Teaching and learning in a pandemic

Anna Guerra of Ventura High takes a break from distance learning with her ukulele. Kindergarten teacher Sherry Smith finds fun activities to engage her young students online.

Going the Distance- Part one of two
by Amy Brown

On Friday March 13th, it was announced that Ventura County schools would be closing, and just like that, everything changed. There was a transition to distance learning that seemed to happen almost overnight, but the reality was a huge, incredibly complex effort in the district—by teachers, administrators, students and parents to create, adopt and adapt to a new online format. It meant developing a plan, handing out devices to all those who needed them, and getting everyone on board–no small feat for a population of approximately 16,000 students.

So now that the frankly impressive feat of creating and implementing distance learning has been in effect for weeks, grades are being input and progress shared via email with parents—students and teachers are in harmony—right? Pretty close, according to Daisy Mastroianni, who has been a teacher for 22 years, and is currently teaching 10th grade English, Career Culinary Arts and Foods and Nutrition at Buena High. She shared that while it was a huge initial transition, the students and teachers alike were ready to go and up for the challenge right away. “We found out the same time everyone else did that that Friday would be our last day,” said Mastroianni. “We met in our departments and came up with what we could to stay connected with the kids. The students, in that same vein, were ready to go!” She said that students can work at their own pace if they get into a lesson and want to keep going. “They can spend an hour and a half with math if it’s really clicking, or take a day off from classes that maybe aren’t their favorite.” Mastroianni shared that she misses the personal interactions with her students tremendously, and early on in the process made a video to share a day in her life for her students, practicing a TikTok, cooking, and doing fun things in her home to find different ways to connect and engage them.

While students appreciate what their teachers are providing, there are concerns by many high school students about what the future will bring. Anna Guerra is a junior at Ventura High, and is worried about not getting a normal senior year because of the current uncertainty, and the effect it will have in applying for colleges. “The thing that concerns me the most is not having all the extra curriculars and tests scores that I want to have to stand out among other applicants,” said Guerra, an honors student who plans to study neuroscience at a UC school in 2021. “I didn’t get a chance to tour colleges—I did virtual tours, but it’s not the same.”

Guerra sets a schedule for her schoolwork to complete it early in the day, and makes sure she finishes everything that is assigned for that day. It leaves the afternoons free for connecting with friends and reconnecting with some former pastimes. “I’ve picked up some hobbies that I’d been too busy to do when school was in session,” she said. “I’ve started painting again, and learning my ukulele, and I’m taking the time to learn more French—I take it as a class, but I want to learn more.”

Sherry Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Portola, has taught for 24 years in the district, agreed that the new system had some challenges at first. “It was really hard to set it up at the beginning, to find out which families had devices and access to Wi-Fi, and which ones didn’t,” said Smith. “Then some devices weren’t working correctly, and we had to redo them and get them out again. But now I have 100% of my students logged into the system.”

When asked how she and other teachers were handling engaging with young students and their families in this ‘new abnormal’, she said that she has office hours for parents and a special hour for students to log in as a group, in which she reads stories, and does activities with songs and dancing. She taught the students how to mute, which she said makes reading much easier to the group. “I miss my kids–I miss being at school, ” said Smith. “I went there today and emptied out their desks, it was very sad.”

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