Starting last week, every student in the Mountain View Whisman School District began receiving biweekly lessons in every school subject -- through a live or recorded teacher video -- following the launch of a formal online teaching strategy that some parents argue was long overdue.
Virtual instruction is a key part of the district's distance learning plan, which sets guidelines for the minimum instructional activities and support that families will receive while school campuses are closed through the end of the school year.
But as local schools prepare for months of offsite education in response to the statewide response to the new coronavirus, which forced them to shutter last month, questions remain over whether all students even have access to a computer at home. District officials say they are working toward universal access in order to bridge the "digital divide," but some families say it's been difficult to get help.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the district has made significant progress in handing out over 1,000 Chromebooks to families in the district, but acknowledged that some students still don't have access to a computer or a reliable internet connection. He said it remains a top priority going into May.
"We still haven't cracked the divide," Rudolph said.
The last two months have been challenging for school districts across California, which have had to make swift but tectonic changes in order to teach millions of students remotely. Though the Mountain View Whisman School District has concrete guidelines for how to handle lessons and assignments today, weeks went by where formal districtwide direction was missing. This led to teachers taking disparate, scattershot approaches using an assortment of online platforms.
During those early weeks, a growing number of parents demanded more structured virtual education, with an online survey showing most respondents wanted daily instruction over video conference. Many said that they are trying to manage their children's education on top of working a full-time job from home, and that the district's actions place the teaching burden on them.
"This is not working," said one popular comment. "My husband and I work full time. We have three kids in school. There is too much parent involvement required to find coursework.
"With no schedules and content on multiple platforms, it's not easy for the kids to find what they need to do each day or put together a schedule."
Other parents complained that the district dragged its feet in rolling out the distance learning plans, particularly when compared to neighboring school districts that provided live instruction weeks sooner.
Rudolph said the priority has always been student equity, and that any remote learning strategy the district creates must take into account the fact that more than 1,000 students did not initially have access to a computer, an internet connection or both.
Rather than rush to create an online learning plan that an estimated 20% of district students couldn't even use, Rudolph said the priority was to distribute as many Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots as possible. In a district where more than 30% of the families qualify for free and reduced-price school meals, Rudolph said it would be unfair to compare Mountain View Whisman's response to other, more affluent districts.
"The numbers do not look the same as some of our neighboring districts," he said. "I understand that families who had devices wanted to move forward, we also need to understand that there's a diverse set of needs in Mountain View. Our commitment is to address the diverse set of needs for all students."
How well the district has done to provide computers and internet access to families depends on who you ask. Rudolph said the district has satisfied 1,000 requests for district-issued Chromebooks for student use, in addition to devices previously passed out to middle school students and incoming sixth graders. As of last week, he said 90.3% of kids have access to the curriculum online, which he said is fairly good coverage.
The district has also turned school parking lots into Wi-Fi hotspots; passed out internet subscription cards for Comcast to families; and has been working with the city of Mountain View to make more public internet hotspots available throughout the district.
"This is a yeoman's effort for a Herculean task over these last few weeks," he said.
Some families are reportedly still having difficulty getting a computer from the district.
District resident and former board member Chris Chiang, who runs an independent laptop donation drive for needy students, told trustees in an email last week that he's still getting plenty of inquiries from families in the area -- some of whom reportedly tried and failed to get a laptop from the district.
Chiang said he was told by district officials that families would be "covered" by the district, and that Rudolph and trustees were telling families to go through the proper channels -- sending requests to designated school staff -- rather than seek help from an outside volunteer effort.
"When informed of our efforts to help with community laptops, both the board and superintendent said families should be going directly to their principal for laptops," Chiang said. "I relayed that to families seeking laptops, and the families are coming back to me saying they can't get a laptop. Yet the district says this not the case."
Rudolph said the district-issued Chromebooks are preferable to donated laptops because they are reformatted for student use, including internet filters. What's more, he said the families approaching Chiang are Mountain View residents but don't necessarily have students in the district, and that Mountain View Whisman has no obligation to serve students not enrolled in its schools.
He described the laptop drive as a repeated attempt to circumvent the district's process for closing the digital divide.
"The process has always been that our school community engagement facilitators and principals are reaching out to find out who has devices, and if you need one, you need to reach out to administrators and facilitators," Rudolph said. "What we don't need are parents emailing community members, and community members emailing the board saying someone doesn't have a device."
Several of those requests to Chiang include residents who all appear to live within the district, some of whom said they have kids attending district schools. One reported that the district is "not doing any Chromebook distribution," while another stated the district didn't have any laptops available when he asked.
Part of the problem, Chiang said, could be that families with multiple students are receiving one Chromebook when they really need two or three. Without one device per child, students cannot simultaneously access instruction from home.
"One-to-one is a game changer in making engaging use of online instruction," Chiang said.
Rudolph said that's precisely the district's plan. He said the next "phase" of the distance learning plan will include distributing Chromebooks to families who need more than one device.
"We've exhausted the list that we've had for passing out devices to those without one," he said. "Now let's tackle those that need more than one."