By Mark Powell
When San Diego County school districts closed their doors in the middle of March to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, they sent 500,000 students home for the remainder of the school year. As teachers scrambled to implement “distance learning” — a mode of remote educational instruction without face-to-face contact with a teacher — parents were handed over the responsibility of supervising their children’s education from home, a task that few were prepared for.
Impressively, school districts and teachers across San Diego County met the challenge and started to implement distance learning, some with great success and others with only marginal results. For now, distance learning is the new norm, but it will most likely be around long after the COVID-19 crisis ends. The question is, will teachers be on board?
With the revolution of distance learning, education in San Diego County is entering a new era, one in which it may be challenging for teachers to grasp the notion of leaving the traditional classroom behind. While COVID-19 forced all school districts to implement distance learning, it’s a concept that has already been embraced by colleges and universities, and one that can offer many advantages for local school districts, such as class-size reduction.
Distance learning is a mode of education that promises to manage class sizes without the rigamarole of lengthy negotiations with teachers unions. After a teachers’ strike last year that lasted six school days, Los Angeles teachers reached a deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District that lowered maximum class size by a total of four students. It took months of negotiations and a strike to reduce class sizes by just four students. With distance learning, physical class sizes can be reduced substantially as some students can learn remotely from home—and it won’t take a teacher strike to implement.
As long as they have a valid California teaching credential, distance learning can also help teachers cope with soaring rents and high home prices by allowing them to teach in areas where rents and home prices are less expensive. In San Diego, a school teacher needs to make $130,986 a year in order to afford a median-priced single-family home. With the average public school teacher salary at $61,113, purchasing a home is unlikely.
San Diego is one of the most expensive cities to live in, and the only option for most new teachers is to rent — an expense that can eat up over 50 percent of a teacher’s pay, and that’s not even including utilities. To make ends meet, many teachers often take on second and even third jobs. Alternatively, to avoid paying high rents, many teachers spend multiple hours each day commuting long distances to work from areas where rents are less expensive. For these reasons distance learning makes a lot of sense.
Distance learning can also help high school athletes. When Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 328, a law prohibiting high schools from starting class before 8:30 a.m., he may not have fully realized the unintended consequences it would have on high school athletic practice schedules due to daylight savings time and stadium lighting restrictions. Through distance learning, athletes could take classes online, freeing up the time they need to sleep and make it to practice while it’s still light outside.
COVID-19 has radically changed the concept of traditional education in San Diego County, because parents and students now understand that being physically present in a classroom isn’t the only option for effective learning. Distance learning is a sensible alternative, whether you’re an educator or student, and San Diego County school districts should embrace it.
For students, it provides the opportunity to learn at their own pace, set their own schedule and even earn a diploma quicker. For teachers, it means that they can teach from anywhere in the world, whether from the comfort of their own home or while traveling around the globe. With distance learning, the physical location of teachers becomes irrelevant. And for school districts it can be more cost-effective than traditional education.
Most educational leaders will agree that schools were not prepared to deal with the impact of COVID-19, but that once the stay-at-home orders end school districts will benefit by retaining some form of distance learning. However, the implementation and platform must be well thought out.
Distance learning for students is something that needs to be experimented with sensibly, considering all aspects and outcomes. Make no mistake about it — our traditional model of education has changed forever, because the public knows that learning is no longer restricted to the classroom.
Mark Powell is a member of the San Diego County Board of Education. He has been a teacher, vice principal and dean of students at San Diego Unified School District. He is an adjunct professor at National University’s Sanford College of Education.
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