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Education

Napa schools detail online learning, student outreach as new academic year begins

First day of school 2020-2021

Bel Aire Park Elementary School third-grade teacher Leslie Gjestvang reads a book to her students via Zoom videoconference software. Thursday was the first day of school for more than 16,000 children and teenagers in the Napa Valley Unified School District, which is opening the academic year online due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

A blend of activities on and off the computer, close attention to children dropping offline, and standardized learning programs mark the Napa public school system’s attempt to better teach students from afar as a new academic year begins.

Hours after the Napa Valley Unified School District opened its 2020-21 school year exclusively with remote teaching, district leaders Thursday night outlined their efforts to better prepare children, parents and teachers for more weeks or months without classrooms to return to while the coronavirus pandemic remains untamed.

NVUSD officials stressed the efforts made over the summer to help teachers connect with new classes of children who remain homebound by COVID-19, and to make the curriculum as widely accessible as possible – even to those who lacked computers or adequate internet connections before campuses closed March 13.

Much of the overhaul is driven by California’s requirements that school systems take daily attendance and teach a minimum number of hours per day connected to pupils in real time during the new school year.

Napa public schools will provide elementary school children with 2 ½ hours of so-called synchronous instruction – during which teachers and students will be in live contact – as well as “asynchronous” assignments that can be completed without the teacher’s direct supervision, said Matt Manning, director of elementary curriculum. Teachers also can draw on model lesson plans as templates, and staff members can provide additional support for English learners and others.

For middle and high school students, the district is seeking ways to provide more than core academic courses despite gyms, studios and auditoriums remaining shuttered, said Peter Hartnack, NVUSD’s director of secondary curriculum.

“How do you have a chorus in a Zoom environment?” he told board members, referring to the now-ubiquitous videoconference program. “How do you have an instrumental program over Zoom? We are looking into a number of programs collected by teachers that should support them in that realm.”

Such virtual group activities could take the form of collaborative programs for singers and instrumentalists, Hartnack added, or daily exercise and workout plans for teenagers kept apart by social distancing and stay-home orders.

In contrast with the scramble in the spring to cobble together hardware and software when schools shut down two months early, NVUSD schools are relying on shared platforms for different ages, subjects and tasks, officials said. Among the tools are platforms to collaboratively view, share and annotate documents and video, as well as a fully licensed version of Zoom that allows for longer sessions and higher security.

Meanwhile, distance learning for NVUSD’s special education students will include software tailored to their needs, along with pen-and-paper workbooks and other hands-on kits for some students, according to Terri Lynne Ricetti, the district’s special education director.

She also reported that Napa County’s Health and Human Services agency has approved bringing such students onto campuses for one-on-one appointments to assess disabilities and check on their progress – an early, small and socially distanced step toward restoring in-person instruction.

NVUSD plans to bring children back to classrooms in four phases as COVID-19 cases decrease or a vaccine is developed – from two half-days per child to five half-days to a normal schedule.

One of the most pressing challenges described by Napa education officials is the risk of students falling away from their online classes and slipping out of touch with their teachers. During the nearly three months when classes moved online this spring, about 700 students of more than 16,000 became “disengaged” from remote learning, said Mike Mansuy, director of student services.

“We have a lot of great plans, but none of this matters if we can’t get kids to school,” he told the board. “The most frequent barrier (to attendance) that comes up is a technical issue, whether it’s internet, hardware or just a better understanding of the technology involved.”

District liaisons have been contacting families with “disengaged” students since Aug. 3, and during the first two weeks of the new year, schools will reach out daily to households where children have not reported to virtual classes and offer equipment or other assistance, according to Mansuy. Students offline for three straight days will be marked for follow-up contact, which may include a home visit by district staff.

Despite the return of daily attendance checks, NVUSD leaders said they would be more lenient in the first few days of the new semester – largely because of the wildfires that have forced more than 13,000 rural Napa County residents to evacuate this week.

Virtual classes had begun on schedule Thursday morning despite the disruptions caused by the fires, and Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti praised faculty members who spent much of the summer preparing for a school year unlike any they had known before – including one kindergarten teacher who led a new group of children the day after losing her home to wildfire.

“Everyone was calm, focused, steady and determined to make the first day of school a success, even if all the students were at a distance,” Mucetti said at the meeting, which was conducted via Zoom due to Napa County’s physical distancing rules during the pandemic.

Watch Now: In Napa, a first day of school like no other

The teachers were there. The students were (mostly) ready. But Thursday was a first day of school like no other. 

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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