For any parent who has children in the California public school systems, news reports about the progress (or lack thereof) the state had been making in returning kids back to schools were disheartening, to say the least. Some reports showed that California ranked dead last in the country in reopening schools for in-person education, a huge issue given that the 200 largest school districts are in this state. Another report indicated that less than half of California’s 6.2 million K-12 students have even the option of in-person schooling. It’s a frustrating situation for parents who have dealt with other pandemic impacts for more than a year. It’s exasperating for the governor who is pushing for faster school re-opening with little cooperation from the districts.
Thankfully, the progress made in vaccinating the US population has convinced many California school districts to reconsider their opposition to re-opening in-person schooling. If the current trend holds, many schools will be back in full attendance come fall.
One school who was clearly ahead of this curve is San Francisco-based Life Learning Academy (LLA). By sheer necessity, LLA always set its own course when it comes to educating its nearly 60 students. It has had to, out of necessity. LLA’s students are among Bay Area’s most vulnerable teens who have experienced trauma, poverty, and housing insecurity, making it difficult for them to learn in a “traditional” school setting.
As a result, LLA has always had to live by the proverb necessity is the mother of invention when it comes to school operations and educating its students. This made LLA agile and innovative in tackling the disruptive impact of the pandemic. It’s also the principle LLA is using in returning its students to some semblance of normalcy as quickly as possible.
I spoke with Cassandra “Cassie” Blazer, LLA’s Director of Policy and Evaluation, about these topics as well as how the school was leveraging small business technologies to accelerate its goals.
Q: The pandemic and shelter-in-place were so disruptive to all areas of our lives but especially to our schools. Can you describe the impact for LLA students and staff?
Cassie Blazer: Even in “normal” circumstances our students live in chaos. It’s why LLA is unlike so many other public schools in that we offer on-site housing, and we have a strong emphasis on mental health counseling. When the shelter-in-place order were in place, we had to send most of students in the dorms to their caregivers though that did not stop us from providing essential services such as mental health counseling, even if it was online.
Q: Distance learning for K-12 has had mixed reviews from parents, students, and teachers. What has been the experience for LLA and your students?
Cassie Blazer: There has been lots written about the digital divide that exists among social-economic strata in this country. This has certainly been a reality for LLA students in terms of their access to computers and the Internet away from campus. When shelter-in-place forced students off campus, one of the first things we did was to “clean out” our supplies of donated computers to provide to our students. We then worked with technology partners such as Cisco to provide Internet hotspots for students just so that they could get online. What did not change was our policy of keeping close contact with every student on their schooling and welfare. This helped keep our school attendance higher than most schools.
Q: As businesses and schools accelerate their pandemic recovery efforts, what is the plan for LLA to return to ‘normalized’ operations in the fall?
Cassie Blazer: Our goal for a while has been to return to full in-person classes and on-site housing by fall. The strategy is to create a smooth path there by using all means available. This began with holding some in-person classes outdoors starting back in March, which was enabled through Meraki wireless access points deployed around the campus. We also continued to offer real-time online classes as well as on-demand recorded classes when asynchronous learning was most sensible. The point is that one-size-does-not-fit-all for LLA. This works because we have an agile mindset when it comes to educating our students. We’re willing to be imaginative and innovative in overcoming its obstacles.
Q: Looking ahead, are there any lessons learned, or best practices gained from LLA’s experiences during the pandemic that you plan to carry forward?
Cassie Blazer: One clear lesson has been that the investments we made in technology infrastructure before the pandemic hit full force, set us up for success. An example of this is how we gradually expanded our Meraki-based network infrastructure over time, starting with the main campus building, then to the dorms, and then in the outdoor spaces. Of course, this helped our staff facilitate socially distanced outdoor classes when the opportunity presented itself.
Another lesson we learned is that going online for teaching and other programs can be useful as part of the overall classroom experience. We are planning to continue some elements of online classes even when in-person learning resumes fully in the fall. Also, virtualizing some aspects of LLA’s Workforce Development through career exploration videos submitted by local businesses and leaders was hugely beneficial. LLA will likely continue to solicit those videos to supplement the Workforce Development program.
Being agile and adaptive is a key to our success. One size will never fit all.