Menlo-Atherton High School administrators say that they're improving the school's online learning program for the coming fall semester, following a bumpy spring program which drew strong criticism from some parents and students.
School administrators, who gave a virtual presentation on the topic July 22, said that changes coming this semester include daily live instruction from teachers, a consistent bell schedule, and taking attendance — all of which the school stopped requiring after COVID-19 health orders suddenly forced campuses to close in mid-March.
Menlo-Atherton administrators also said that when school begins again on Aug. 17, students will receive challenging class assignments that are "equivalent to in-person instruction," despite being online. Students will receive letter grades, a significant change after the school district had switched to a pass/fail grading system on April 15, midway through the spring semester.
The administration's announcements come as many school community members have been expressing concerns about virtual learning since March.
Menlo-Atherton parent Kari Mueller, whose daughter will be a senior, called the school's spring virtual learning program "erratic."
Mueller said that in addition to having inconsistent class schedules and some classes with no live meetings, truancy was high. Many students skipped scheduled Zoom meetings, she said, and the incentive to show up deteriorated further when the school switched to a pass/fail grading system. As a result, she said, the last few weeks of school were "nearly a waste of time."
Mueller also said that she watched her daughter struggle with the online format.
"Trying to stay in front of a laptop, Zooming classes for hours a day, and staying focused is incredibly hard," she said. "Collaborating with other students, asking questions back and forth with a teacher, and doing the hands-on things required in some classes simply cannot be achieved through an online-only format."
With all schools in the Sequoia Union High School District set to learn online for at least the first quarter of the fall semester, as announced July 21, Menlo-Atherton parent Eric Glader said he hopes to see improvements in the coming semester.
He said that last semester students had a "lack of connection with the teacher," and that Zoom meetings were few and far between. He said he wants to see the school have more live classes.
"My hope is that they've figured that out, and it's not just lipstick on a pig," he said. "The teachers are home ... so they certainly have the time to show up for a 50-minute lecture."
Glader's daughter Grace, who is entering her senior year, said she "found it a little hard to be motivated" during virtual learning. But she said some teachers put in extra effort to help students. "My math teacher offered private Zoom sessions, I could call my teacher whenever," she said.
"I'm eager to see how the online learning will go. I hope they can find a way for it to feel at least kind of normal," she said.
Other students found virtual learning to be a boon, according to incoming senior David Cope, who said that learning from home actually helped him.
"I was essentially able to start my work whenever and finish it whenever I could," he said. "So, I could sleep in and be well rested for once. Thus, I saw an improvement in my grades. I know for many others time management can be difficult especially when procrastination is possible, but for me, I was able to get everything done on time."
Menlo-Atherton parent Samira Jones said she also saw benefits to virtual learning for students, saying that it has "allowed kids to take responsibility for their own schedules," and that the more flexible schedules resulted in a "massive reduction in stress."
Meanwhile, student surveys done by the Sequoia Union High School District found a majority favored returning to in-person schooling rather than online. Seventy-six percent of students preferred attending school in-person "for as many classes as possible," while 22% preferred fully online learning, according to a survey presented by the district in its board meeting July 21.
School board meeting draws fiery comments
After Menlo-Atherton High School's spring semester came to a close, many parents expressed concerns over the summer in anticipation of the new school year. In a June 10 district board meeting, amidst over 900 public comments, 14 identified themselves as Menlo-Atherton parents — and all of them firmly criticized Menlo-Atherton's spring semester distance learning.
"It is UNACCEPTABLE to have distance only learning," wrote Danielle Vontz, a Menlo-Atherton parent. "M-A failed at this last semester and it is not (based on your survey) what parents and students want/need. We need accountability for students and TEACHERS."
More than one M-A parent commenter specifically critiqued teachers' role in the spring semester's distance learning.
"My senior was very disappointed at the near absence of two of her five teachers," wrote Menlo-Atherton parent Debra Ver Ploeg. "They basically checked out in late March. She suggested that if students have to do distance learning, have the BEST teacher teach each class (e.g. APES, AP Lit, etc.) and let the others be like teaching assistants. Don't let the low quality teachers (yes, the district has them and generally knows who they are!) teach students, because they don't."
"And have the teachers teach!" Ver Ploeg said. "Posting assignments once a week is not teaching."
Menlo-Atherton parent Mike Komadina was another who addressed teachers' distance learning work. "Our direct experience as parents is some of the teachers were unsuccessful in delivering quality education in a remote format," he wrote. "They simply did not adapt well and often gave unproductive busywork. And although we respect that this is an unprecedented transition, it appears that some teachers are not well qualified or well adapted to remote teaching."
Lisa Douglass, who has two children at Menlo-Atherton, said that learning from home has had negative impacts on her children's mental health.
"The restriction to the home environment has made my daughters noticeably depressed, has disrupted my 14-year-old's eating patterns and mood in disturbing ways, and has increased screen time and reduced interpersonal interaction in ways that are noticeably damaging to them in a short period of time," she said.
Most comments from members of other Sequoia Union High School District schools implored the board to return students to campus in the fall, a wish that did not come to pass when the district announced July 21 that schools will open online-only for the first quarter of the fall semester. An order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, closely followed by San Mateo County's placement on the state's COVID-19 watchlist July 29, soon made it a moot point: Schools are not allowed to open for in-person classes until the county has been off of the watchlist for 14 consecutive days.
School responds to concerns
In Menlo-Atherton High School's virtual community meeting held on July 22, school administrators presented the school's fall plan, responding to some concerns raised by parents over the summer.
Instructional Vice Principal Karl Losekoot discussed a draft bell schedule for the school week, with three of six class periods alternating days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be designated a teacher workday, and students will have a "recommended schedule" of work for all their classes, Losekoot said.
A draft schedule sent to parents Aug. 4 showed an 8:45 a.m. start time, with classes an hour and 10 minutes long.
Losekoot also said that there will be "some live interaction in every period that a student has on their schedule," suggesting that will be done through Zoom videoconference software.
"One of the things we like about our schedule is that it's going to be flexible," Losekoot said. "This is the basic structure whether we're in distance learning, or as we phase in — hopefully soon — into in-person instruction."
Menlo-Atherton English teacher Liane Strub spoke at length during the presentation about teachers' approach to distance learning. She said that helping students "master a rich and varied curriculum ... requires a very creative approach to teaching — one that harnesses technology platforms best suited for instruction while never losing sight of the content standards of our fields."
She said that when the coronavirus pandemic forced all schools to close, teachers "scrambled to adapt" to online instruction, and that at the time, teachers didn't know how long distance learning would last, what schedule to follow or "the best way to deliver instruction."
"We did the best we could to continue to teach our students," she said. "But creating ad hoc lessons under constantly shifting conditions led to a less-than-optimal learning outcome for many students."
Fall semester will be different, according to Strub. "When we start school in August, the conditions for distance learning will be much more stable and consistent," she said.
Strub praised the fact that the school will bring back letter grades this coming semester. "We know our students need concrete goals and measurable outcomes to feel successful," she said.
Many teachers have engaged in training for online teaching over the summer and have been setting up lessons using online education software such as Flipgrid, Edpuzzle and Pear Deck, she said.
With Flipgrid, teachers can post discussion topics and students respond through short videos. Edpuzzle is used to create video lessons, and Pear Deck to give lecture presentations.
Speaking with The Almanac after the meeting, Principal Simone Rick-Kennel confirmed that the school would take attendance, and though the details are being worked out, it will likely be taken by students signing in to Zoom meetings.
She also acknowledged the challenges of last semester, saying the first month of the school shutdown, especially, was hard on teachers and students.
"It wasn't distance learning, it was crisis learning," she said.