Solana Beach Schools: A new kind of school day with distance learning

Beau, a Solana Santa Fe School fourth grader, works from home.

During their first Zoom board meeting last week, the Solana Beach School District board members and staff offered up virtual hugs and high fives for their district’s distance learning program that is getting stronger every day.

The district launched its online platform on March 23 ensuring all students have equal access to the educational tools they need to continue learning at home, including their most vulnerable populations of special education students and English language learners. The district has also placed a special focus on supporting students’ social and emotional wellbeing and providing resources for district families who are experiencing job loss, challenges with childcare, food and home insecurity.

Jennifer Goldston, SBSD director of instructional services, said she has been blown away by the teachers’ innovation and creativity as they have come together to provide learning opportunities for students.

“What we’re not doing is transitioning to homeschooling. We’re transitioning to distance learning and that’s very different,” said Goldston. “We’re not looking to the parents to become the teachers of their children but rather we are looking to support the distance learning model.”

Solana Santa Fe students Liam, sixth grade, and Blake, third grade, began distance learning in their home on March 23.

The special Zoom board meeting on March 26 was just one of many that the district has taken on—SBSD Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger said Solana Beach staff has put in 150,000 minutes of Zoom meetings, which breaks down to 2,500 hours and 109 days.

“We’re in day nine of school closure and there has been an investment of 109 days into getting where we are,” Brentlinger said. “We’re going to continue to move forward with distance learning model, continuing to improve and strengthen it, including getting that live connectivity piece until we get further direction to return to school.”

As Brentlinger said, this is an unprecedented time for the institution of public education: In the 102 years since the United States required all children to complete elementary school, nothing has changed public education like the COVID-19 pandemic has.

“Within a matter of minutes of announcing that we were moving into school closure and pursuing distance learning, we truly turned public education not only upside down but inside out as well,” Brentlinger said. “I truly believe that this is revolutionary and when this is said and done overall there is going to be a lot of good that comes out of the changes that are occurring educationally.”

At the meeting, the board heard an update on the rollout of the new online learning platform that the district continues to adjust and refine as they learn more. SBSD teachers are using the Seesaw platform and/or Google Classroom as the management systems for distance learning, “Teachers miss their kids big time but we’re making the best of the situation,” said Jesse Atkins, president of the Solana Beach Teachers Association.

The Solana Vista School librarian Monica Rainville has been posting video read-alouds from her living room studio and hosting book club on Fridays. Last week a kindergartner left a heartwarming voice message for her: “I really like your books that you read to us in the library and I hope I can see you soon,” he said. “And I really want to see what the other books are so bye, I love you.”

Sabrina Lee, assistant superintendent of instructional services, demonstrated that there has been a lot of care and emotion behind the work, moved to tears talking about how hard staff worked to get online learning up and running in a short period of time. She said they have received positive accolades as well as constructive criticism and they are taking it all to heart.

“As a parent, it’s challenging. To modify into a new norm is challenging,” Lee said. “We care about all of our students and all of our families and we want to support and be aware that this is a very difficult situation that people are in; there are families and kids who may have already experienced trauma in this first week and I think we really need to put a focus on the wellbeing of families as well as have an understanding of our charge in public education.”

The district had set a tentative re-opening date of April 13 but 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.”

SBSD Vice President Debra Schade, who has a background in public health, said it’s best that the district continue to follow public health guidelines and anticipate that they will be doing online learning through the end of the year and possibly a slow start in the fall. At a future meeting, the board members want to discuss a re-entry plan, including the possibility of a dual learning model as there will be challenges in re-opening schools.

“We want the kids back, we just want to make sure it’s going to be safe and it’s the right time,” said SBSD President Julie Union.