First day of distance learning

With no plans to bring students back to campus until the county moves out of Gov. Gavin Newsom's purple "widespread" tier, the impacts of distance learning and student mental health were the main topics of discussion for Tracy Unified School District's Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

TUSD is the largest school district in Tracy and is responsible for the education of over 15,000 students in town. With the exception of small cohorts of youth with special needs, most TUSD students have been off campus since March, when California implemented its first "Stay-at-Home" order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, students and faculty have had to adapt to new learning strategies for the past year.

Julianna Stocking, associate superintendent of Educational Services for TUSD, asked the board to keep this in mind as she set up the context for the night's discussions. In her presentation, Stocking displayed the contrasts of the 2019-20 school year's "student-centered" learning environment in comparison to the current 2020-21 school year that has had students primarily in some type of distance learning curriculum.

"Students had learning environments that included libraries, computer labs, tutoring labs, tutorial spaces, classrooms that were equipped with a learning environment that really compartmentalized all of the other things that we have going on in life," Stocking said in reference to the variety of different resources available to students and teachers when learning was conducted on campus.

Stocking also referred to physical education, field trips and outdoor Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) classes as additional learning materials and environments students had access to.

"Looking at 2021, curriculum materials for students, these are their impacts: now their curriculum is on a laptop. Now we're trying to get materials to our students that include, workbooks, notebooks, worksheets, manipulatives that we have enough of to provide to every student — and we don't always have that capacity," she said.

Stocking presented the comparison chart of Student Curriculum Materials, Student Group-centered Learning Materials, Student-Centered Learning Environments and Teacher Instructional Curriculum Materials on the screen to give a visual of different school years. The most apparent revelation was that most student learning is being conducted on a screen online, with students needing to learn how to navigate their participation and assignments on various apps and online portals, such as Microsoft Teams and Flipgrid.

Instead of being in a controlled classroom environment, Stocking pointed out that students have been having to make due with learning in their bedrooms, kitchens or in commonplaces at home.

"And that is a challenge for them," said Stocking, noting that the results of this have caused less relationship and rapport building among students and teachers and a decrease in peer-to-peer engagement.

Despite attendance actually being up this year, according to student engagement logs filled out by teachers, Stocking revealed that student participation was at a low and showed that the failure rate of students has actually increased in the middle school and high school subjects of English, Math, Science and Foreign Language. In comparison to the previous school year, TUSD's failure-rate data shows that the rate of failing grades amongst students had doubled or nearly tripled in some cases.

Because of this, schools have developed a series of actions specific to their students, including increased outreach to students to discuss resources and support, conducting student panels and sharing data among teachers and staff to work collaboratively to find primary causes of failure-rates and form solutions.

"But I think the most important thing when we're looking at data, is to talk about the 'why," said Stocking. "There's a number, in which is behind every number is a name. And behind every name is a face. And behind every face is a story. And I think that's really important that we think about that when we're looking at grades, when we're looking at data, academic achievement, whatever that is, that we really discuss the 'why.'"

As an effort to support students in the unorthodox school year, Stocking said TUSD would take multiple actions to help students recover credits in order for them to graduate on time. This includes allocated the necessary resources for the district's Credit Recovery Programs, allocating resources to the Summer Intervention Programs and possibly reducing the number of graduation credit requirements for the class of 2021.

Trustees weighed in their thoughts as Stocking gave her presentation. Trustee Ameni Alexander asked Stocking if she could reach out to other school districts to compare data and broaden their scope of research. Trustee Nathalia Erskine wanted to ensure that high school students were being prioritized, with graduation being just months away.

To coincide with Stocking's presentation of learning impacts, Dr. Diedre Hill, coordinator for TUSD's prevention and intervention services, gave a full overview of the district's mental health services, its referral process and the current trends of the school year.

In her presentation, Hill mentioned that TUSD follows a "social and emotional learning model" for its approach in supporting students. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) focuses on five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

TUSD referral and prevention framework for students follows a Multi-Tiered, Mult-Domain System of Supports (MTMDSS) model, which helps the district evaluate, the severity of a student's case, the different types of academic and emotional support that a student needs, such as group or individual counseling and also the type of program that best suits a student's needs. 

TUSD partners with organizations such as Axis Community Health, Sow-a-Seed Foundation, CommunityMedicalCenter, Valley Community Counseling, Crossroads, Child Abuse Prevention Council and  Point Break to provide students with counseling and case management for emotional needs like suicide prevention, anger management and substance abuse. These programs are available to all students within the district that request them or are referred to them.

Referrals for the programs, though primarily done by teachers, can be made by parents, school counselors administrators or even students themselves, with students aged 12 years and older having the ability to consent for their own counseling per CaliforniaState law. In addition to student resources and outreach, including an online self-referral form, Hill said that the district also provides ongoing trainings and workshops in suicide prevention for parents and teachers.

Despite the availability of the resources, Hill shared in several charts that the number of student referrals has actually decreased significantly in comparison to the previous school year. She suspected that  this is partly because there are less avenues of access for students to reach out confidentially with most of them being home in the presence of family members.

Trustee Zack Hoffert asked Hill to clarify if how students have been reaching out for help.

"There has been an increase (in reaching out) subliminally," said Hill. "For example, there was a student who submitted work to a teacher. But within the essay response there was a cry for help. And this can be due to the parent being right next to the student or the student being unable to vocalize in front of a parent or verbally to the teacher that she or he needed help. And so, through these hidden messages, we've been finding that students are still referring and needing more mental health services."     

• Contact Brianna Guillory at bguillory@tracypress.com or 209-830-4229.

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