LWVBAE members gathered for “Pursuing Excellence in Uncharted Territory” to hear from new school board members on the subject of public education during COVID-19 on Friday evening, December 11, 2020.
For the first hour, the panelists, newly-elected school board members Laura Babitt of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), Veronica Davidson of Albany Unified School District (AUSD), and Ana Vasudeo (BUSD) shared their thoughts on the future of distance learning in local schools.
Led by LWVBAE President Ruby MacDonald, the panel touched on possible future hybrid learning models, the learning loss during distance learning and the upside of online learning, among other popular topics. School board members started the panel with brief statements on their priorities.
“Our whole goal is to really come out of this pandemic stronger than we left,” shared Babitt, who has been on different boards and committees supporting Berkeley schools since 2011. Davidson, an Albany parent and former teacher, also expressed the importance of supporting school communities through COVID-19, especially creating stronger communication between parents and teachers. Vasudeo, who also has a history of involvement in local school groups, echoed Babitt’s goal of building a stronger school community, specifically by closing the equity gap.
The panel opened with discussion on possible hybrid and in-person learning models for the coming spring.
“I am not actually a strong supporter of the hybrid [teaching] model,” Davidson said, explaining the importance of keeping Albany students safe by staying distanced. Babitt had a more optimistic view on the ideal hybrid learning day: mornings taught in-person, with online distance learning in the afternoon. Vasudeo agreed with Babitt, advocating for a synchronous school schedule to better keep all students on track despite huge learning losses during this time.
“What kind of programs can we have in place for the summer to address learning loss?…How are we going to make up for [learning loss] over the summer? ” Vasudeo brainstormed, expressing her concerns that the already existing academic achievement gap has been exacerbated this school year. Davidson had similar concerns and offered possible responses: providing training for parents on their new “teaching” responsibilities and student-to-student tutoring. Babitt also promoted a possible academic intervention method of scaffolding in missed material with the grade-level standards.
Part of the exaggerated learning loss this year correlates with heightened truancy rates during online learning, and the panelists provided possible responses to the issue. Davidson described how creating one-on-one student-teacher relationships, even over Zoom, are critical to engaging the class.
“Where I see district struggle is on culturally responsive outreach [concerning truancy],” said Vasudeo. At a training with the California Latino School Board Association, Vasudeo had the opportunity to hear how other districts are reaching out to students and families of color with high absenteeism, and the consensus was that just contacting families via call or text can greatly improve family and student involvement. “It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming thing,” said Vasudeo, “just direct personal outreach.”
Babitt also expressed the necessity of creating relationships and content to engage students. She empathized with the students: “For a lot of them, the best part of school was the social interaction…To really hone in on making [online school] engaging is definitely content-based, and is definitely instruction-based and relationship-based.”
Despite the challenges schools face now, there are a few positive aspects to teaching online.
“ [Teaching online] has pushed some teachers who were not technologically savvy to become more technologically savvy. That will be a huge benefit,” said Davidson, replying to Babitt’s remark that the use of technology had previously varied greatly classroom to classroom. All three school board members agreed that school board meetings, and community meetings in general, have seen unprecedented attendance online. Online meetings are more accommodating to busy parents and families and have seen hundreds more attendees in past months.
The panel wrapped up with a brief discussion on teaching kids to effectively navigate social media to avoid propaganda, before moving on to the social part of the evening. Attendees were split into randomized break out rooms to chat, emulating the annual LWVBAE in-person holiday party. The meeting moved on to a review of the year’s financial report by LWVBAE Treasurer Cynthia Chen before concluding with good wishes for the new year.
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