Editor’s note: We’ve updated this story’s headline to clarify the recommendations were based on guidelines, not a study.
When Sacramento City schools started back up again just before Labor Day this year, parents were scrambling to figure out their kids’ online learning schedule for the fall.
The teachers union and the Sacramento City Unified School District still hadn’t agreed on a distance learning plan during the pandemic. So the school system sent out the schedule as they wanted it, and the teachers moved forward with their own.
The crux of their dispute? About an hour of screen time a day.
The district wants first graders to have at least three hours of live time with their instructor. But teachers say, that’s too much screen time. It should be less than two hours for that age group.
“We can’t support a district plan that puts our 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds in front of a screen on zoom for three or more hours a day. It goes against research on screen time and brain development, ” said Erin Macy, a teacher at John Cabrillo Elementary School, to reporters on Labor Day.
“This goes against our professional judgement and our ethical judgement,” she said.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association points to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which warns that too much screen time could lead to obesity, and could interfere with children’s sleep. Pediatricians say electronic device use should not get in the way of children getting a minimum of an hour of exercise a day, and, as a general framework, it’s healthy to keep screen time to less than two hours of recreational use a day.
But the doctors don’t think their guidelines should be used in the district’s fight.
“I don’t think they can be extrapolated that way,” said Dr. Cori Cross, spokesperson with the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said that pre-pandemic media-use guidelines “really applied to time when they weren’t doing homework.”
She said their recommendations were mostly based on recreational screen use, not school work. It’s better for kids to learn in-person, she said, but the COVID-19 pandemic has required education to be conducted in other ways.
“The next best thing is remote education. So just because it’s on a screen, it’s not ideal, but it’s still better than nothing,” Cross said. “It has a lot more value than playing video games, or surfing the internet, or Facetiming with a friend.”
Still, the SCUSD and the Sacramento teachers are at odds over how many minutes should be live teacher instruction versus how much is independent study.
State education policy expert Alix Gallagher said schools across the state vary in the mix of live teacher interaction and independent study that is provided under distance learning.
But Gallagher, the director of Strategic Partnerships with Stanford University’s Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), said that the state does set some standards through Senate Bill 98.
The state law requires a minimum amount of daily instruction by grade level, daily live interaction with students, daily attendance tracking, and a follow-up plan if kids miss a lot of school, she said.
The education rules require the following instruction time for different grade levels during the pandemic, but does not specify how many are live interaction with the teacher, versus students completing assignments independently.
- 180 minutes, or 3 hours, for kindergarteners.
- 230 minutes, or 3 hours and 50 minutes for grades 1 to 3.
- 240 minutes, or 4 hours for grades 4 to 12.
Union leaders say that the number of live, or “synchronous,” minutes of instruction that they propose is still more than what some other districts require, such as San Juan Unified School District, whose distance learning plan for first graders stipulates only 55 minutes of simultaneous learning through a screen.
The union also does not want distance learning lessons to be recorded, which SCUSD would like as an option so students can have the flexibility to watch at different times.
Gallagher says previous research suggesting that harm may come from screen use, such as the recommendations from pediatricians, do not apply to distance learning. She says as long as the learning doesn’t involve long periods of watching a lecture online, parents shouldn’t be worried.
“What we want with screen time is interaction,” Gallagher said. “When you get away from the idea of screen time as just a passive thing, the concern about the absolute number of minutes vanish.”
Several weeks into the school year, SCUSD administrators say they’re still concerned that the amount of live instruction varies school to school.
“For us, this is less an issue of ‘screen time,’ and instead about protecting our students’ need for ‘teacher time,’” SCUSD Chief Academic Officer Christine Baeta said in a statement. “These shouldn’t be misconstrued as one and the same.”
But the teachers union says instructors are incorporating as much interaction as possible online, with a mix of lecture, small group, and independent work, much like they would do in a real classroom.
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