On Monday, April 13, Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) began its distance learning plan for the more than 40,000 students enrolled in local schools.

On most days, Fortune School third grader Jermaine Nance-Johnson gets dressed in his uniform to prepare for his day of distance learning. His mother says he enjoys spending time with her, although he misses his school friends.

Their students had been unschooled for nearly a month since district officials closed all school sites in mid-March due to the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Distance learning is instruction in which the student and instructor are in different places. The distance learning plan will enable students to continue their academic studies at home while school sites remain closed through the end of the school year — and until public health officials determine it is safe for students to return to classrooms.

However, the launch has been beset with labor problems and thousands of students who are yet without the necessary equipment such as Chromebooks to access instructional modules. Additionally, parents and student advocates have expressed concerns about the distance learning plans — or lack thereof — by many school systems.

On an April 15 media call, SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said the district distributed more than 12,000 Chromebooks to students. Officials estimate that at the time, 19,000 more Chromebooks needed to be distributed to students.

Throughout Sacramento County some 240,000 students in 13 school districts are also in need of distance learning programs and materials.

“It’s a process that is involving different paces,” said Dave Gordon, president of the Sacramento County Board of Education. “Our districts run the gamut from small rural districts with 300-400 students to a district like the Elk Grove School District, which has 64,000 students.”

Gordon said he believes the issue of internet connectivity is a big challenge in different parts of the county and wrote a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom asking if it would be possible for all internet providers to “open up the internet for free for 60 days.”

On Monday, concern over the lack of connectivity for distance learning led the governor to announce commitments from companies, business leaders, and philanthropists to provide internet access for hundreds of thousands of households and laptops, Chromebooks, and tablets for more than 70,000 students,

Approximately one in five students in California lack high-speed internet service or an appropriate computing device at home. In a parent survey two weeks ago, 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color reported that they lacked the laptop, Chromebook, or tablet needed to access distance learning.

“School may be physically closed, but class is still in session,” Gov. Newsom said. “But for class to be in session, it is imperative that California addresses the inequities in access to computers, technology tools and connectivity to ensure that online learning can in fact reach all of California’s children.”

The California Public Utilities Commission will make $30 million available to help school districts and the California State Transportation Agency will deploy seven transit buses to be used as super hot spots.

Still the “digital divide” is real.

On Thursday, California Superintendent of Schools, Tony Thurmond, took to the national airwaves to discuss the challenges California is having with distance learning.

“We have six million students in distance learning in 5,000 locations,” he said. We are in tough and unchartered territory that no one could have imagined,” Thurmond said.

“Our biggest challenges are the lack of computers for our students at home and the lack of connectivity… We need internet connectivity to flow like electricity,” he added.

The Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD) was scheduled to begin its Distance Learning April 16 for secondary students and April 20 for elementary students.

Fortune School of Education, a network of tuition-free, public charter schools in California, had already launched its new distance learning program two weeks before SCUSD and EGUSD for the 1,800 students and families that attend their seven public charter school campuses.

With a student population of more than 90 percent minority and 85 percent low income, Margaret Fortune, Founder and CEO of Sacramento-based Fortune School, knew there was no time to waste in delivering educational instruction for her students.

“We altered our delivery system of our high-quality learning programs for our students and families because we can’t let them fall behind,” Dr. Fortune said.

The change to distance learning was quick and has been relatively smooth for Fortune School parent Danielle Nance.

“I’m in awe” said Ms. Nance, mother of 3rd grader Jermaine Nance-Johnson.

“One day she told us the plan and the next day it was in place. Our students got their Chromebooks the first day,” Ms. Nance said. “Most of the other kids in our neighborhood who go to other schools don’t have them and that’s bad. The school district should have done that for their students much sooner.”

Fortune School also provided wifi hot spots for families in need, and connected parents with low-cost internet service provided by Comcast for about $10 a month.

“The threat COVID-19 brings upon communities of color is the increasing widening of disparity gaps in areas like technology, employment, healthcare, and especially education,” said Dr. Tecoy Porter, President, Sacramento National Action Network.

“It is good to see Black education leaders, like Margaret Fortune and Fortune School, act swiftly in leading the charge in creating opportunities and resources for distance learning so our children will not be left behind,” Dr. Porter added.

Computer delivery problems are not SCUSD’s only troubles.

A labor dispute with Sacramento City Teachers Association (SCTA) has resulted in cease and desist orders and back and forth accusations.

Because shifting to distance learning is a change in the working environment for staff, the District is required to negotiate with labor partners, including the (SCTA).

An agreement has not been reached with the SCTA and negotiations are ongoing, a release stated.

In a letter released on April 8 to Superintendent Aguilar, SCTA leaders raised concerns about equity, access and social justice in light of the lack of availability of Chromebooks and contrary to repeated assurances from SCUSD representatives that a Chromebook would be provided to every student who needed one.

“Teachers — and to a bigger extent students — don’t have the technology and the resources they need to get started,” Sacramento City Teachers Association President David Fisher said.

Faye Wilson Kennedy, Vice Chair of the Black Parallel School Board, says she is also disappointed in SCUSD’s distance learning plan.

“We sent a formal letter to Superintendent Aguilar expressing our concerns,” she said.

“SCUSD, like most districts, was unprepared even when they knew that 30-60 percent of their students/families are poor and/or low-income,” said Ms. Kennedy. “Poor families don’t have extra money for the internet access or computers or iPads or laptops. I am personally disappointed with the district being so unprepared and not being able to connect dots.”

Despite the criticisms, Superintendent Aguilar says he is pressing on.

“Our students need us to think creatively and act courageously — and to do so quickly,” he said in a district press release. “It’s time for our students to get back to learning and preparing for their own successful futures.”

Fortune School is ahead of the curve.

“We know that this is an ambitious online learning initiative that we are undertaking; however, our families and staff have adapted very well to this new structure and I believe it’s because we know what’s at stake here,” Dr. Fortune said. “Sacramento is in a different place than it was a mere three weeks ago. Life has changed. So, we changed.”

Dr. Fortune said she expects most of the families to keep the nearly 1,000 Chromebooks they distributed to families that needed them to ensure they had the resources necessary to connect them to the online learning portal.

Fortune Distance Learning uses Google Classroom as their learning management system and Google Hangouts to host face-to-face meetings with their students and teachers. With a structured daily schedule, learning content has been curated by Fortune’s Curriculum and Instruction Department. Additionally, Fortune School will continue to offer Special Education services and support to students with IEPs.

“It is important to focus on keeping our local school community together. To do so, we created a daily schedule for families that includes teacher office hours on Google Hangouts, morning meetings with the principal and yoga and fitness fun on Facebook Live, as well as breakfast and lunch,” said Dr. Fortune. They will also make counseling services available to all students who need social-emotional support via virtual drop-in hours with counselors via Google Hangouts.

Ms. Nance says her son gets dressed in his school uniform nearly every day and the curriculum and structure keeps her son just busy enough, while allowing him time to play and relax.

“He misses playing with his school buddies, but he also says he likes spending this time with me,” she said.

Ms. Nance says she’s worried about the children in her neighborhood whose instruction has been delayed and disrupted. These are the children, she says, who are too often left behind in traditional schools and fall into the education gap.

Fortune School officials have also made their distance learning program available to students who are not enrolled in their schools.

Ms. Nance hopes their parents will avail themselves of Fortune School’s Distance Learning that is offered to all students who are shut out of their schools.

“It’s important that we be good stewards of the Sacramento region, which is why we are sharing ‘Fortune Distance Learning’ for free with all of our neighbors who, like us, are suddenly homeschooling,” Dr. Fortune said. “We have designed a distance learning program that is built to last until the end of the school year.”

Students in SCUSD need this type of support, says Ms. Kennedy.

The BPSB listed what was needed to help students with distance learning in addition to Chromebooks and computers. Among them were internet connectivity, tutorial support, technical assistance and counseling.

The BPSB also suggested that the district create a distance learning partnership that meets online weekly to discuss updates, issues, and concerns related to the distance learning initiative.

“It’s incumbent that people work together to make this distance learning work,” said County Superintendent Gordon.

“This is not the time for labor disputes,” he says. “I really hope in the face of this crisis people will work collaboratively.”

By Fahizah Alim | OBSERVER Correspondent