There are countless difficulties schools throughout the state have had to overcome as a result of distance learning methods brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, but for those in rural areas like Chatom Union School District, those challenges are amplified.
In the wake of school closures — part of social distancing efforts meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 — districts in California had to quickly convert their campuses to provide distance learning for students. For many schools, the adjustment consists of online-based teaching, learning and working, with some supplemental hard copy materials provided.
So, what about a school district like Chatom Union, which is surrounded by orchards rather than connectivity towers? According to Superintendent Cherisa Olvera, internet service for some students has been hard to come by.
“The California Department of Education has offered several resources in providing free or low-cost internet services, but a lot of the participating providers do not offer service in our rural area which makes it more difficult for our families,” Olvera said. “Equitable access is a large concern throughout the State of California. All students do not have access to the internet.”
In order to reach every child at Chatom Preschool, Chatom Elementary School and Mountain View Middle School whether they have internet service or not, the district’s distance learning model looks a bit different than those in surrounding communities. Chatom Union chose to provide students with instructional packets, which focus on the essential standards at each grade level and provide core curriculum to all students.
While there are online resources for Chatom students meant to further support instruction, those who may not be able to access them aren’t left behind thanks to the work of the district.
“These packets were personally delivered by staff members utilizing our school buses. The personal delivery was a way for us to see our students and remind them that we are here for them and that they are missed,” Olvera said. “It warmed our hearts to see our children smile and wave to their teachers, bus driver and other staff members.”
Teachers are working hard to maintain contact with their students during this time, she added, reaching out to families three times a week and conducting home visits to check on students they haven’t been able to reach.
While Chatom’s methodology has ensured parents don’t necessarily need internet access to keep their students up to speed, that hasn’t stopped the district from trying to see every child is connected. Not only has Chatom applied for additional resources from the state, which include requests for additional Chromebooks, tablets and hotspots, but the district is also helping families find internet providers that are available in the rural area and even opened their school parking lots so they can utilize the school WiFi.
It was announced April 1 that Google was donating 4,000 Chromebooks to students and free WiFi to 100,000 households in collaboration with Gov. Gavin Newsom — an effort to make sure more students have internet access during the pandemic, though Chatom has yet to receive help.
“The state has informed us that although they are trying to meet the needs of rural communities, the demand exceeds the supply at this time. We are still waiting to get acknowledgement to know if we will receive the resources or not,” Olvera said.
In the meantime, teachers and students continue to put their best feet forward. Students who do have internet access can see their teachers on Zoom, complete worksheets on Google Classroom, conduct experiments through Mystery Science and hear daily stories read aloud on Facebook Live.
Chatom is also providing free breakfast, lunch and books to all children 18 and younger every Monday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Chatom Elementary. Staying connected with their teachers and keeping nourished are just two factors that play into the students’ wellbeing during this time, Olvera said.
Through upcoming activities like a virtual talent show, a virtual transition day for fifth graders to meet their new sixth grade teachers, virtual green and gold spirit days and virtual theme days, it’s Olvera’s hope that school can still continue to feel normal for students.
“It is important that we continue to support the whole child during this time. We understand that every child and every family is dealing with this difficult time in a different fashion. Some families are still going to work, while others may be working from home or dealing with medical circumstances that place them or a family member at higher risk.” she said. “We are here to not only provide instructional support for our students and families, but we are also here to support any social and emotional needs. We have staff members who are assisting with social and emotional needs in addition to obtaining community resources for students and families.
“We are a strong and supportive community. We will continue to work together, support each other and move forward together as we face this global pandemic.”