a boy uses a saxophone over video chat technology while sitting in his bedroom
King Middle School seventh grader Tom Martin warms up on his tenor saxophone in his room at the start of his band distance learning session. Aug. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Instead of dropping off kids at school and waving “goodbye,” Berkeley families hunkered down at home last week and got acquainted with a jumble of internet learning technology, trouble-shooting virtual classrooms and Wi-Fi connections, and settling in to their first-ever fall — and foreseeable future — with distance learning.

Five months after schools shut down to curb the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic continues to impact the Bay Area and the United States. Berkeley Unified School District was one of the first in the region to announce in July that it would continue distance learning for the fall. The district is committed to re-evaluating the plan as new local health orders are released, but rising cases and deaths in the city have ensured that, for the time being, virtual learning will be the norm for more than 9,000 Berkeley students.

Many parents and caregivers are happy that the district has created regular schedules, attendance checks and curricula for the fall after daily changes to distance learning during the spring, but many are also overwhelmed by the return to hours of live instruction, especially for young children.

Robin Rattan is a single mom with a kindergartener at Berkeley Arts Magnet School and a sixth grader at King Middle School, and the first day back, on Aug. 17, presented a host of stressful technical issues. Her sixth grader, who is in special education, wasn’t able to access his class through the provided Zoom link. After going back and forth with technical support, he was given a link to the wrong classroom, where a former teacher recognized him and realized he wasn’t supposed to be there.

They tried three different devices, including two Chromebooks from the district and Rattan’s personal computer, but the day ended with her son being marked absent despite repeated attempts to access his class. Issues on the district’s end were paired with a poor Wi-Fi connection at Rattan’s home, and she wasn’t able to snag a hotspot before the EdHub, run in partnership with the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, ran out of them last week.

Erin Rhoades, executive director of the Schools Fund, said internet connectivity is an issue for many families, as well as access to school supplies and books, like those offered at the EdHub. Her team has signed on 120 trained volunteers to help out with technology in elementary school classrooms. Another 150 hotspots will be available for families if the poor air quality from nearby wildfires improves and the EdHub is able to reopen on Wednesday, according to district spokeswoman Trish McDermott.

While the district gauges family needs in the coming weeks, BUSD has also created a central resource for video tutorials on how to log in to platforms like Clever, Seesaw, Zoom, Google Meet and more across all grade levels.

Streamlined technology helps teachers, and families

a woman facing the front, smiling, with a classroom in the background
Carrie Johnston, first grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School. Besides holding Zoom meetings with her students, Johnston also puts together baskets of materials for her students to bring home and use during their distance learning sessions. Aug. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

These programs have made teaching more approachable for Carrie Johnston, a first grade teacher at John Muir Elementary School who has two kids in Berkeley schools. She also started off this year with individual meetings with classroom families, which created a more personal connection than even years past, she said.

But even with intuitive platforms and detailed guides, Johnston said most elementary school students will need help from adults. Teachers are trying to streamline the number of programs and highlight individual lessons to make it as simple as possible, while themselves getting used to relying much more than usual on technology.

“This is not something that I ever do, and when I’m teaching in person, I’m very resistant to having very much tech in the classroom at all,” she said. “I think sometimes the families have been frustrated that some of us, the teachers — we’re not tech people. We’re learning that.”

Education technology may come easier to students than adults

Brad Johnson, parent of a Berkeley kindergartener, said his son has been taking the reins with virtual learning and now knows how to “mute” and “unmute” himself on calls, as well as pointing to “press the camera button, dad,” and imitating tablet gestures like “pinch to zoom.” Johnson is impressed with his progress, and noted that his family is privileged to have an expensive tablet for his child’s use, reliable Wi-Fi connectivity throughout the day, and a spot at the Jewish Community Center’s aftercare program.

He credited a smooth start of the year to his child’s teacher, a “performer” who’s comfortable with the technology and has lots of energy to engage young children over the computer. They draw popsicle sticks each day and take turns sharing the weather or the date, and the 30-minute morning Zoom sessions have been manageable in a house with two working parents.

Johnston’s son, Tom Martin, admitted that the start of the school year has been organized – but that still doesn’t mean he likes school.

“It’s not as good as [in-person] because there’s no actual interactions [with students],” he said.

One thing he does like about distance learning is that the school day is shorter.

a girl sits in bed with her laptop and notes, using distance learning technology for her fall school year
Berkeley High School ninth grader Martha Martin doing her math homework at home in bed. Aug. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

Martha Martin, Tom’s older sister who’s in ninth grade, said doing distance learning since spring has made her better at using technology. Social interaction has also been a concern for her, and though she’s able to stay in touch with friends, she said it’s much harder now to meet new people.

In an effort to improve these barriers, some teachers are introducing “breakout rooms” in virtual classrooms where students get some time to chat one-on-one with their classmates. Martha said they can be a little awkward at first, but it’s working alright overall.

“We’re gonna have distance learning, so I think it’s pretty good how it is. They’ve done a good job on it,” she said.

Countering ‘Zoom fatigue” and planning for the coming weeks

Troubleshooting technology will be an unavoidable, and a necessary pain for the first few weeks of school, like when Zoom went down across the country last Monday (it was back before the school day started in Berkeley, McDermott said). But at the forefront of educators’ and families’ minds is how to keep the momentum going with online education once the initial kinks are worked out, and students are still left glued to their monitors all day.

Rattan is glad to see her children pick up on new technology, but she’s still concerned about the lack of socialization and limited interaction with anyone but teachers during virtual classes.

“They’re kids, they can’t be on the computer all day, it gets tiring,” she said, offering as an example a “50/50 solution” where they could have workbooks for part of the day, especially for younger kids.

“I know that there’s no perfect answer for a crazy situation, it just feels like what’s happening now is super overwhelming,” Rattan said. “I know that we can’t just keep being so lax with education, there’s also just such a thing as ‘doing too much,’ and it feels like we do need a little bit of breathing time.”

“I just hope we can keep up the grace we’re giving each other, and the positive attitude.” — Teacher Carrie Johnston

Jessica Lee, BUSD coordinator of library services and the lead for the instructional technology team, said the existing elementary school schedule aims to address these concerns by requiring only one 30-minute class to start off the morning, then extending to 45 minutes when they’ve had some practice. Afternoon “choice time” with enrichment classes is also optional.

“By giving students leeway to choose which sessions to attend, it really speaks to the need to be flexible,” Lee said. “Science, music, library, art and gardening are all essential parts of a child’s education, but we also need to recognize the need for flexibility, especially for very young students.”

Among several professional training sessions, BUSD teachers have also learned about cultural responsiveness, such as understanding not all students want to show their home backgrounds on video during class, and various ways of gauging and responding to engagement levels.

As a parent and teacher, Johnston’s main concerns in the next few months are for families like Rattan’s, who are already becoming overwhelmed with their students’ work or may find it difficult to manage continued support. She said the new year was a fresh start for teachers and families, but there’s a long way to go.

“I think the cooperation between the families and the teachers so far — as a teacher and a parent — I felt really positive about that, and it’s easy when we’ve just started. I don’t know if we’re gonna have the stamina to keep that up,” Johnston said. “I just hope we can keep up the grace we’re giving each other, and the positive attitude.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...