It has been nearly six months since most of San Joaquin County’s pre-K-12 students have stepped foot inside a classroom, sat at desks beside their peers or received in-person instruction from their teachers.
School districts throughout the county largely shut down their physical campuses in March — along with the rest of California — to help slow the spread of COVID-19, with educators wading into uncharted territory as teachers abruptly had to adapt lesson plans for distance learning.
Transitioning to online education meant districts have taken on the responsibility for making sure students have the technology they need to succeed in a digital environment.
Troy Brown, associate superintendent of the San Joaquin County Office of Education, says the digital divide existed long before the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s interesting how it shifted to where it’s been highlighted now because everybody’s distance learning. Schools are now trying to solve a connectivity issue that’s been around for a long time,” Brown said, describing district’s efforts as “amazing” and “almost heartwarming.”
Brian Biedermann, interim superintendent for the Stockton Unified School District, said his district has dead spots east of Franklin High School, where the landscape is more rural and there are fewer towers. He also said there are coverage gaps in areas of south Stockton, including the public housing complexes of Conway Homes and Sierra Vista Homes.
Biedermann said the district has been working with the office of Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs and the county’s Housing Authority to solve the digital divide at Conway and Sierra Vista, where students already face an achievement gap that now has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
“These are kids that have already been marginalized and ignored,” Biedermann said.
As of two weeks ago, Biedermann said Stockton Unified, the county’s largest school district with 63 public schools serving roughly 40,000 students, was able to close a roughly 10% connectivity gap through the use of mobile hotspots.
The district received the first 5,000 of the 39,000 mobile hot spots it ordered about two weeks ago, allowing the district to deliver the devices to the 3,700 students identified by district principals as in need. He said the deliveries come in waves due to high demand as many students across the country continue to attend school from home.
Now, Biedermann said the the goal is to provide all SUSD students with their own hotspot — not just every household — because the bandwidth of the devices can be stretched thin if a family has, say, five students that need to use it. Devices also are being given to district staff, para educators and teachers, he said.
The Lodi and Manteca Unified school districts also have provided computers to all their students, as well as mobile hotspots to those who need them, district officials said.
“It’s been an adventure,” Edith Holbert, Lodi Unified’s director of technology, said of transitioning to distance learning.
Lodi Unified has more than 4,000 hot spots, about 2,600 of which have been given out to students who have requested them, Holbert said. But there still are pockets in Lodi where the devices may not be able to help due to poor service, such as areas near Eight Mile Road and along Highway 99.
“We’re trying to address that issue,” Holbert said, adding that the first step is looking into an alternative wireless provider that provides better coverage in those pockets.
Manteca Unified has faced similar yet different connectivity issues, officials said.
Colby Clark, director of information technology, said MUSD started assigning all its students Windows-based laptops six or seven years ago, with fourth-graders on up taking a device home as if it were text book. The district also already had been heavily utilizing Microsoft Teams, a messaging and video conferencing program, prior to COVID-19.
Clark credited district leadership for having the foresight and understanding in regard to the important role technology plays in education.
“Manteca Unified was in a very fortunate position when the pandemic hit because every student already had technology for the most part, a large majority of our students already had internet access at home,” Clark said. “We’re able to hit it in stride and make sure that all of our students had access to technology and access to the internet from home to ensure that learning continued from a distance.”
Some students, however, such as the district’s homeless or foster youth, still needed help getting connected. For example, Clark said the district parks two vans that have been converted into mobile hotspots near the migrant housing centers in French Camp to provide internet for the students who live there.
Manteca Unified also partners with a company that helps aggregate the best internet services for student based on their addresses, Clark said.
The one thing Manteca Unified wasn’t prepared for, however, was translating in-person instruction to this new digital medium, said Victoria Brunn, director of community outreach, adding that the district is handling this front much differently than it did in the Spring.
“It’s one thing to teach with a flipped classroom or knowing the technology,” Brunn said. “But the art of delivering that technology in an engaging way takes professional development and commitment and trial and error.”
Officials from both Stockton Unified and Lodi Unified said their districts have and/or are looking into using large-scale mobile hotspots but have not yet opted to go that route as the devices still have holes in connectivity, are costly and can sometimes encourage children in the neighborhoods where they’re parked to congregate around the vehicle.
Other challenges school districts facing are the unknown variables that can’t be controlled, such as rolling blackouts, network lines being cut and widespread outages with the instruction and communication programs districts use — all of which occurred at various times last month.
California also is holding school districts to strict standards that dictate how much time of instruction students must get each day based on their grade level, Biedermann said.
“There is no ‘if the power goes out,’ ” he said.
Districts said they encourage teachers to have backup plans, be prepared and get creative to deal with the hiccups when they inevitably happen.
The key to it all, Holbert sais, is “just patience.”
In addition to connectivity, Biedermann says Stockton Unified has been working to track down the more than 800 students the district lost track of since the spring, initially trying to make contact by phone in the first three weeks of the current school year before deploying staff from its Child welfare and Attendance Department to find them, as well as social workers, counselors and outreach consultants.
Biedermann said during the fourth week of school the district was able to bring that number below 400 by either physically finding the student or figuring out other circumstances, such as having moved out of the district. Stockton Unified also has delivered devices to students at the migrant housing centers in French Camp, as well as to some living in shelters.
Students in Stockton face a lot of trauma or sometimes life just gets in the way of them being able to go to school, Biedermann said.
“We don’t want that trauma to get in the way and impede education,” Biedermann said. “We don’t want that to prevent kids from learning.”
Manteca Unified, which uses a program to monitor students’ online activity and how much they engage in their educational program, has found a 99% percent participation rate from both teachers and students each day, Clark said.
Lodi Unified says that it sees almost 25,000 students of the 28,000 in the district logging into school on any given day, Holbert said.
“When I look at those kinds of numbers,” Holbert said, “it doesn’t tell me that we have an overall connectivity issue.”
Biedermann echoed those sentiments.
“I haven’t heard of any kid that has the technology,” he said, “but can’t connect because of where they live.”
Contact reporter Cassie Dickman at (209) 546-8299 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @byCassieDickman.