Teaching, learning moves online in Rancho Santa Fe

R. Roger Rowe students at work at the Brown family home.
(Chondra Brown)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District launched into the “brave new world” of online learning almost immediately following the school closures that began on March 16—the first lessons were available for students on March 18.

“We decided to get up and running so kids could continue instruction right away,” said RSF School Superintendent Donna Tripi.

Tripi said that the district is fortunate that they already had 1:1 laptops for every student so when school closures were announced on March 13, Rowe sent all students home with their equipment. MyFi devices were purchased for a handful of families in the district who do not have home internet connections. The district rolled out the first phase of its online learning plan on March 18 with video/audio lessons for kindergarten through eighth grade prepared by staff.

“It is pretty remarkable that the team pulled together and was able to get to a point where we could embark so quickly,” said RSF School District President Scott Kahn. “Obviously there’s a lot still to accomplish, I think everyone wants to do more and better.”

In addition to lessons, teachers also have some daily interaction with students via feedback through the Canvas learning management platform and personalized emails. Kristin Gerding’s fifth grade class even had a Zoom birthday party for one of the students last week and Clerk Jee Manghani said his son was so excited to jump on and see his classmates. “Little things like that…it was a moment of levity for at least my fifth grader,” Manghani said.

The school board hosted its first-ever teleconference board meeting on Friday, March 27—Kahn, Vice President Kali Kim, Manghani and board member Tyler Seltzer were at the school with Tripi, keeping attendees under the state-mandated 10 people. Board member Sarah Neal joined the Zoom call from home, as did several teachers and parents. Everyone on the call was given the opportunity to provide public comment.

“As a school district, I think we’re crushing it,” said Chondra Brown, a Rowe parent who is sheltering in place with eight children on her property. Brown said online learning is a huge adjustment for students, as they move from a more hands-on learning environment to one that is more one-size fits all but Rowe teachers have done a great job creating engaging content and remaining connected to their students.

“I’m really proud of our school and how well they’ve done not just to throw the curriculum together but to stay in tune with the students,” said Brown.

Tripi said it has taken a “monumental” effort by staff to launch online learning—staff had started planning in early March as the coronavirus situation unfolded in the country. In that first week after school closed, elementary and middle school students received online lessons in all core subjects and fifth graders and middle school students were given assignments to submit. Tripi said she was proud of the district’s education specialists, service providers and paraprofessionals who worked hard to provide services to their special education students remotely.

The second phase of online learning started in the second week on March 23, with assignment submissions expanding to include grades 2-4. The district also offered a schedule to help parents organize their days to somewhat mirror a regular school day and set up RSF Online, full of resources and activities to supplement online learning, including virtual field trips.

With phase 3, the district will be looking to add more robust interactive learning after the April 6-10 spring break. Tripi said it is a work in progress as they grapple with the challenges of online platforms (teaching good “netiquette”) and ensuring that the experience is meaningful and beneficial for students.

Tripi said staff has been researching best practices on what a lesson looks like online, how to combine synchronous and asynchronous learning: “It is difficult to not have the interaction with kids, to know what they’re getting and not getting and it’s just a whole new way of thinking about lessons,” Tripi said. “It takes a little bit of time…we’re not moving so quickly that people can’t do it well.”

The Brown family takes part in physical education. The students filmed their aerobic, anaerobic, flexibility and stability routines and submitted it for a grade.
(Chondra Brown)

The district is also exploring fun ideas to connect the whole school community such as doing the school’s planned talent show on a closed YouTube channel.

The board appreciated the measured approach the district is taking to getting online instruction right, maintaining some routine for students and supporting families and staff. Seltzer said that there will be comparisons to other districts, particularly to private schools, and he encouraged the district to continue communicating with other districts and schools as they find out what is working best.

“I’m not as hung up on the delivery system as on what we are delivering,” Seltzer said. “I’m excited about what we’ve done and what we’re going to do but hope that the intensity slowly builds so that kids are getting value out of every class.”

Board members also shared their concerns about the lack of quality internet connection in Rancho Santa Fe and ensuring equal access for all students. According to Tripi, the district’s technology team is working with four families to resolve connectivity issues.

The district is planning for the long-term with online learning: On March 29, San Diego Health and Human Services Agency issued a new public health order which continues school closures for an indefinite period of time.

In a message to the school community, Tripi encouraged patience as families move into their third week of online learning, juggling new schedules and new technology.

“We are not going to be expert at all of the new things we are being asked to do from the beginning, but anything we do right now is a good attempt to give our children structure, ongoing learning and connections to school when they need it most,” Tripi wrote.