Santa Barbara school board
Members of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education meet virtually Tuesday to discuss plans for distance learning. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Call it Distance Learning 2.0.

Less than a week after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that some California schools must teach online for the fall semester, the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education offered a glimpse into what school will look like for students in all grades. The cost of opening in a 100 percent distance learning scenario will cost more than $2.5 million, but the district promises dramatic changes from the emergency online teaching methods implemented abruptly in March.

Board members on Tuesday said they are optimistic about the opportunity to be explosively creative during these challenging times.

“Teachers love their students and they love their schools,” said board member Kate Ford, a former teacher and school superintendent. “They have showed me over and over again that despite floods and fires, earthquakes, 9/11, deaths, terminal illnesses, the recession, and then a myriad of personal challenges, they can be nimble and courageous and graceful. I am not worried. I know they will rise to this challenge.”

Among the new educational realities:

» For students in grades 7 through 12, grades will be assigned on report cards

» Support with language development

» Appropriate accommodations for learning differences

» Access to tutoring, counseling and mental health services

» The higher the grade level, the greater the expectation to complete assignments independently on a daily basis

» Attendance will be taken

The school district on Tuesday presented a slideshow titled “A Day in the Life,” showing what students in kindergarten and grades 5, 8 and 11 can expect when school resumes.

A sample part of the day for an 11th-grader would be: “Beginning at 9 a.m., I check in with my 1st period teacher and classmates. I attend two one-hour classes in the morning and two one-hour classes in the afternoon with a 15-minute break in between. I use my morning break to email my counselor to request an appointment later in the week because I want to understand my tutoring options for math. I use my 90-minute lunch break to eat, take a break, and finish up an assignment from my 2nd period U.S. history class.”

For a fifth-grader, a sample part of the day would be: “Learning activities with integrated social-emotional learning. I read, write, solve math problems, and collaborate with my classmates virtually. I see the faces of my classmates and my teacher as we share ideas and build relationships. I study history through multiple perspectives, and I learn how to argue from evidence.”

District administrators promised that the next generation of distance learning will be superior to the first run. In March, teachers were in crises mode, but the district now is working hard to create a robust and complete online educational framework for all of its 14,000 students.

Teachers at all levels are rushing to transform their physical classrooms into virtual classrooms, with a commitment to engaging students as best they can through a virtual setting. Most teachers and administrators agree that the best scenario is in-person instruction, but that is not possible until COVID-19 cases drop significantly in Santa Barbara County. The district acknowledges that no scenario is good for everyone, but since it has been mandated to teach students online, administrators and teachers are fully embracing the moment as an opportunity to reach students in a new and exciting online environment.

District officials have vowed to offer better communication with parents, for example:

» Timely information from principals and the school district

» In-home learning materials and supplies

» Bilingual training and support for families on how to support rigorous distance learning

» Staff-initiated communication (with interpretation if needed) if concerns about student progress arise

Overall, students in pre-kindergarten through second grade will have a minimum of 180 minutes daily; grades 3 through 6 will have a minimum of 230 minutes daily; grades 7 through 12 will meet for a minimum of 240 minutes daily; and grades 9 through 12 also will have a minimum of 60 minutes of teacher-designed independent learning daily.

The district is also committed to equity and overcoming technological barriers. Some students in the district don’t have access to WiFi. The district has given every student access to a WiFi hotspot so they can use a computer online, even if they don’t have Internet access at home.

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado announced at Tuesday’s meeting that an anonymous donor had given the district $100,000 to pay for WiFi access for the district’s most vulnerable students.

Todd Ryckman, chief technological officer for the district, said he will personally make sure every student in the district has access to the Internet.

“We are really excited by this challenge,” Ryckman said. “You have to use these instances as opportunities to make things happen for a family. We are going to make sure that all of our families are connected, even if it means Brian Rowse (educational technology services director) and I are walking door to door talking to families to make sure that we get this done.”

Because of the urgency of the times, the board voted 5-0 Tuesday to allow the superintendent to authorize expenditures as soon as they are needed rather than going to the full board for a vote.

Board president Laura Capps stressed that everyone is in this battle against the COVID-19 pandemic together, and the community needs to work hard by wearing masks and taking other safety precautions to get to a point when schools can reopen. She advocated for researching the possibility of putting up tents so that students could have shade and learn outside at some point.

Board member Wendy Sims-Moten said the distance learning plan has to be “grounded in equity.”

“The success of our students has to be grounded in equity,” Sims-Moten said. “It feels like if we are grounded in equity, it feels like a kaleidescope, no matter which way you turn it, we’re going to be successful.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.