For the past several weeks, Lodi Unified School District has been unsure how the 2020 fall semester would be handled in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Within the past two weeks, its board of education has approved a 100% distance learning model for instruction, as well as delayed the first day of school for one week so teachers can further prepare for the change.
Families in the district have been divided about the decision, some going as far as to transfer their children to private schools, which are hoping to continue with in-class instruction next month.
But parent Jen Dietrich said her family is trying to make the best out of the district’s current situation.
“We had a lot of concerns with the district’s plan to go back to school 100% on campus and in the classroom,” she said. “We do wish we could have our daughter go back to school, but I’m trying to put on a positive face so she can get the best out of what this experience will be.”
Her daughter is 6 years old, and will be entering the first grade in the fall. Dietrich hoped the upcoming quarter won’t be like the last, but acknowledged that the events of spring put the district in crisis mode.
She has been trying to instill in her daughter that learning from home is rare, and that she’ll be able to see her teacher and friends sometime in the future, she said.
While Dietrich’s daughter is sad about not being able to socialize with classmates or speak with her teacher in person, she is excited about the start of a new year.
In the spring, Dietrich and her husband stayed close to their daughter when on the computer to make sure she stayed focused on learning. As the weeks progressed, they gave her a little more space so she could be a more independent learner.
Dietrich and her husband are fortunate to be working from home during the pandemic, she said, although it is hard at times to get their own work done when they must monitor their daughter during instruction at times.
“I know a lot of families are upset and disappointed, but I’m trying to draw a line with my kids,” she said. “I’m telling them this isn’t what we wanted, but we need to make the best of it, and make the best out of school. We need to be positive, supportive and engaged with the school. If I’m negative about the whole situation, it’s going to impact her ability to learn.”
While her own daughter is prepared for distance learning, Dietrich said, she is aware there are families in the district who do not have the resources to participate, including those with special needs students, those on the verge of homelessness, or those who speak English as a second language.
She hopes the district will make public some sort of plan to help those families who aren’t as prepared for the coming year, she said.
Lisa McBride and her husband just moved to Lodi in May with their 20-year-old autistic son. Transferring from Brentwood, McBride said the district has gone out of its way to help her family prepare for an uncertain fall semester at Lodi High School, despite the negative comments she has seen on social media from other families about transparency and support.
“My interaction with the district has been positive,” she said. “They got his (Individualized Education Plan) set up, and his case worker from Brentwood has been working with us to send materials he needs over here. We don’t know what his program is going to look like yet, but (the district is) being very proactive. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
McBride said her son became depressed last spring when he was unable to go to campus and interact with friends and teachers. But while distance learning isn’t an ideal form of instruction for special needs students, it’s the best option to provide them an education.
“Our son isn’t that excited, because social interaction really does help him progress,” she said. “He has been disappointed through this whole situation. But he really looks forward to Zoom meetings. Learning can look a million different ways, and his education is all about life skills, not reading, writing and math. You have to be engaged outside of videos.”
McBride and her husband have looked for other resources to hopefully provide their son with just a little bit of social exposure, she said. They found a treadmill he can use while taking virtual walking tours of places such as Yosemite or Disneyland.
McBride has been disheartened over the past few weeks while reading negative comments about the district’s plan for the upcoming year, she said, and she believes that negativity will only be transferred from parents to children.
“This is what it is,” she said. “We have to make the best of it. This is about trying to keep each other safe, and we have to work together.”
Superintendent Cathy Nichols Washer posted a video update on the district’s Facebook page on Friday morning, acknowledging there are concerns from the community about picking up textbooks and Chromebooks before the year begins.
Individual school sites will be contacting families in the coming days to let them know when and how their students can obtain the proper materials for class, she said.
Distance learning will be provided during normal school hours, Nichols Washer said. However, that does not mean a student will spend all day in front of a computer, she said.
“Teachers will vary activities. There will be breaks built into the schedule, and there will be different types of assignments,” she said. “So teachers will be live with students each day, but that does not mean they’ll be on the computer all day. There will be a variety of activities based on content standards for each grade level, and based on curriculum.”
Teachers will able to modify their system and schedules just as normally as they would on campus, in order to provide more support to students who need it, such as ESL and special needs students, Nichols Washer said.
In addition, San Joaquin County Public Health Services has given the district permission to conduct special education assessments at school sites on an individual basis to provide extra support, she said.
During her update, Nichols Washer encouraged parents who were concerned about the new schedule — particularly those who must work while their child is home, or those who don’t think distance learning will work — to explore the option of independent learning.
This model is based on an individual student’s learning pace, not a typical school day, she said.
Paul Warren, the district’s former mental health coordinator who is now overseeing special education, said a variety of digital platforms and resources are being provided to students to help them cope with the transition from in-person instruction to distance learning.
“We’re using video, phone, and email to reach out to students and ask how they’re doing,” he said. “We also have several professionals, from counselors to mental health therapists, ready to provide resources and work with students individually who may be having a hard time.”
The district has utilized its website to provide distance learning resources and links to mental health organizations including the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, the San Joaquin County Crisis Line, local law enforcement agencies and Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, Warren said.
There’s also a link to the National Association of School Psychologists website, which has articles and tips to help children cope with changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The page, located at www.lodiusd.net/parents/remoteresources, provides links to accessing Xfinity WiFi, tutorials on Zoom video calling, social emotional resources, speech and language resources and autism resources, among others.
The district has also created a page on its site listing counselors at all Lodi Unified campuses at www.lodiusd.net/schoolcounselors.
“We’ll continue to update resources as they increase,” Warren said. “This is a manic situation, and when new resources or programs are available, we will put them on the website. To the maximum extent possible, we’re providing services to kids that could help them as much as possible.”
Lodi News-Sentinel Chief Photographer Bea Ahbeck contributed to this report.