by David Michael Courtland, Emily Dodi, Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer and Kimberly Rivers

Back in March, the coronavirus pandemic created a seismic shift in nearly every aspect of life. And just as businesses struggled with closures and, later, the numerous and ever-changing protocols around reopening, local schools scrambled to implement a remote learning model to give students some semblance of an education after a sudden mid-year shutdown. It was a game effort under extraordinary, unprecedented circumstances . . . and a bit of a bumpy ride, with issues related to Internet access and reliability, confusing learning platforms and less-than-full participation.

While there was some speculation that schools might reopen for onsite instruction in Fall 2020, the summer surge in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations across the state led experts to predict that closures would continue through the rest of the year. The Ventura County Office of Education (VCOE) was prepared for that eventuality — even prior to July 17, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California counties on the state’s monitoring list would not be allowed to offer in-person classes. 

“Keeping campuses closed is not a decision that any of us take lightly,” said Stan Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, in a July 16 press release. “We want nothing more than to bring all students back to class where their educational, social and developmental needs can be best met. However, we cannot in good conscience reopen all of our campuses at a time when the coronavirus is surging in our state and our region.”

We take a look at how school districts in Ventura County are handling distance learning this time around, and what improvements they’ve made for the new school year.

Conejo Valley Unified School District 

“There is nothing we want more than to restore these physical communities of learning for our students. However, as parents, educators, community members and leaders, we know every decision we make includes risks and rewards,” said Dr. Mark W. McLaughlin, superintendent of Conejo Valley Unified School District, in a written statement to families in July. 

“We recognize that there are countless benefits to students participating in on-campus learning. With the ongoing rise of COVID-19 cases, the health and safety of our students, staff, families and the broader Conejo community remains paramount. This health, safety and overall well-being of our community is something we cannot and will not take a gamble on.” 

McLaughlin said remote learning would “continue until it is safe to transition into any on-campus instruction.” That transition will include a “blended” approach offering both at-home and on-campus learning.

CVUSD’s first day of school is Wednesday, Aug. 19. 

— Kimberly Rivers

Fillmore Unified School District

The Governing Board of the Fillmore Unified School District issued a statement on Aug. 5 that all district schools will begin the school year on August 20 using distance learning. In a July 16 letter to Fillmore USD families, Superintendent Adrian Palazuelos, Ph.D. detailed several commitments that the district is making to distance learning. They include providing devices and access to the Internet to every student. There will be daily live interaction with credentialed staff and peers for the “purpose of instruction, progress monitoring and maintaining school connectedness.” Instructional content will be aligned to grade level standards. Academic and other support will be provided to students who are performing at below grade level as well as to students with exceptional needs or who require support in other areas. Free meals or reduced cost meals will be available for pickup. 

— Emily Dodi

Moorpark Unified School District

Moorpark Unified’s school year starts on Aug. 24, and will be a departure from what was originally put together over the summer.

A July 8 video posted on the district’s website outlined a detailed fall reopening plan, developed with input from staff, nurses, teachers, counselors and parents, with a blended learning model as a critical piece. Blended learning is one of three options parents may choose for their children’s education, with 100 percent distance learning and homeschooling also available. 

Under the district’s blended learning model, students would engage in both in-class instruction and independent and/or remote learning. Students were to be divided into smaller cohorts, each of which would be on campus (and wearing masks) on alternate days to facilitate physical distancing. Detailed hygiene and cleaning protocols were developed, and the district purchased 45 hand washing stations and 21 hand sanitizing stations to distribute across its schools.

As of July 17, with Ventura County on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, in-person instruction is currently prohibited, so the blended learning model had to be put on hold — which Moorpark Unified Superintendent Dr. Kelli Hays described as a “disappointment” in a July 17 update for parents.

Nevertheless, she said that “Moorpark teachers, administrators and support staff are preparing to deliver an exemplary distance learning program.”

It will include Chromebooks assigned to every student, live virtual interaction with teachers and classmates and a consistent schedule with attendance required and taken daily. Learning management system Canvas will be used districtwide, and teachers will spend the week of Aug. 17-21 in professional development to ensure that they have the training and tools to “implement best practices for distance learning.”

Even so, Moorpark Unified is hoping to resume its blended learning plans on Sept. 8, if Ventura County can meet reopening criteria by then. Participating students have already been assigned classes and cohorts, and Hays said that “for those students enrolled in the blended learning model, the transition back to in-person learning will be a smooth one.”

“I had hoped we would be experiencing a decline in infections in our communities and that we would be welcoming everyone back to modified in-person school,” Hays stated in the parent update. “I remain very optimistic that this will occur.”

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Ojai Unified School District

In the spring of 2020, schools shifted to distance learning in what seemed to be the blink of an eye. The Ojai Unified School District described it as a “crisis response,” characterized by limited teacher training, modified grades and the shift away from new instruction to the review of material. Like other school districts, OUSD had been “poised” to implement a hybrid plan of distance and in-person instruction when school starts on August 19, but the governor’s mandate makes it clear that schools in Ventura County will reopen with a distance-learning-only model.

While OUSD called its spring response “reactive,” the fall’s “Planned Distance Learning” model will be “purposeful.” It includes “thorough training for instructional staff” and will be centered around teacher-led instruction according to grade-level standards. In contrast to the spring, in the new school year, traditional grades will be given and daily attendance will be taken. OUSD will also provide Internet hotspots and devices, as well as meals, to any student who needs them. The district is also working to offer childcare and hire new support staff. 

Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Morse stated during the July 22 OUSD school board meeting that three things are at the forefront in their decision making process: What do families want, what is safe for teachers and staff, and what do regulations allow? During the same meeting, Angie Genasci, president of the Ojai Federation of Teachers, said, “For such a little district, there has been a tremendous amount of work accomplished . . . Without a doubt our membership wants to be back teaching in person. We miss our students and the families. We miss educating kids on a day-to-day basis. However, it must be said that the silver lining out of all of this, in my mind, is that we have become a district that collaborates and works together and supports one another. And that comes from our leadership in modeling that and helping us understand how to do that.”

— Emily Dodi

Oxnard School District and Oxnard Union High School District

Oxnard Union High School and Oxnard Elementary school districts, which begin the new school year on Aug. 26 and Aug. 19 respectively, are sticking with long distance learning for the time being, say officials from both districts.

“Our plan is to return to campus as soon as it’s safe to do so,” said Oxnard Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Tom McCoy.

In the meantime, the district’s high schools in Oxnard, Camarillo and Port Hueneme will follow a nine-week quarterly schedule instead of the traditional 18-week semester, with a lighter workload for students.

At the end of the first quarter on Oct. 23, district officials will consider whether it’s safe for students to return to campus or continue teaching online, McCoy said.

Oxnard Union will wait for state and county officials to give them a clue when that is, said McCoy. He said the main difference between this fall and last spring, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, is that a recently passed state law, SB 98, sets guidelines for long-distance learning.

McCoy said teacher committees are still deciding how much time the law allows them to spend planning lessons versus meeting online with students because it has “a lot of language that cuts both ways.”

Otherwise things will continue the same as they did in the spring, with every student having their own tablet, and a Wi-Fi hotspot if needed, for logging into Google or Zoom meetings with teachers.

Oxnard School District (OSD) students will be guaranteed Wi-Fi hotspots if they need them and will be assigned iPods to log into meetings online. But Dr. Ginger Shea, OSD’s manager of special programs and services, said an important difference from last spring is that SB 98 doesn’t allow schools to be as flexible about attendance.

Students will be asked to follow strict schedules, unlike before, when teachers generally worked with a student’s particular routine at home.

“Parents should know how they’re going to structure their child’s day, knowing the schedule of what their children are going to be expected to do,” said Shea.

OSD Trustee Denis O’Leary, who was also a teacher in the Rio School District before retiring at the end of Spring 2020, agreed parents need to take a more active role in their children’s education. He said that the new law has basically placed the same demands on long distance learning as were expected to be met in the classroom.

“Participation needs to be 100 percent, not 50 percent like we saw last school year,” said O’Leary. “Teachers are going to continue to do the best we can, but we expect more participation from students and more support from parents.”

After the first eight weeks of long distance learning, officials will consider whether students can return to the classroom.

“But I think we will all know when it’s safe,” O’Leary said. “I would expect that some kind of vaccine will be available.”

The more immediate need is to focus on the well being of children and their parents, O’Leary noted.

“Whatever we do online, we need to be able to do it with the expectation that the child will have to jump back into what we would consider a normal classroom routine on short notice,” he said.

O’Leary’s chance encounter with a kindergarten teacher in a parking lot showed how determined teachers are to make the new long distance learning conditions work.

“I asked her, ‘what are you going to do with incoming kindergarteners?’ ” O’Leary recalled. “She said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to do the best I can — it’s not the time to be in a classroom just yet.’ ”

— David Michael Courtland

Pleasant Valley Unified School District

Pleasant Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) has created two approaches for students returning to school Aug. 28. The Digital Learning Academy was developed for families choosing to remain in a distance learning format for the entire 2020/21 school year. The modified traditional model is another option — although it won’t be operational until it is deemed safe for students to return to campus. 

As onsite instruction is currently prohibited, all students will begin with the Digital Learning Academy. Students at all levels will have daily live instruction, with a lesson followed by guided practice time and teacher feedback. Outside of class time, students will work independently on both digital and text/workbook-based activities. A few days a week, students will work in small groups with their teachers for more targeted support.

For grades six through eight, PVUSD will have a 3×3 schedule — meaning that students take three courses each semester, getting one year’s worth of content in a single semester. English, history and an elective will take place in the fall; math, science and PE will be covered in the second semester.

The district is issuing all students a Chromebook, to ensure access to the various learning platforms (such as Seesaw and Google Classroom) and enable PVUSD’s Internet content filter and monitoring system to work properly. The district may provide hotspots and other assistance with Internet connectivity as needed.

As the school year progresses, nothing will change for those enrolled in the Digital Learning Academy. Those enrolled in the modified traditional model, however, will return to classroom learning in the event that it is safe for campuses to reopen. To support physical distancing, the model will limit the number of students on campus at any one time by dividing them up into morning and afternoon cohorts, or cohorts attending onsite classes on alternate days. Strict cleaning, disinfecting and ventilation protocols will be followed, and students will be expected to wear masks at all times — including on the bus and waiting to get into or leaving the school — unless eating or drinking. Students and staff will be encouraged to wash hands regularly.

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Santa Paula Unified School District 

With school starting on Aug. 12, the Santa Paula Unified School District Governing Board met on July 22 to discuss just how to reopen. “We are asking everyone to enter this school year with positivity,” Superintendent Dr. Ed Cora said. “We will continue our efforts to educate our students online, continue to practice safe protocols and hope to return our students to the classrooms as soon as possible in the near future because,” Cora added, “I miss our kids.” 

Assistant Superintendent  of Educational Services Christine Schieferle added, “We are investing in teacher training . . . We want to make sure that our teachers are equipped with the resources as well as the training to implement a quality distanced learning program.” 

Schieferle described the end of the last school year as “emergency learning,” noting that in the spring the shift to distance learning happened in a matter of days. “Our teachers are to be commended,” she said, adding that, heading into the fall, teachers and staff have had more time to prepare. 

As for students, the district is providing hotspots and Chromebooks to all students who need them. There will be more student accountability, with daily attendance and weekly engagement records. Looking ahead, the reopening plan extends to the end of the first quarter, with the hope of being able to transition to a hybrid model. “We’ve heard from high schoolers all the way down to kinder that it’s nice to have options, said Jeri Mead, vice president of the school board. “We might have to go for the first semester but there’s always hope that we can get the kiddos back as soon as the parents want them to come back.”

— Emily Dodi

Simi Valley Unified School District

“While online instruction is not ideal for many students and their families, it is the point from where we need to start,” said Dr. Jason Peplinski, Simi Valley Unified superintendent, in a written statement to SVUSD families. “Our summer was spent planning how to best reintroduce your students to their schools when the time is right. We want you to know that it is our goal to have our students return to school for in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so, and is allowed by our governing agencies.” 

Called the “Return to Learn” Plan, Simi Valley has structured their distance learning program with morning and afternoon cohorts for both primary and secondary students. They also are providing  “regular office hours” with teachers for one-on-one virtual teacher contact for students that request specialized attention. 

One approach that is being used by a few districts, including Simi Valley, is having middle school and high school students take two classes at a time for six weeks. This cuts down on the number of classes a student has to juggle at one time, making online classes and assignments simpler to manage, and still allows the student to complete the same number of credits in the first semester. 

The plan was created in response to a survey that focused on how to accommodate all students in both a virtual setting and in-person classes with new pandemic restrictions when that is allowed. 

Feedback included the need for established office hours with teachers, whole class check-ins, a consistent schedule for students and live video instruction. 

SVUSD teachers have a choice — they can teach from home or from their classrooms. But if they opt to teach from home, they have to abide by several requirements and are responsible for having all necessary equipment for distance teaching. 

“Whatever they would be doing in their classrooms, is what they would be doing at home,” said Jake Finch, public information officer for SVUSD. She said that while the district has provided all teachers with a laptop, any other equipment they need at home, including Wi-Fi, would be the responsibility of the teacher to obtain and pay for on their own. “They need to be professionally attired and professionally presented,” and the setting shown in the video needs to be compatible with a professional teaching environment. All these requirements are included in the agreement negotiated with the teachers union.

Teachers also have the option of bringing their school-age (kindergarten through eight grade) children into the classroom with them. Finch expects most teachers to switch between classroom and home, but doesn’t have any information regarding how many teachers will be coming into the classroom to teach. “Some will just be at home . . . some will be using both, some are happy being in the classroom.” 

Families are encouraged to communicate regularly with their teachers and administration. School begins Monday, Aug. 17.

— Kimberly Rivers

Ventura Unified School District

Prior to Newsom’s July 17 order, Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) briefly considered a hybrid learning model mixing on-campus teaching with offsite lessons. Once distance learning became the order of the day, VUSD shifted gears to focus exclusively on that option. 

A series of virtual town hall meetings (in English and Spanish) were held in July, and a family survey went out as well, all with the intention of getting parent and staff input prior to making plans for Fall 2020. The resulting WEAVE model is a “woven” mix of elements intended to give students more teacher interaction, greater support and an enhanced off-campus education.

WEAVE includes both “synchronous” (live teaching via Zoom or Google Meet) and “asynchronous” (virtual lessons and independent work) learning based on teacher-created/curated courses. To reduce screen time, some assignments will be completed using pencil, paper and work/textbooks, and there will be more hands-on activities, too. Art, music, and some form of movement/PE will be incorporated, and there will be opportunities for students to connect with each other — through projects as well as virtual classroom time.

VUSD will continue to use course management systems Canvas, Google Classroom and Seesaw, as well as Estrellita and Adelante programs for English language development, dual language education and two-way immersion. Implementation will, hopefully, be more straightforward than it was in Spring 2020. 

“We got feedback from families in the spring that it was quite a challenge for our younger learners to click in and out of different platforms,” said Gina Wolowicz, director of curriculum and instruction for kindergarten through fifth grade, during a July 27 webinar. “And so whenever possible they are fully integrated. So it’s a single sign-on: you log onto one platform and all the information is within that platform.”

Students will need appropriate devices and reliable Internet access for WEAVE, and the district is committed to a one-to-one model, making sure Chromebooks and Wi-Fi are available for every single student who needs them. 

While the first day of school, technically, is Tuesday, Aug. 18, the first two weeks will be something of an orientation period. During this time, families will pick up supplies, make sure devices and WiFi are working, get set up and familiarized with remote learning platforms, acclimate to live teaching online, etc.

Food and Nutrition Services will continue to offer meals for drive-through pickup at 10 sites districtwide. Meals are free for those that qualify, but those who don’t can still purchase them by payment online.

Graded lessons will begin on Monday, Aug. 31. Live teaching will follow some semblance of a bell schedule, and there will be additional time for small group sessions (decided upon by each teacher). For middle and high schoolers, Periods 1, 3, 5 and 7 will take place on Mondays and Thursdays and Periods 0, 2, 4 and 6 will be on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The district will continue to follow Individual Educational Plans for students requiring special education services. Meetings and assessments while be conducted while observing state and county health and safety guidelines. All services will continue to be provided and paraeducators will continue to offer support. 

VUSD’s structured schedule has been developed to provide stability and increase teacher-student interaction, but flexibility is built into the system. For elementary students, live teaching sessions will be offered both mornings and afternoons. Alternate lessons and assignments will be available to all K-12 students in the event that some can’t join a live session, and all live sessions will be recorded for later viewing if needed. Students and families requiring other accommodations are encouraged to discuss options with their teachers. 

According to Wolowicz, students and families will have more assistance, across the board, than in the spring.

“We will have various levels of support for our students,” she said. In addition to the orientation period and teacher-designed courses, “[Teachers] will be giving regular feedback on their work and communicating with families.” VUSD also created a centralized help center for frequently asked questions, resources and more. 

Also new for Fall 2020: A social emotional learning component, led by a teacher or a school counselor and taking place on Wednesdays for all VUSD students. 

“We reimagined our distance learning to make sure that we had innovation and social emotional learning at the core of our plans,” explained Dr. Danielle Cortes, assistant superintendent. “So you will see a much more teacher-led, creative, innovative approach than we did in emergency teaching and learning. And you’ll also see social emotional supports embedded throughout the WEAVE program — including resources on cultural proficiency and anti-racist resources.” 

— Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer