'Distance Learning' in Sacramento Means 20,000 Chromebooks

School districts in the Sacramento area are ramping up the distribution of essential technology to households as formal "distance learning" programs are close to launching for tens of thousands of students.

School districts in the Sacramento area are ramping up the distribution of essential technology to households as formal “distance learning" programs are close to launching for tens of thousands of students.

Students and parents lined up Monday at Mira Loma High and El Camino Fundamental high schools for laptop computers. Natomas Unified announced it will be distributing nearly 7,000 Chromebook laptops and about 2,000 Wi-Fi hot spots to families.

And the union representing teachers in the Sacramento City Unified School District proposed that the district spend $1.7 million in savings from a new health plan to purchase Google Chromebooks — and potentially Wi-Fi hot spots — for students.

“Our proposal would immediately redirect that $1.7 million in savings to purchase Chromebooks and/or hot spots for students to enable them to participate, to the extent feasible, in Distance Learning instruction beginning on April 13,” said Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) President David Fisher. “The use of these funds has been at dispute between the district and SCTA up to this point. We believe this use of funds should be sufficient to provide every student who lacks a computer or tablet with a device and should be immediately applied so that we can serve our students who suffer from an opportunity gap.”

Sacramento City Unified officials said that, while they appreciate the SCTA’s proposal, the $1.7 million in savings cited by the union is still a matter of dispute and currently in arbitration.

The district said it has worked with the Sacramento County Office of Education to identify resources to purchase laptops, and told The Sacramento Bee that it used $5.1 million in Measure Q funding to order 20,000 Chromebooks last week. (The district notified the union of the purchase Monday afternoon, after the union’s announcement.)

In recent weeks, school districts across the country have announced they were remaining closed until at least May, leaving school leaders and teachers working to implement online classes for students to finish the school year. Many schools in Sacramento County are planning to implement distance learning in mid-April.

“Please remember, this WILL be messy,” read an email from Natomas Unified Superintendent Chris Evans. “It’s not just Natomas Unified facing a global pandemic. All of the companies we partner with are facing the same realities. Your own home Wi-Fi router may face a new strain it has not faced before. There will be glitches. Oh, there will be lots of glitches. This is why we intentionally have 2 weeks of piloting and then one week of spring break. If this was easy, it would already be happening for everyone, around the world, at all schools.”

The Sacramento City Unified School District provided its own updates about distance learning plans Sunday evening.

“We, too, feel the urgency of implementing a formal distance learning plan so that our students can continue receiving high quality instruction from their teachers,” read a statement by the district.

The district plans to implement its program by April 13, and officials said that while they support the efforts of principals and teachers who already began communicating with their students, a district-wide program is needed.

Sacramento City Unified laid out a three-step plan to implement such a program. Along with the SCTA, it determined which students need electronic resources. The district will meet Monday with the teachers union to discuss providing distance learning training for teachers.

The district and SCTA will discuss how to implement online instruction by mid-April, including identifying the responsibilities for employees outside of the classroom: counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, speech and hearing specialists and others.

The teachers union also proposed that teachers have the technology and resources available to them by the end of this week to begin teaching, and it plans to work with Barry Broome of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council to reach out to Internet service providers and ask them to donate access for the remainder of the school year.

The teachers union also said it wanted to see work groups established by the district, including ones that would develop curriculum for special education and plans for high school graduation.

C.K. McClatchy High School teacher Lori Jablonski said she was concerned that many high school seniors were already mentally moving beyond high school, because very few resources and little guidance have been provided for them.

Jablonski said nearly a third of her own students don't have proper access to technology; many of them retrieve their online curriculum through their smartphones.

The teachers union does not know how many students will need Chromebooks. Some students may not have financial need, but with several students in a household now doing distance learning, some families may need more laptops.

San Juan Unified distributed laptops to students on Monday at Mira Loma High and El Camino Fundamental high schools. Last week, the district distributed more than 2,000 laptops to students.

“We have staff working to ensure folks are spreading out to keep proper social distancing,” said a district spokesperson. “Many of our larger schools are staggering pickup by grade level so that there is a steady stream of students throughout the day. We’re trying to make the process as quick and efficient as possible for our students/families.”

Distributions will continue this week and next week for elementary and middle school students.

All families in the district will receive a phone call and email that includes when and where to pick up a Chromebook, along with information about tech support and how to access free Internet at home.

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