Coronavirus: Distance learning in place as Vacaville students, teachers begin new year – The Reporter


For the fifth year in a row, Orchard Elementary School teacher Jaxie Murray greeted her new class of kindergarteners, sang songs with them and had them do activities.

The difference this year is that she had to do all of that through her computer screen.

Vacaville Unified School District students returned Monday for the 2020-21 school year, a traditional rite of passage that serves as a new start for students each year. This year took that concept to another level. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Vacaville campuses remain closed for the time being, but students continue to attend classes through distance learning. By order of Gov. Gavin Newsom, schools in counties on the state’s watchlist for COVID-19 cases must start the year with distance learning and remain in the model until the county has been off the watchlist for 14 consecutive days.

Solano County is on the state’s watchlist, so VUSD students began the year by logging onto Zoom and receiving instruction from their teachers.

Murray said she was nervous leading up to the start of the year, but after meeting with her students and their parents, she felt more confident.

“It’s definitely a learning curve for everyone,” she said. “I feel very fortunate because leading up to today, I’ve had contact with a lot of my parents through email, and they’ve all been really positive in their messages back and forth…I feel like I’m in a good place with the families.”

The impact of distance learning was also felt on the other ending. Over at the Schutz family household, three students from three different schools were immersed in their school work. Harmony, a fourth-grader in Hemlock Elementary School’s Alternative Cooperative Education program, sat at the family’s main computer during her classroom’s morning meeting. Logan, a seventh-grader at Ernest Kimme Charter Academy for Independent Learners, sat on the floor of his bedroom and listened to an English language arts presentation. Devin, a sophomore at Buckingham Collegiate Charter Academy, had a computer set up at his desk where he listened to instructions for his world history class.

Their father, Jeremiah Schutz, said when the school adopted distance learning in March it was ” a disaster.”

“Nobody knew what Zoom was in February,” he said. “Within five weeks, the whole world knew what it was.”

Jeremiah said it was a short amount of time for teachers to make the transition from in-person to distance learning, but he feels improvements have been made.

“It seems as though they’ve got it figured out,” he said.

Among other things, Jeremiah has been impressed with the role teachers have played.

“The teachers have been more than helpful,” he said. “They are definitely going above and beyond to accommodate in this new environment,” he said.

Harmony’s school began the year with a virtual assembly and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by general class assignments and a one-on-one with her teacher. She liked the format but missed the social environment of being in a classroom.

“It’s really fun, but I really want to see my friends in person,” she said.

One challenge Harmony highlighted was how easy it can be to fall behind in a virtual format.

“The teachers tell you to do something, but then you don’t get it or you don’t really do it, and they’re already in another area and you’re still at the start,” she said.

On the plus side, Harmony said she likes not having to be at school because it typically gets too cold — or too hot — this time of year.

Logan said he missed being able to be in a classroom and talk to people in person, but he was excited about the year ahead.

“There’s new things I’m gonna learn and new people I’m gonna see,” he said.

Devin, however, was frustrated with the overall model. Instead of using Zoom, he feels the district should use the platform Discord which he believes has better features.

“(With) Discord, you can actually stream your screen and audio,” he said. “With Zoom, you have to stream the audio through the speakers to your microphone rather than stream it off your screen.”

Additionally, Devin said Discord is free, higher resolution and allows for multiple text and audio channels.

“That would be better for teachers because they’d have more moderation,” he said. “They would have more control actually than Zoom does, and it would be more engaging because it’s also a familiarity for most kids my age.”

Devin also feels there is a disconnect between teachers and students through this format.

“They say, ‘Don’t have your phone out,’” he said. “You could be looking at TikTok or YouTube” and teachers would not know.

On the other hand, Devin said the district has done a good job of distributing supplies that would prepare students for distance learning, including Chromebooks, webcams and $10 Wi-Fi.

“All the supplies that I have are from my school,” he said.

Murray said there had been some glitches on Zoom the first day, and one of her students had to be muted due to technical difficulties with the speakers. On the plus side, she said all of her students were present on the first day.

“I have every student, so I’m excited about that,” she said.

When VUSD campuses shut down in spring, Murray said she followed every bit of news regarding the shutdowns so she could stay prepared. She kept it up for the new school year as VUSD provided updates.

“I spent this entire summer just planning for the worst,” she said. “(I was) going into this with the worst-case scenario being we’re not going to go back to school. I pretty much spent my entire summer preparing for this.”

Murray said the district gave teachers enough time to get ready, including by providing professional development seminars.

Thankfully, the first day went smoothly for Murray. She led her students with a “Good Morning” song, had them individually say their names and favorite colors, did a scavenger hunt where they had to find a crayon of their favorite color and read to them “First Day Jitters,” Julie Danneberg’s 2000 picture book capturing the anxieties people feel when starting a new school.

Murray said this week will be all about students getting to know each other. She is already impressed with her class this year.

“I really like that every single kid was smiling,” she said. “They all participated in the activities, which was really great.”

Murray is looking forward to eventually having students back in her classroom and hopes that distance learning does not become the new normal. She said a lot of teachers have shared her sentiments but are still going to do their best to make it work.

“They’re really gung ho about doing the best job that they can, being there for their kids and giving them the best education possible in this situation,” she said. “I’m going to try to make it as fun as possible.”