Isla Vista Elementary
Schools across Santa Barbara County, including Isla Vista Elementary, will provide distance learning in the fall because of COVID-19. (Jade Martinez-Pogue / Noozhawk photo)

The challenge of maintaining equity as schools begin to open for distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic was a major concern for community members Wednesday night during a live question-and-answer webinar with state and county authorities.

Panelists Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Congressman Salud Carbajal and California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond joined host Assemblywoman Monique Limón and local superintendents and other education representatives to address such issues.

On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all public and private schools on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, which includes Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, must open for distance learning in the fall.

“This is the greatest challenge most of us will experience in our lifetime. There really is no playbook for how to deal with the pandemic,” Thurmond said, adding that 96 percent of schools in California have made the tough decision to open with distance learning in the fall.

The state has $5.2 billion to use for distance learning. Thurmond is allocating the money across various areas to purchase connectivity devices and to support social-emotional learning programs for students and professional development for educators.

With the $5.2 billion, Thurmond created a task force working to close the digital divide among students. The task force is focused on obtaining donations and contracting with Internet service providers to provide free or reduced-cost Internet anywhere in the state.

“We made the decision to create this task force to respond to the technological needs of our students,” Thurmond said. “It is embarrassing that California has allowed a digital divide to exist all these decades.”

Some areas of Santa Barbara County do not have access to connectivity at all, according to Susan Salcido, Santa Barbara County superintendent of schools. Students living in those areas are disadvantaged because they wouldn’t have the means to connect with their teachers and classmates virtually.

“When we think about equity, we’re talking about all students,” Salcido said. “We have to have technology, devices and connectivity for everyone.”

Stanley Mantooth, Ventura County superintendent of schools, said that 10 percent to 15 percent of students in the county are, “ironically, the ones who need it the most” but do not have the ability to access technology and the Internet.

The California Department of Education has distributed about 100,000 computer devices and 150,000 hotspots, Thurmond said, but added “that’s not enough.”

Thurmond noted that there are proposals before legislators to expand opportunities for community devices and hotspots. Carbajal spoke of a “major infrastructure bill” that is being reconciled with the Senate that includes huge investments in broadband Internet.

Another hotspot of concern came from how students with disabilities, special-education students and English language learners are going to be supported in a virtual classroom setting.

The Department of Education has hosted at least 60 webinars since March to support professional development for educators, Thurmond said, and every week there was at least one regarding special education. There were also many aimed at how to navigate teaching English language learners remotely.

The federal government has created a waiver for K-8 schools that wish to conduct in-person meetings with small groups where social distancing can be maintained. The groups would be offered to give extra attention to students who need it.

“It’s not ideal, it is not how it was built to be delivered, but it’s the best way for us to keep everyone safe,” Thurmond said.

Studies show that English language learners, African-American students and students who are scrambling to have basic needs met were affected the most by the immediate transition to a virtual classroom, according to Thurmond. For that reason, the Department of Education is working with a handful of foundations across the state to build stronger family engagement services, he said, and there are parent organizers who work with the districts to connect families to the services and resources they need.

“Family engagement is a big part of what we need to see, and we’re leaning in to help build more programs for our 1,000 school districts across the state,” Thurmond said.

The department also created what Thurmond calls a “counseling coalition” to think about how they can address the social-emotional needs of students.

“In the realm of social-emotional development and providing those supports, I would argue that that is equally as important, if not more than, academic achievement,”  Mantooth said. “Our world will always have their geniuses, but we need to build great citizens.”

Schools in Santa Barbara County are working with counselors, psychologists and external partners to provide creative ways for remote support for social-emotional learning, Salcido said.

As schools across the state begin to open for distance learning, educators and authorities are working to ensure quality education for California’s youths. 

“It is so important that we have these conversations but recognize that the people who’ve been talking with you are really trying their best. We are in uncharted waters,” Jackson said.

“These are tough times, and we’ll make it together,” Thurmond said. “We can do more together, and we will be stronger together. And together, we’ll support our 6 million students in the state.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.