The first day of school is set to start this Thursday for Sacramento City schools’ nearly 47,000 students, but the school district and the teachers’ union have reached an impasse on how distance learning can best be done.
Now, with the new school year looming, the union is requesting a state mediator step in.
But as the district and union work out kinks, parents have felt left in the lurch with just a temporary learning schedule in place.
“As a parent, I’m frustrated and disappointed that our decision-makers were not able to work collaboratively to develop a robust distance learning plan in time for the start of school,” Tara Thronson, parent and co-founder of parent advocacy group Parents United to Restore our Schools. “The biggest thing we heard from parents was that we just need some consistency in what type of instruction our students will receive. Some had regular Zoom meetings, some hardly ever had a face-to-face with their teacher.”
The Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) has said it disagrees with the type of online instruction the district is asking teachers to do, as well as the amount of screen time students will have.
“The amount of required screen time for students, the screen time exposure is much higher than would be considered healthy, it’s one of our major sticking points, we think we need to focus on quality, not quantity,” David Fisher, president of the SCTA said.
Sacramento City Unified School District officials have said that the online learning plan was constructed after seeing feedback from a district-led survey of 22,000 parents who stated that the majority of families wanted emphasis on live, teacher-to-student online learning. Officials say the current screen time minutes are based on there being a greater emphasis on live learning than independent work.
For example, the district’s current plan for online learning for grades 1-3 has students having live online instruction with a teacher for about 3 hours and 45 minutes of independent work time.
The union’s plan would be more evenly split. For grades 1-3, students would participate in live online classes for a little more than an hour and a half, but work independently for 2 hours.
The district feels there is a compromise to be had and has lowered screen time requirements for the first week of school to allow teachers to participate in professional development.
“Our district compromised on the number of instructional minutes that would be provided to our students, but we cannot compromise on the quality of instruction and education for our students,” district superintendent Jorge Aguilar said in a statement. “SCTA’s proposal fails to provide adequate time for students to learn from their teacher.”
The district and teachers union also disagree on if lessons should be recorded. The district wants to record to accommodate students who might not be able to make some lessons due to extenuating home circumstances. But the union said recording lessons might make for privacy issues when recording young children participating in lessons or teachers who might be fostering children.
Instead, Fisher said the union would rather have recording lessons be a last resort.
“How do you get consent from a young child that they can be recorded? Things happen on the screen or things happen in the students’ home or questions get asked that could be embarrassing. There’s all kinds of unintended consequences,” Fisher said.
For parents like Sawait Seyoum, however, all the back-and-forth between district and union as well as the lack of clear direction for distance learning has caused her to re-evaluate her family’s decision to enroll at Sac City Unified.
Seyoum, a mother of a first grader and a third grader, said that after completing distance learning with the district when the coronavirus pandemic forced school closures in the spring, she was disappointed with the online education her children were receiving.
Still, she had hope that it would be better for the fall.
“I don't think that my children received the robust and quality instruction that we would have wanted, I don’t think that they were challenged,” Seyoum said. “But I think that we were fully expecting in the fall that things would be figured out and that the district and union would come together and that things would be different. Yet a few days leading up to reopening our schools, we’re finding that there’s still a lot of uncertainty and that’s just really frustrating.”
She said that she gave the district “grace” for the spring semester because of the overall unexpected nature of the pandemic, but she did not want to take those chances for the incoming school year.
Her family has made a late decision to pull her children from the district and enroll them in a private school for the fall. She said she hopes to be able to return to the district in the future.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty surrounding what distance learning is going to look like for our kids,” Seyoum said. “We’re not confident that our kids are going to get the quality instruction that we were hoping for.”
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