District establishes new protocols for distance learning

August 26, 2020 — by Andy Chen and Esther Luan

Over the summer, the administration worked to alleviate some of the troublesome issues with the school’s online format that students and staff observed when it went into remote learning mode following the outbreak of COVID-19 in March.

One of the major issues with last semester’s learning structure was a lack of student participation during synchronous classes, assistant principal Matt Torrens said.

“The administrative team observed that by the end of the year, 75 percent of students’ cameras were off in most classrooms,” Torrens said. “When teachers ended a class, four or five kids would stay on because they had turned their camera off and left their device, or they had fallen asleep.”

To alleviate this problem, the team organized a project in which more than 40 teachers developed digital curricula and more effective techniques for remote teaching. The Saratoga Foundation donated about $75,000 to support the project, much of which went toward a stipend for teachers to work over the summer on developing effective online curricula, said Rita Cao, president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO).

Science teacher Matthew Welander said the stipend had a powerful effect.

“I'm extremely grateful to the admin and Saratoga Foundation for providing this donation, and I hope they are aware of the impact they've made on our teaching this year,” Welander said. “It encouraged teachers and admin to collaborate with each other. I ended up meeting virtually with the other AP science teachers, as well as with the engineering teacher over at Los Gatos, which proved helpful overall.”

The administrative team is also placing a heavier emphasis on accessibility regarding online communication to increase engagement, Torrens said. Last semester, they found that near-daily updates led to low responsiveness among students and parents alike; this year, the team will focus more on providing detailed weekly newsletters. 

“We’ve been very cognizant of trying to limit our number of messages since we don’t want to overwhelm students,” Torrens said. “Instead, we’re trying to make sure that each of our messages contains more links and information.”

To maintain safety, the district has established official school safety protocols, and students participating in school-sanctioned events, like Falcon Fest and sports practices, now have to receive permission from the administration to be on campus. The process will entail similar checks to what was performed during Falcon Fest, including temperature screening and survey questions, Torrens said.

Another major change this fall is the elimination of tardies.  This decision simplifies attendance taking for teachers and acknowledges that “many factors may play into a student’s ability to attend class on time with everything reliant on technology,” Torrens said. Instead, teachers will mark students who do not show up to class within 20 minutes absent. At the same time, students can be marked absent if they don’t participate in class — for instance, having their camera on but not participating.

To address unexcused absences, the school is in the process of establishing “calling mentors” — adults on campus who can reach out and connect with these students — with the help of school psychologist Dr. Michael Sloan.

“We're trying to help kids feel connected because that's a main reason why they may disengage from school,” Torrens said. “For other problems, such as cyber bullying, we're also very active in listening to and addressing concerns.”

In addition to safety and discipline protocols, the administrative team will focus on maintaining a supportive and connected environment for students.

As part of this effort, the administration has prioritized keeping the school sports facilities, such as the track and sports fields, open to the community even while the main part of campus and the quad area are closed. One unpopular closing has been the school’s SportCourt for basketball.

“We recognize that kids want to go play on the courts, but our primary goal is to support the safety of our staff and students,” Torrens said.

To increase student engagement and interaction, the administrative team is working with the leadership class to host a variety of virtual activities, including trivia nights and competitions of Skribbl.io, an online drawing and guessing game. The leadership class is also working to implement “after hours” for students on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 4 p.m., where students can log into Zoom and interact with their peers.

“The goal is to connect the school and offer everyone an outlet of community, so if students are bored or just want to talk to someone, there’ll be a few leadership kids ready to hang out,” said ASB president senior Cynthia Zhang. “I’m pretty excited because even if only one person comes, ‘after hours’ could change their day for the better.”

According to Torrens, the administrative team will continue to adapt and add new protocols as necessary to support safety and well-being.

“We’re trying to be flexible and consider all of the community’s needs, including students’, parents’ and teachers’,” Torrens said. “It’s important that we do our best to support everyone as we’re all adjusting to this new system.”


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