What One LAUSD Teacher Learned About Why 'Daily, Live' Lessons Matter

In this April 9, 2020 photo, Sunnyside Elementary School fourth-grader Miriam Amacker does school work in her room at her family's home in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

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Last March, on the last day of in-person classes, Canoga Park Elementary School teacher Daisy Leon sent each of her students home with an iPad — and a promise.

"This is not a break," Leon told her fifth graders. "Starting on Monday, I'm going to keep teaching you. And you're going to keep learning."

Leon worked hard to keep her end of the bargain — holding daily Zoom classes, meeting virtually with parents, preparing recorded video lessons.

But across the Los Angeles Unified School District, a lot of students saw less of their teachers last Spring.

HOW MUCH HAS LAUSD LEARNED FROM LAST YEAR?

Live video lessons weren't mandatory and expectations weren't always clear. As a result, parent surveys and LAUSD's own data show Black, Latino, English learner and special education students were far less likely than their peers to engage in distance learning.

This school year, a new distance learning agreement with LAUSD's teachers union will aim to ensure more consistent, real-time interactions between teachers and students. Today, new daily class schedules based on these new rules begin in earnest after two days of online orientation.

For some, the new distance learning rules aren't much of an improvement. A group of parents and two advocacy groups — Parent Revolution and Innovate Public Schools — have been exploring legal action against LAUSD over how last spring's distance learning played out.

In an Aug. 11 letter, the parents' attorney argued the new guidelines fail to "provide sufficient guardrails to ensure that students receive the education guaranteed to them by the California Constitution."

But unlike last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close suddenly, LAUSD officials say many teachers will benefit from having had time to prepare.

Leon volunteered to teach summer school classes so she could get used to leading two hours of daily, real-time lessons. She's worried about whether kids will show up and whether the technology will still work — but she's optimistic about how distance learning will go.

"If we really understand what our kids need," she said, "we can hone in on what those needs are."

A 7-year-old second grader in Bartlett, Ill., completes a distance learning lesson on May 1, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

'AM I GOING TO HAVE TO DO FIFTH GRADE AGAIN?'

I first met Daisy Leon — virtually — last March, two weeks into the lockdown. I called her back recently to ask how the rest of her year went.

On a typical day, at 9 a.m. she'd hold an hour-long Zoom session with her class. She'd often lead with a lesson — for example, sharing her screen and teaching a math concept using a white board app on her iPad.

She always set a little time aside at the end to catch up with her students.

"They looked forward to it," Leon said. "Even though they're fifth graders and they wouldn't want to admit it, you could tell they were excited. You could tell."

And often, they'd beg her not to end the call and stay on a little longer. So she would stay on to chat — about the lesson, about video games, about her cats.

Underneath the small talk, Leon realized each of her students needed these Zoom check-ins for their own reasons.

One student was so upset by just being out of school, Leon said, "to the point that it would give her almost like an anxiety attack. She was so worried about falling behind. She's like, 'Am I going to have to do fifth grade again?'"

Or the fifth grader left home alone — with no one there to help: "My parents have to work, and I can't connect, I'm here by myself, I'm so bored."

Leon's class would then spend their rest of the day off Zoom. (She suggested a schedule for them: math or language arts from 10 to 11, lunch at noon, reading in the afternoon...)

Those morning calls became more than a mental health break, or her one daily moment to teach the whole class a concept. Leon said those live video chats were her chance to ensure students were still engaged with all of their work.

The Zoom calls were "a little bit of everything. It wasn't as structured as I wanted it to be — but if that's what it took to have that kid [engaged] ... then I'd do it."

'NO REAL LEARNING INVOLVED'

Last spring, what Leon was doing was optional — LAUSD didn't require video lessons. As a result, the amount of instruction that students received varied widely.

A parent survey by the advocacy group Speak Up found Black and Latino students were less likely than white students to have daily video lessons. LAUSD's own data suggests similar racial gaps. A district report also found English learners and students with disabilities were nearly twice as likely to not participate online at all.

"It was to the point," said parent Akela Wroten, Jr., "where I had to hire a private tutor so my baby can learn how to read in the first grade."

Wroten has three kids in LAUSD, two of them in an elementary school in Carson. His son, who was in second grade last year, had a great experience with distance learning, with a teacher willing to go the extra mile. But Wroten said his daughter, then a first grader, saw very little of her teacher.

The teacher would send texts and emails, "but that was it," Wroten said. "There was no real learning involved, and when she did Zoom, it was at the end of the day and only one hour or two hours out of the week."

Hence the private tutor, who cost $400 a month — not easy for a single father to swing. Wroten works as a youth pastor and in facilities for the L.A. Community College District.

Wroten is one of the parents who's joined with Parent Revolution and Innovate Public Schools to explore legal action against LAUSD.

"My daughter," he said, "was denied her constitutional right to a firm education [because of] ... the district dropping the ball."

School districts in Southern California are struggling to achieve distance learning with students who don't have access to computers or broadband connections. (John Moore/Getty Images)

WHAT'S IN THE DISTANCE LEARNING AGREEMENT

LAUSD officials say this year will be different.

In most grades, each day, students can now expect at least 90 minutes of live "synchronous instruction" — a term that covers not only video calls, but any type of interaction where a teacher is standing by to offer real-time feedback.

When LAUSD students aren't receiving synchronous instruction, they'll be expected to work on assignments independently from 9 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. each day.

The standards by grade are spelled out in LAUSD's agreement with the teachers union. The district and United Teachers Los Angeles negotiated the document to respond to a new state law that mandates "daily, live engagement" between students and teachers — and also requires daily attendance to be taken.

Those considering a lawsuit against LAUSD says the agreement still falls short. In his Aug. 11 letter, attorney Mark Wolscher, with the firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, criticizes the district for not mandating "sufficient synchronous learning time" and failing to set standards for how teachers spend their "asynchronous" time.

"There is nothing in the agreement," wrote Wolscher, "that prevents teachers from choosing a less supportive and poorly defined method, like 'students work independently,'" as opposed to a high-quality pre-recorded video lesson — which is also an "asynchronous" teaching method.

District officials haven't formally responded to the group's legal threats.

United Teachers Los Angeles officials have said the agreement represents a solid foundation for the new year.

"This [agreement] is not an end-point, it's a beginning," said UTLA president Cecily Myart Cruz in a Facebook Live appearance earlier this month. "We must invest more resources to create healthy and safe schools and to build on this [memorandum of understanding] with responsiveness to feedback from educators, parents and students."

"We never wavered," added the head of UTLA's bargaining team, Arlene Inouye, "from what we thought was the best crisis distance learning program possible."

THERE'S AN UPSIDE

Leon says teaching summer school in distance learning mode taught her a lot.

She discovered she can teach for two hours straight on Zoom. Though students' attention did tend to wane by the end, she and the students were able to manage it — with a few stretch breaks.

That matters because on every day except Mondays, LAUSD's new ground rules expect Leon to offer two hours of synchronous instruction — twice as much as she scheduled last year.

Leon says leading online classes has made her more organized. She also found that it was easier to manage disruptive behaviors.

When Leon was teaching in person, "if you have like 30 kids, you're walking around, you're on the east side of the room and when you go to the west side of the room, all of a sudden, the kid's not on task anymore."

This summer, when kids became disruptive — "I could just turn off their mics."

Leon says she's always nervous at the start of a new year — but she's as ready as she'll ever be.