing is certain, our recent educational experiences illustrate the flexibility and heart of teachers, students and parents alike.