Friday, December 4, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 40

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 17th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 38 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 38

High school students protest distance learning changes

By Malea Martin

Late in the afternoon on Nov. 16, high school students holding protest signs begin to gather on the street corner of Skyway and Fairway in Santa Maria. Every few minutes, a car honks in support as the protesters chant “No education without representation,” and “Sí se puede.” 

Student protesters gather outside the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District office to protest new changes to their distance learning schedules.

Yellow buses pull into the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District’s parking lot behind the protest.

With weeks left in the semester following record-low progress report grades, the district announced that students will now be required to attend Zoom sessions every day of the week, so as to “comply with requirements from the California Department of Education to have ‘daily live interaction,’” a Nov. 11 email to parents stated.

The changes would “effectively double the amount of direct interaction they have with each of their teachers,” the Nov. 11 email stated.

Eliot Báez, one of the student organizers, told the Sun that the state mandate has been in place since September. 

“One of our biggest concerns is that the district is not informing us of these changes until now, in November, less than a month before the end of the semester” Báez said. “What is particularly infuriating to many of us is that we were given less than a week’s notice before this change was implemented in our district.”

Ellen Barger, the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the district became aware of its noncompliance during a recent routine meeting when the county reiterated various distance learning requirements from the state’s current education code. 

“One of those [elements] is the requirement for daily live interaction,” Barger said. “After sharing that, I was contacted by the district. They said, ‘Here’s how we are doing our distance learning, and it sounds like we need to make a shift.’”

Barger said she then confirmed that the district was out of compliance and would need to increase the amount of virtual face-to-face time between students and teachers.

Daily live interaction is defined as instruction with a certificated staff member and peers, Barger explained. It must be synchronous—meaning students receive the instruction at the same time—and include live audio or video communication.

Up until the district announced the recent changes, Báez only saw his teachers and peers on Zoom twice a week. The shift to having Zoom sessions every day of the week would make an already difficult learning environment worse, Báez said.

“It’s challenging,” he said. “However, a lot of us would argue that it would be even more challenging to see our teachers more times per week, because that would entail being online for an even longer amount of time.”

Báez and his fellow organizers believe the district should have consulted with students before the decision was made and that “the district took much too long to respond” to mandates that have been in place since the beginning of the school year. 

Barger said that the new education code has a lot of moving parts—the required number of instructional minutes, synchronous versus asynchronous learning, how much time kids need to be on Zoom—and that this has “caused a lot of difficulty for our districts.”

“This legislation happens, and then they have to make adjustments to put it into place, to implement it,” Barger said. “They are constantly reviewing their programs.”

She added that the district’s recent changes were self-made and that the county’s education office is not a regulatory body.

About halfway through the Nov. 16 protest, district Superintendent Antonio Garcia came outside to talk with the students. Garcia said the district values the input of students and recognized the “challenges that this learning environment has placed on students.”

Báez asked whether he and other students could “trust that you as a district will amplify our voice to the county and the state.”

“We do that on a regular basis,” Garcia responded.

Jenny Angel, another student organizer, said she believed that the district’s current level of communication with students isn’t sufficient. 

“We would like transparency in the work that you do,” Angel said. “Your intentions are there, but maybe your actions don’t really reflect your intentions as best as they could be representing them.”

Garcia said he would take the students’ concerns into consideration.

“The decisions we have made as a school district have not been made without thoughtful consideration and information from different sources, including state and county guidance; student, parent, and staff input; and internal data, including student attendance and achievement,” a written statement from the district said. 

Angel said the conversation with the superintendent was productive but that there’s still work to be done.

“I think it’s definitely important that we were able to get their attention,” Angel said. “I think that the first step is definitely to be heard, and now moving forward it’s part of our jobs as students to hold them accountable, and their jobs to hold themselves accountable.” 

Weekly Poll
Would a second stay-at-home order be effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19?

No, pandemic fatigue is too high to get people to follow a stay-at-home order.
Yes, we need it, otherwise our hospitals will be in rough shape.
Local governments should get a say—not all purple tier counties are the same.
It would be bad news for the economy.

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