(Cal Matters/Pagransen)

As countries across the globe began shuttering campuses to combat the spread of a deadly new coronavirus, Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez knew it eventually would come for her schools, too.

So, weeks before the March 16 closures in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Rodriguez and educators in this community about an hour south of San Jose sprang into “an all-hands-on-deck mentality.” They came up with plans to keep families fed and equip them with technology. They trained teachers for the increasing likelihood that the school year for their 20,000 kids would be radically disrupted by global catastrophe.

Seven days after closing schools, Pajaro Valley began its distance learning program, with the initial expectation that students and teachers cover five hours of instruction per day.

“I wanted to have us get up and running as soon as possible because I felt that each day that we didn’t provide support to students that we were doing a disservice to them,” Rodriguez said.

Some California school districts report being able to start remote instruction the very day schools shut down in the pandemic. Others took more than a month.

Based on a CalMatters analysis of more than 170 school districts, which California districts were fastest to switch to remote learning? Not necessarily the wealthiest, it turns out. Just those who had best prepared.

While schools serving poorer communities faced higher hurdles for rolling out distance learning programs, school systems such as Pajaro Valley that did so sooner had spent several years training teachers in online instruction and developing the infrastructure now critical for remote education.

In an effort to understand how some of the state’s school systems adapted to their new reality, CalMatters examined letters, updates and communication sent by districts to families during March and April. The sampling shows that at least three dozen school districts near-seamlessly transitioned to online learning within a week of their initial school closures.

In other districts, distance learning for students began weeks after closures.

The start dates for remote learning don’t tell the full story. Learning experiences can differ among schools within a district, as well as among certain vulnerable groups, such as students with disabilities and English learners. Other factors, such as whether schools are able to connect with all of their students online and how many students within each district have yet to connect with their teachers, remain difficult to quantify.

But the start dates data highlight the disparate rollouts of remote learning plans for students across the state, further illustrating the exhaustive challenges and degrees of preparedness for schools, as well as the underlying inequities for many of the state’s students and families.

An executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed schools to close their campuses without financial repercussions from the state. That also set the expectation that public schools continue instructing students remotely, though the state has given local officials wide latitude over how to do that.

A head start

For Pajaro Valley, a combination of urgency and preparedness helped the district get an earlier distance learning start. Nearly 8 in 10 students in the geographically expansive district based in Watsonville are socioeconomically disadvantaged. More than 40 percent of students are English learners. About 14 percent lack stable housing. One in 10 kids come from migrant families who enter and leave Pajaro Valley’s system depending on the season.

Confronted with the idea that many of Pajaro Valley’s disadvantaged students lacked digital access, the district in 2016 began prioritizing laptops and technology in recent budgets as part of the district’s long-term “equity agenda” to help improve student achievement.

As other districts began scrambling to set up distance learning, they had to set aside days just to train teachers largely unaccustomed to delivering instruction remotely. Some lacked enough technology and were forced to spend extra time getting and distributing computers to families.

But at any given week pre-pandemic, about half Pajaro Valley’s students and teachers were using Google Classroom as part of their regular coursework, lessening the steep learning curve for learning remotely, Rodriguez said. And the district had already had laptops and hot spots for all students in second-12th grades.

Within a week, meal pick-up sites had been set up, and staffers were on hand to field troubleshooting calls from parents, many of whom speak Spanish or Mixteco, an indigenous dialect.

“It’s not something that you can shift overnight,” Rodriguez said. “It’s something that (we’ve) been working on since my arrival, and it’s just about the ambidexterity of the school district.”

Among parents, experts and advocates, there’s been a consistent stream of worry that the pandemic-related school closures will adversely affect students’ achievement. California schools already faced persistent achievement gaps among Latino and black students. The loss of brick-and-mortar learning could exacerbate those divides.

School systems with high concentrations of disadvantaged students have had to shoulder more responsibilities during the pandemic, adding potential strain in their ability to launch distance learning plans, said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA.

School districts that had high percentages of students and families reliant on their local public school for meals and social services devoted much of their focus in the early days of closures toward setting up reliable systems for food distribution. According to the California Department of Education, the state’s districts have set more than 5,000 food distribution sites. Some districts, such as L.A. Unified, have spent millions of dollars expanding services to include hungry adults as the pandemic’s widespread economic distress has left some parents without jobs or reduced hours.

Digital divide

Existing research shows that students in less affluent schools are more likely to experience lost learning time throughout the school year compared with kids in wealthier communities.

“The ways in which residential segregation and economic inequality play out in our society, we’ve created a system that’s set up in which some districts are just going to be able to move more easily and productively in a transition like this,” Rogers said. “And so those broader inequalities just get compounded.”

Access to technology has driven a wedge in schools’ distance learning capabilities. In recent weeks, the governor and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have expressed renewed urgency to close a digital divide in California that’s left an estimated 1.2 million students without the necessary access to Internet or a computer for remote learning.

The state has worked with philanthropies and tech companies like Apple and Google to purchase and distribute laptops, iPads and hotspots for students.

While state officials said 70,000 computers and other devices will be distributed this week and that Google will begin sending out 100,000 Wi-Fi hot spots in the first week of May, when and where other devices will reach students is unclear.

Barstow Unified, a district serving 6,300 kids in California’s high desert, began its distance learning plan March 30, with the majority of students completing ungraded paper packets distributed every two weeks, according to Christina Peterson, a senior executive assistant for the district superintendent’s office.

Some teachers are connecting with students online through Google Classroom, and all of them are expected to be accessible via phone calls or emails. But in a district where 8 in 10 students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, many households lack Internet or technology to engage in online learning, Peterson said, making it unrealistic to expect kids to connect with teachers digitally.

Barstow lacked funding to immediately secure devices for students. In an April 22 update, the district told families that it was working to provide devices to students in need.

“To get something out sooner than later, we went with the packets,” Peterson said.

An overwhelming majority of school districts had indicated to parents that they would loan computers to students. But in some districts, not all students have been able to secure technology from their schools.

When Fontana Unified School District in Southern California’s Inland Empire began distance learning April 6, there weren’t enough devices on hand to lend to each of Nereida Montano’s four children.

Her freshman, Sergio, had already been issued a laptop by his high school before the pandemic struck. The district lent another one for Jose, the high school senior, in mid-April. However, Montano, a student at nearby Chafee College, and her two youngest children, fifth-grader Brizeida and kindergartner Lexi, have had to share the family’s sole computer, dividing time throughout the day to complete assignments. When all four of her kids need to connect online at once, Montano sets up Lexi, her youngest, on her cellphone.

Montano uses the quiet time at the house — around midnight, or the early hours of the day — to complete her own business coursework. But in between juggling the dizzying number of links and apps to set up for her kids and her own work, it’s been tough to find the time.

“Every time I think about it, I want to go into tears,” Montano said, inhaling a deep breath. “It’s been really hard.”

Her freshman lacks focus, Montano said, and it’s been difficult to keep the kids engaged in material they’d already covered earlier in the year. Sometimes, Montano said, the children cry as they tell their mother how much they miss going to school.

“The work they’re doing, it’s not like being in class and absorbing everything that the teacher teaches in class,” Montano said. “They just post assignments and (they’re supposed) to get it done. How much can you really absorb from that?”

Challenging implementation

The ABC Unified School District in Cerritos, about an hour west of Fontana, essentially spent five years preparing for distance learning. About 51 percent of ABC students are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In 2015, the Los Angeles County school district began a “technology integration project,” in which the district tried to include more technology in schools’ curriculum. A steady stream of teachers signed up for extra training and committed to using computers in their classrooms.

In the years that followed, many ABC teachers spent entire days riding yellow school buses across campuses in the district — part of a “tech tour” where teachers who’d built up experience using technology for instruction would show promising practices to their colleagues.

“It was a slow rollout,” said ABC Superintendent Mary Sieu. “We didn’t have to say, ‘This year we’re going to have all students have 1-to-1 devices.’ That was not our goal. But we had to make sure that students and teachers knew what to do with the devices.”

ABC schools closed March 16. By the time the district began its distance learning program March 19, it had already stockpiled enough computers to lend to every student and had spent years teaching teachers how to deliver instruction online.

“To try to do something if we’ve never done it before I think would’ve been hugely challenging for any district,” Sieu said.

Distance learning implementation by school district

CalMatters collected data from 174 districts about how long it took after physical closure of schools to students starting distance learning.

To view a spreadsheet of the data, click here.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.