San Ramon Valley Unified School District transparency in remote learning

Need for a clear system and LMS

In March, students went home from school confused as to what would happen next because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many assumed they would return to campus after three weeks. That was not the case.

As infections in California continued to increase, so did the reopening delay. School was closed for the remainder of the year, and the 2020-21 school year would begin online. What students thought would be a four-week vacation turned into a more than six-month quarantine. Students were not slated to return until 2021.

Some school districts — San Ramon Unified included — considered hybrid or in-person schooling. But like districts across the country, San Ramon Unified faced a lot of confusion over ways to adapt to schooling in a COVID-19 world, ranging from whether to be hybrid or fully online to what learning management system to use. 

School districts often face tough decisions, but during crises or unusual circumstances like a pandemic, their actions are often amplified. For example, people wouldn’t have tuned into the March 13 and July 14 district board meetings in record numbers if they weren’t curious about what school would look like in the middle of a pandemic. Especially in times like these, it is imperative that communication is clear for people who don’t have the time to go to two-hour board meetings that deliver only 10 minutes of important information. 

Clarity and effective communication is needed so that people aren’t worried and confused about things out of their control. While the situation is new for school districts, it’s also new for teachers, parents, and students. Confusion over what schooling will look like is detrimental for all. To prevent this, it is imperative that school districts make effective decisions that benefit their entire communities, and communicate these decisions in a clear manner so that nobody is confused.

The hybrid vs. online debacle

As COVID-19 cases fluctuated in the 2019-20 school year and last summer, conflicts arose over whether to open schools for hybrid learning. After the board’s July 14 YouTube livestream, the answer was unclear, but many assumed the district was leaning toward hybrid learning. Students began taking to social media to object, Debate was sparked when Sameeha Ahmed, a current sophomore at Dougherty Valley High School decided to petition the district with reasons why school should remain remote.

“I was watching the live [board meeting on July 14] with my friends virtually when we decided we needed to do something about this. So we had all crafted together a draft on important points as to why we should not reopen” Ahmed said. 

Originally, elementary schools were not on the petition, but a Coyote Creek elementary teacher had reached out to Ahmed and asked for them to be included as well.

A major reason, the petition said, was the surge of cases in June that hadn’t died down. More than 68% of students said they would feel uneasy and unsafe if school reopened. 

More than 3,111 people signed the petition, causing the Board of Education to rethink their plans and instead consider a fully online model.

District Equity Coordinator Ashlee Gutierrez said the district had been waiting until the last minute to declare reopening plans so they could have the most up to date information from the Country Costa Health Department. Additionally, she said there were many external factors that prevented the district from making quick and effective decisions during the summer, such as trying to maintain stakeholder engagement in addition to the arrival of a new superintendent in August. 

While many schools elsewhere are switching to a hybrid model after finding that virtual learning wasn’t working well enough for them or cases in their states have dropped, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that 90% of California students would have a completely virtual education

Although Newsom’s decision was made after San Ramon Unified’s livestream, the reason why the district initially pushed for hybrid before receiving mountains of feedback from students, parents, and teachers is unclear.

APUSH, RUSH, and Academic Enrichment teacher Jeff Vangene said the district’s lack of executive leadership caused the delay in kickstarting one specific schedule, causing confusion for the entire community, especially for teachers. 

“It feels like we’re flying the plane while we’re trying to build it at the same time,” Vangene said. 

One particular challenge for teachers was not having enough time over the summer to prepare a shift in lessons from in-person to online. It takes time to adjust the variety of lectures and assignments.

Dougherty Valley High Principal Evan Powell, however, said that although the final decision came from the state, the teacher’s union was involved every step of the way in the decision-making process. 

The district also has established communication through the Thought Exchange, a platform where both parents and students were able to express opinions and give direction to the district. Furthermore, the district is planning to work with Associated Student Body officers to set up an area where specifically students will be able to give feedback and receive responses from district administrators. 

“We’re all waiting on the county or the state to say what we’re going to do. It makes [implementing changes] really challenging,” Powell said. 

Nevertheless, there is still a significant decision for families to make: If the county clears San Ramon Unified students to go back on campus, would families go along?

The need for a solid learning management system

Among other factors, the confusion over which learning management system to use for this school year created uncertainty for teachers and students alike, further complicated by unclear guidance from the district. The Board of Education announced at its July meeting that Google Classroom would be the primary learning platform, synced and used in conjunction with Infinite Campus, eliminating School Loop as the primary learning management system for teachers and students. Changing the primary learning management system created additional anxiety for students and teachers.

A learning management system, also known as an LMS, is “software that enables companies and educational institutions to create and manage lessons, courses, quizzes and other training materials. A learning management system also aids the organization to deliver training materials and lessons to employees, students or partners,” according to technology website CMS Wire. Learning management systems are the core of how many schools operate, even more so in a virtual setting. Some examples include, but are not limited to, School Loop, Google Classroom, Infinite Campus, Canvas, Powerschool and Illuminate. 

Learning management systems have massive impacts on how a school operates. They affect how students see and turn in their assignments, how students see their grades, if teachers use standards-based grading, how teachers post grades and how teachers and students interact.

Powell agreed with the need for a solid management system.

The school “should get to one system for students to get access to grades, assignments, etc,” he said. He added that choosing a new system over summer was poor timing, given the apparent switch to remote learning. 

He said he is “glad that a decision was [recently] made” to bring School Loop back for grading, emphasizing that there were other people, such as the San Ramon Valley Education Association, involved in making the decision, not the district alone. “Ultimately, I just need a system that everyone will be happy with.”

Gutierrez, the district’s equity coordinator, emphasized that one of the main pieces of feedback from students was the need to keep School Loop. 

“This was one of an example of something where maybe the decision was just a little bit rushed and then they [the district] didn’t quite realize what a big impact it would have, and then it was like, ‘Oh shoot, this has a massive impact on a lot of people, more than we even realize,’ ” Gutierrez said. 

Students who need support have to jump through technology-related hoops.

Dougherty Valley junior Vaishnavi Venuturimilli said that along with the inability to communicate with her peers, asking for help in class is a challenge, since “teachers are not connecting with the students, no one-on-one relationships.

“All kids on Zoom calls are afraid to talk, it is just passive engagement.”

While School Loop has benefits and appears to be the most cohesive learning management system, teachers and district officials say the chance of returning to School Loop full time is slim. 

“From everything that I’ve heard, it seems like they’re exploring every other option [besides School Loop], and they were real reluctant to bring this back until there was a lot of upheaval from the parent and teacher community about bringing it back,” Vangene said. 

What students want in a new system is one consolidated space to check their assignments and grades, post news,  and message others. 

Student input shows need for transparency

Dougherty High’s student newspaper, the Wildcat Tribune, released several polls and a survey asking current and former school district students and teachers for feedback. The results show an alarming need for more transparency, a need to put students and staff first. 

When asked, “Do you think SRVUSD has communicated effectively to students (during the shift to remote learning),” 31%, or 38 people, responded YES. Sixty-nine percent (86 people) responded NO. In response to “Do you think SRVUSD communicated effectively during summer,” 15% (19 people) responded YES. 85% (108 people) responded NO. 

Instagram user and Dougherty Valley student @ritzcrackerz emphasized a need to “send weekly updates to students as well,” echoing @anusha.pie, who said “send us emails as well as our parents so we all know what is going on.” Dougherty student @magicalmaya13 emphasized the same point: “actually email us. Like the only way we can access news is through our parent’s emails.”

Contributions from: Ariel Wang, Claire Zhang, Drishti Upadhyaya, Shereen Ahmed, Boomika Velineni, Mahika Arya and Shruthi Narayanan