Star editorial: St. Helena schools adapt to distance learning on the fly

Star editorial: St. Helena schools adapt to distance learning on the fly


St. Helena’s teachers didn’t become teachers because they wanted to sit at home and interact with students via email and webcam.

Then again, none of us wanted to sit at home for weeks on end, yet look where we are.

The St. Helena Unified School District’s abrupt switch to distance learning has been a bit like building a plane while flying it, Superintendent Marylou Wilson told us. Her second-in-command, Chris Heller, went even further, likening the effort to organizing the Apollo 11 mission midflight.

Trapped in a situation over which it has little control, the district has steered a wise course. It helps that students already had access to iPads, Chromebooks and laptops and teachers were already using web services like Google Classrooms and PowerSchool.

However, as Wilson said, school is more than an academic experience. It’s about athletics, field trips, clubs, socializing, and rites of passage like prom and graduation.

Most of that has gone out the window this year. Prom is postponed for now and, although school is currently set to resume in May, it’s quite possible that graduation won’t go on as scheduled either.

The district is searching for alternatives to prom and graduation, but this still has to be an unimaginably difficult experience for students.

The district has services available for students and faculty who are feeling the mental strain, but the switch to distance learning also poses logistical challenges.

For example, what about the students who don’t have Internet access at home? The district doesn’t have solid data, but Heller estimated that number at around 10%.

Comcast is offering two months of free Internet service for low-income families in its service area, but what about those students who live in remote areas around Lake Berryessa? The district is investigating satellite Internet, but it’s not clear whether that will pan out. We encourage the district to be as creative as possible in addressing the problem.

And what about English learners and special education students? How do you deliver the extra support they need outside the classroom setting?

The district is assigning Spanish-speaking staff members to work with Spanish-speaking families, and faculty members are doing their best to serve the unique needs of special ed students. But as Wilson’s plane metaphor reminds us, this is still a work in progress.

As far as nutrition, the district is offering free drive-by breakfast and lunch for kids 18 and under every day in front of Vintage Hall, but that can’t possibly replace the food program we praised a few weeks ago.

We enthusiastically endorsed the Give Big fundraiser largely because it helps level the playing field among the student population. Distance learning inevitably has the opposite effect, deepening the inequalities of geographical location, Internet access, and varying levels of parent engagement.

We don’t know how long this will last, so the district is planning three weeks at a time. The Phase 1 curriculum was mostly about review and getting everyone acclimated to a new way of doing school. The next three weeks, Phase 2, will be more academically rigorous.

Grades are being issued only at the high school level, where they are crucial to college admissions. For grades 8 and below, teachers are just trying to make sure students meet the essential standards for their grade level.

The unfinished plane is a few hundred feet off the ground, but it seems to be flightworthy and well-piloted. If only we could tell the young passengers when and where they will land.

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to all online readers. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit

The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Chuck Meibeyer, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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Related to this story

You may not remember the polio virus that swept across America, but it closed schools and provide a challenge to teachers, who used a new technology, radio, to teach their students. Even though the COVID-19 is a different virus, many of the issues are the same.

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