Lucia Soares helps her two younger children, Emily, 9, and Daniel, 16, with their school work in their Modesto home. (Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

In a Wednesday virtual Q&A hosted by CalMatters, two of California’s top education leaders gave parents and teachers advice on how to educate students while schools remain physically closed.

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, and Cindy Marten, superintendent of San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest school district, answered questions about special education, bridging connectivity gaps and advice for parents home-schooling their kids.

The Q&A came as state leaders such as Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have urged school districts to throw their weight behind distance learning for the rest of the 2019-20 term. Darling-Hammond and Marten reiterated that while campuses will likely not physically reopen for the rest of this academic year, schools and students are expected to continue their learning while at home.

Here are some highlights from Wednesday’s conversation. (You can catch a recording of the entire virtual Q&A below.)

YouTube video

Q: How will the coronavirus and remote learning affect my high school student?

A: California’s K-12 and higher education systems have agreed on a list of exemptions Wednesday for high school students who are applying to colleges. The state’s two public university systems, the University of California and the California State University, will accept “credit-no credit” grades instead of traditional letter grades for “A-G” courses required for admission.

Darling-Hammond said schools will ensure that students who were on track to graduate prior to physical school closures will receive their diplomas. Also, students this year will not be required to take the Smarter Balanced standardized exam administered in 11th grade.

“We want children to be held harmless so that they carry into this period of time the grades that they’d already earned,” Darling-Hammond said.

She added: “Everyone’s pulling together to make it possible for young people to continue their education, and to do so in a way that is not even more stressful.”

Q: I’m a teacher. How can I help parents?

A: Teachers looking to help parents home-schooling their children can offer templates for schedules to help create structure for students, Darling-Hammond said in response to a question from a teacher seeking advice.

“I’ve seen a lot of schools and teachers posting possible schedules,” Darling-Hammond said. “Sometimes their schedules are, ‘I’m going to be available and our classes are going to happen at this time, but here’s what you can do with your kids for cooking or outdoor play’ or other things that allow (parents) to know how to structure their time in a productive way for their kid.”

Marten, a former teacher and principal, encouraged teachers to be innovative in determining how to best connect with students based on their family’s needs — be it through phone calls, video calls or paper materials.

“There’s never a one-size-fits-all approach to any type of education, especially now,” Marten said.

For one San Diego teacher who started a virtual class, for example, “Fourteen out of 20 students have signed in, so she’s finding the other ones that are missing and finding a different way to connect if that doesn’t work,” Marten said.

“That theory of action of how do we reach out to our kids, what’s the best way of doing it all — good teachers know that’s what they do every day in the classroom when you’re teaching a lesson, and most of the kids got the lesson and some didn’t,” Marten said. “It’s never the student’s fault when they’re not learning. That’s always the educator coming up with another way and another way and another way.”

Q: What are schools doing over the next few weeks?

A: Circumstances have rapidly evolved over the past three weeks. Most California school districts began to declare temporary campus closures the week of March 13, days before Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

Many districts initially held out hope for re-opening their campuses, though state officials have said this week that they don’t expect it will be safe to do so for the rest of the school year as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

While some districts have kickstarted their distance learning programs, other districts are not yet there.

“I think that within the next couple of weeks everyone will have heard from their school districts about what the distance learning plan is,” Darling-Hammond said.

San Diego Unified was among the first California districts to release a timeline for resuming instruction remotely. The district plans to begin instruction informally April 6 after students return from their scheduled spring break, with formal grading beginning April 27.

“While we’re not going to be able to learn in the physical environment of the classroom, our challenge is to ensure that students will get what they need so that learning can continue,” Marten said.

“That’s a key message that’s really important for parents and everybody to understand is that we want to make sure learning continues.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.