With local schools moving online, parents, pupils and educators are adapting to distance learning

By Shanee Edwards

As local students’ coursework moves online, parents are navigating a new system of learning alongside their children

COVID-19, more commonly referred to as coronavirus, is disrupting life as we know it and that includes how our children learn. The Los Angeles Unified School District has closed all K–12 schools until at least May 1, with even Governor Gavin Newsom expecting that California schools won’t reopen before summer break. Local independent and private schools, such as Westside Neighborhood School in Del Rey and Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, have also shifted classes online for the time being.

For parents, that means they will be leading the education charge at home, as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has urged everyone to stay “safer at home.” So what exactly does that mean for students? It depends on each individual school and each individual family.

Zsuzsi Steiner (an Argonaut contributing photographer) is a mom with two boys, ages 6 and 9. They are students at WISH Charter Elementary in Westchester (wishcharter.org), where Steiner also teaches an elective class in “Survival Arts.” WISH provides a Chromebook laptop computer to every student and has implemented a very detailed online learning program that allows kids to see their teachers on screen and learn together in real time.

“We started virtual learning last Monday,” says Steiner. “The teachers have been opening up the classrooms a few minutes early so the students can hear each other. You hear this wonderful, excited children-babble. They play music in the mornings before school and connect. When the teacher comes on, she’s able to mute all the kids’ microphones and kids just hear the teacher. Then she begins the first lesson.”

For the first few days, the teachers were at the school, in their actual classrooms.

“It was really helpful for my Kindergartner to see his teacher in his classroom,” says Steiner. “His face just lit it, saying, ‘Oh, there’s Mr. Gleason!’”

By having the regular school schedule continue, parents like Steiner have a window to get their own work done.

“You see photos of families at the kitchen table. The kids are at their computer with headphones on and the parents are doing their work, side-by-side. Everything is out of whack right now, but at least this feels kind of normal,” she says.

Single mother of two, Amanda Goldman lives in Playa Vista, where her Kindergartner and third grader attend Playa Vista Elementary School

“They are doing live Zoom sessions on the computer and the school sent us home with packets and packets of work to catch up,” says Goldman. “The teachers are doing check-ins. We have apps where the teachers will post during the day what the kids are doing and we’re also able to do virtual learning. Last week was only our first week, so it’s not completely structured yet. We’re doing it in our jammies, which I’m not proud about. I’m going to buckle down on that. I want us to get dressed, have our breakfast and start school.”

While her 9-year-old is able to work independently on the computer, Goldman is very hands-on with her youngest, helping him with reading and writing.

“After that,” says Goldman, “I try to do a craft with them, some sort of art – painting, decorating cookies, anything to use their creativity. Then we do P.E., things like yoga videos. But I’m going to have to take them on walks.”

Joel Pelcyger, Co-Founder and Head of School for PS1 Pluralistic School in Santa Monica (psone.org), says his school’s distance learning effort is going incredibly well, but he admits, “We are in completely uncharted territory.”

Pelcyger started PS1 49 years ago with his wife, but to him, creating a virtual, online school feels like he’s almost starting a second school.

“It’s a school that’s different from most,” he says. “We always emphasize building an inclusive community where parents are our partners. We’re figuring out how to keep online learning active, interactive and dynamic, and give the students as much sense of normalcy and continuity as possible by seeing their teachers in person [on the computer].”

Students and teachers are mostly using the Zoom app to connect with each other on the internet, but they are vetting many other apps as well.

As effective as this type of learning can be, Pelcyger doesn’t think online education should ever replace face-to-face learning for one very important reason.

“The key to all learning is human relationships. We have three core values in our school: competence, confidence and connection,” he says.

PS1 emphasizes connection because, “Everything in life is based on relationships and interrelationships ” says Pelcyger. “When you’re doing distance learning, you have to figure out ways to make that continue. We’re in these uncertain times and we want to provide assuredness and stability. People count on us for the relationship we have, we have to figure out how to maintain that relationship from a distance. We’re not just doing distance learning; we are establishing and sustaining a distance learning community.”

Playa Vista mom Amanda Goldman has supplemented her kids’ distance learning with crafts, cookie decorating and jigsaw puzzles at home
Photos by Amanda Goldman