FREMONT — With roughly 35,000 students about to start classes again on Aug. 26, Fremont educators say they’re confident their distance learning plans will be a success but some parents are fretting that there might not be enough live instruction.
Fremont Unified School District has decided to allow each of its 42 campuses to set their own class schedules just as they would in a typical year where students actually sit inside classrooms. However, those schedules must comply with state requirements for daily online instructional minutes.
Teachers and district officials say multiple kinds of learning activities are needed every day so students don’t lose their focus or burn out from extended live video.
In the elementary schools, students will receive a minimum of 120-150 minutes of daily live interaction with teachers and 135-150 minutes of self-directed, or “asynchronous,” learning in which they hit the books, work on group projects or do other assignments.
In middle and high schools, students will spend half of their class time receiving live instruction and half doing self-directed learning.
In both elementary and secondary levels, teachers will hold virtual office hours during which they’ll be available to answer student and parents’ questions, schedule a group session with students who need extra help or do whatever else is needed, officials said. Those office hours will last 45-60 minutes for elementary levels and 60 minutes for secondary levels.
That way, “no days go by where the student and family feel out of the loop on something the child was supposed to be learning that day,” Victoria Birbeck-Herrera, president of the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association, said Monday.
This spring, the state passed a law mandating that students receive three hours and 50 minutes of daily instruction in first through third grades and four hours of instruction in fourth through 12th grades.
But the law didn’t specify how many of those minutes should be live interaction versus other types of instruction, leaving the door open for parents and educators to debate what is right for their kids.
Birbeck-Herrera said there are “diminishing returns” when kids stay in front of a screen too long and don’t have time to process the material they are learning.
Dee Deshpande, a parent of two district students, said in an interview Monday that as far as he’s concerned, “what’s common sense is to give more live instruction.”
He isn’t alone. Many parents who called into last week’s school board meeting also urged additional instruction, especially for middle and high school students.
“Do you believe that this bare minimum time they are giving is enough to deliver not just education, but quality education, and complete the curriculum?,” parent Anu Rams asked the board.
Parent Fann Lei suggested the district cut independent study minutes and allocate them to live classroom minutes.
“We all know the most essential part of school is teachers’ direct instruction,” she said.
Several teachers pushed back, warning that “Zoom fatigue” will set in on kids if they spend too much time in front of a screen.
Salwa Berbawy, a teacher at Irvington High School, which will have block schedules, said parent complaints about live instruction time “make sense only if you think of teaching as just babysitting,” when instead, learning should include varied types of activities and instruction.
Robert Benn, a teacher at American High School, said “there are thousands of years of experience” that went into making a schedule that works well for kids and teachers.
“Make sure you consider this Zoom fatigue. I’m right now looking at about 15 of you on screen,” he told the board.
“My average class has three screens full of students. It would be like herding cats to keep them for a long time, focused and awake,” he said.
“You’re talking Zoom fatigue? Zoom is all these kids have to connect with their peer groups and their teacher,” Rams countered.
Kim Kelly, the district’s head of instruction and curriculum, said learning happens “more broadly and in a more complex way” than through lectures alone.
“I think there’s a good chance we will discover that the combination of time online with teachers, combined with the time for students to do independent work, is actually a really successful model and there will be lots of kids who like the ability to set their own pace for that independent work,” Kelly said Monday.
While students’ learning hours may be reduced, teachers will still be putting in full workdays of at least six or seven hours, Birbeck-Herrera said.
Their day would include instruction time, office hours, 45 minutes of prep time and normal responsibilities such as communicating with parents and students, grading and assessing students’ progress.
“I don’t doubt there will be bumps in the road as we get started, but I also am really optimistic that once we get up and going, we’ll get those ironed out and we’re going to have a good school year,” Kelly said.
“We need to just trust that we all have the best interest of students at heart,” she added. “We’ve got to be kind, we’ve got to be flexible.”