CUSD teachers, students embrace distance learning amidst school closures

By Elysse James

Now in their second week of distance learning, students and teachers are gaining confidence and are excited about the possibilities using educational technologies and online resources.

Capistrano Unified’s more than 47,000 students are staying connected through Google Classrooms, virtual visits with teachers, and video chats with fellow scholars.

“It’s an amazing thing to watch how many teachers have been trained in the last week,” said Darla O’Leary, English Language Arts/History/Social Studies Elementary Curriculum Specialist. “It’s training in hyper speed.”

With just days to set up trainings, coordinate technology efforts, and adapt to distance learning, Capistrano Unified teachers and staff are pushing to stay connected with each other and with students while adjusting to the “new normal” as the entire country fights the novel coronavirus.

“None of us expected this until it was already upon us and we just have to adjust,” O’Leary said. “It’s a mindset change for everyone.”

Teachers share that they miss their students while everyone is working and learning from home.

Many teachers and students, particularly in middle and high school, were already using online tools and resources (including Google Hangouts Meet, Google Classroom, and Screencastify) in most of their classes. For teachers who weren’t as tech-friendly, district curriculum and technology specialists are supporting them as they quickly learn. At all levels, teachers and administrators are meeting virtually at least once a week to share resources and best practices.

“Sometimes the biggest opportunity comes from the biggest challenge,” said Elementary Math Curriculum Specialist Karen Gauthier. “What’s going to result from this is an amazing opportunity for all of us to learn, grow, evolve our own teaching practices and support with using tech platforms.”

Students watch lessons online live and pre-recorded by CUSD teachers.

At the elementary level, more than 900 teachers are gaining new tools to serve their collective 20,000 students. Teachers joke that it’s like their first year on the job all over again. The hashtag #firstyearteacher is trending on social media sites as veteran and new teachers alike are thrown into distance learning.

One teacher, O’Leary said, was feeling very insecure but after a tutorial on online resources she was “giddy with delight.”

“I actually think we will see some phenomenal growth with our students,” O’Leary said.

Parents at home are juggling their own jobs, household duties, parenting and helping teach their children.

The district’s technology specialists are holding group trainings at all levels of instruction, including for paraeducators and aides. They also are providing one-on-one virtual training, office hours, and individualized instruction on technological tools. At the elementary level, curriculum specialists are holding online question-and-answer sessions to drill down on the most common issues.

“The teachers are working really hard to provide the best quality instruction they have given the fact that they have not been trained in doing distance learning as the only mode of instruction,” said Secondary Math Curriculum Specialist Dave Chamberlain. “The teachers are working their tails off to make sure that their kids get as much quality instruction as possible.”

Room 12 students get a special message.

Students have also had their schedules and lives disrupted by the COVID-19 response, so many teachers are reviewing previous lessons before introducing new material. Teachers in each subject are sharing lessons and collaborating on materials and tools.

“It’s really forcing teachers to rethink their curriculum and develop some creative online digital assignments”, said Secondary Science Curriculum Specialist Becky Friedland. Already, she said, she’s seeing teachers develop materials that they plan to use in future years.

Another challenge is determining the correct amount of work to give students, Chamberlain said.

“This is not an easy transition but everyone is working really hard to do the best they can,” Chamberlain said. “Everybody is trying their best.”

In addition, the district has created several websites with parent resources for students at all levels, provided in English, Spanish and Farsi.

“I’m so impressed by our teachers,” said elementary curriculum specialist Elisa Slee. “It’s very obvious they love their scholars. They’re learning new things, they’re reaching out to each other… I’m seeing teachers do really creative things with their students and I’m excited about that.”

As the district embraces distance learning, they continue to evaluate and improve instruction for the weeks to come.

By the Numbers

7 cities are part of CUSD

63 campuses in CUSD

900+ teachers at elementary level

2,200 CUSD teachers moving to online learning

More about how Capistrano Unified continues to prepare for and prevent COVID-19: 

Capistrano Unified program donates thousands of medical supplies to Kaiser Permanente

Distance learning to continue for Capistrano Unified through May 1

CUSD provides 34,355 meals to children in need during COVID-19 school closures

As classrooms go virtual, CUSD teachers are prepared

Kaiser Pediatrician talks COVID-19 with Capistrano Unified

Capistrano Unified serves lunch, breakfast to 6,705 kids and counting

Capistrano Unified Principals engage students virtually during COVID-19 closures

Social distancing for kids in the age of COVID-19, Capistrano Unified shares resources

Capistrano Unified serves more than 1,000 free meals during COVID-19 school closure

Capistrano Unified offers students free curbside lunches during COVID-19 school closures

Capistrano Unified Closes Schools Amidst Global Coronavirus Concerns

No coronavirus cases in Capistrano Unified; district prepares

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