LBUSD starts new school year after tech mishap

Laguna Beach High School

The Laguna Beach Unified School District joined several Orange County school districts in resuming distance learning this week to open the 2020-21 school year.

Monday kicked off with a rocky start as a nationwide outage of the Zoom video conference platform prompted district officials to cancel scheduled sessions. Zoom had been inconsistent and intermittent with many school district accounts working fine while many others did not, Deputy Supt. Leisa Winston wrote in an email.

“We are proud of the efforts of our teachers and staff to make personal connections with their students on the first day of school through phone calls, emails, and chats, as we know the student-teacher relationship is critical to student success,” she said.

On Tuesday, Zoom service was restored and classes were able to resume as planned, district administrators said. Laguna Beach Unified is developing contingency plans in case a future disruption to the service occurs.

Mark Alvarez, a social studies teacher at Laguna Beach High School, worked around Monday’s mishap by recording a video to introduce himself and his AP Government class to a new cohort of students. He asked students to read the first chapter of their textbook book.

“I think it went over well because I got questions about it, which means they watched it,” Alvarez said.

The biggest improvement this school year compared to last spring is that attendance on Zoom sessions is mandatory, he said. Alvarez’s students are required to either log on for synchronous learning with him at either 9 a.m. or 11:30 a.m.

When he’s not talking with the entire class they’re working in small groups via Zoom. He periodically drops into these groups to check on their progress and answer questions.

“It’s not all that different from how I would hold class in-person,” he said. “That format doesn’t work without some kind of attendance accountability.”

One notable difference is the fast pace of teaching an AP course in six weeks that is normally spread over a semester, which is half of a typical school year. This format is controversial among some students and parents who have spoken at recent school board meetings, questioning if they’ll be prepared for the 2021 AP Exams.

Alvarez normally tries to be animated in the classroom to keep his students’ energy level up. He’s found that can be challenging when trying to read the facial cues of an entire class on his computer screen.

“It’s not impossible but it’s harder to build energy,” he said. “You feed off that energy and you want to be there and spend time with the kids.”

Like many teachers, Alvarez and his wife are juggling the new normal of distance learning while overseeing their own children, an eight- and 13-year-old, who are also trying to learn from home.

As Orange County waits to learn whether its COVID-19 cases stay below the threshold needed to remain off the state watch list—a precursor to reopening of campuses—Laguna Beach Unified is surveying the parents of elementary school students to gauge interest in applying for a waiver to reopen El Morro Elementary and Top of the World Elementary. That survey is scheduled to close on Friday and the results will be shared with the Board of Education at its meeting on Sept. 3.

The Los Alamitos Unified School District and 24 private schools in Orange County reopened their campuses this week after successfully obtaining waivers from both the Orange County Health Care Agency and the California Department of Public Health.

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