Burbank Unified rolls out online learning with an emphasis on retaining skills already learned

Luther Burbank Middle School teacher Stefanie Enokian set up her at-home workspace on her kitchen table. She's teaching six classes through online learning.
Luther Burbank Middle School teacher Stefanie Enokian set up her at-home workspace on her kitchen table. She’s teaching six classes through online learning.
(Courtesy of Stefanie Enokian)

Before Stefanie Enokian jumped onto Google Classroom to reconnect with 178 students from her six classes at Luther Burbank Middle School, there was a week of uncertainty and waiting.

One by one, Los Angeles County school districts announced shutdowns as the coronavirus was beginning to be described as a pandemic. Burbank Unified extended spring break for students from March 16 to March 30, not knowing what classrooms would look like by April.

The first news Enokian heard was that all teachers needed to have Google Classroom, the district-chosen online platform, set up for each class. Then the district asked for volunteers, who were compensated, to help curriculum specialists design sample online classrooms.

Volunteer teachers in teams of two to four were split by grade and subject areas.

Enokian volunteered to help, and her team was tasked with creating four weeks worth of middle-school social studies content to make available for any teacher who might not be familiar with online learning and needed extra support.

“One of the big things that we’ve been told to do is to provide 50% of the work for our students, in the sense that we need to understand that they’re going through a lot right now. We can’t replicate every single thing that happens in the classroom. There’s no way that’s possible right now when we were having to do this in a quick emergency situation,” Enokian said.

Teachers underwent a week of professional development to get up to speed on technology. On April 6, they began reaching out to their students through email, Zoom and Google Classroom.

The district also distributed Google Chromebooks, hotspots, paper packets with instructions and books to students for at-home study.

The first week was designed to reconnect with students and establish the technology they’re expected to use. The second week was dedicated to reviewing material already learned through the school year. From the third week and on, teachers are expected to introduce new content.

“Some teachers chose to create their own [curriculum], which is fine, but we also had a bank of material for those that didn’t,” said Sharon Cuseo, Burbank Unified’s assistant superintendent of instructional services.

When asked whether switching to online learning means teachers should have different goals, Cuseo said, “What we really want is meaningful teaching and learning. We’re hoping that students don’t lose the skills that they learned during the school year. There’s also some exposure to new concepts, but the emphasis is on maintaining the skills that they have.”

During the first week of online learning, there was a 96% attendance rate. Out of about 15,000 students throughout the district, 673 were absent.

Teachers set up Google Classroom assignments and take attendance according to which students have completed work. District staff members also check once a week whether students have connected with their teachers.

For students who have not made contact since school closures, teachers or staff follow up through emails and phone calls.

Only 17 middle-schoolers haven’t responded to Enokian yet.

In Enokian’s curriculum, she includes textbook readings, videos and interactive activities like creating posters. Last week, her students read about Anne Frank’s diary and how historians have used it as a primary source. Their assignment was to write about their thoughts and feelings in a pandemic journal as they are living through unprecedented times.

A screenshot of Stefanie Enokian's Google Classroom assignments for week two of online learning.
(Courtesy of Stefanie Enokian)

Enokian posts assignments on Fridays, with 10 days to complete.

“It provides my students the ability to have two weekends. It gives them a little bit more flexibility and maybe their parents are more available on the weekends to also help them if that need arises,” Enokian said.

“Families are busy and a lot of our students are sharing devices with not only their siblings but their parents who are also working at home,” she added.

Burbank Council PTA president Wendi Harvel said she is impressed with teachers. She has a son enrolled at Burbank High School and a daughter at John Muir Middle School.

“I feel like they’ve gone out of their way to reach out to the students. There’s not one teacher who hasn’t reached out multiple times,” Harvel said.

Teachers like Burbank High’s Ernie McGinnis, who continued teaching the 1970s portion of his U.S. history lessons last week, posts YouTube videos and daily assignments on Google Classroom. He checks in with students through Zoom video conferencing.

While his partner works during the day in social-services clinical therapy, McGinnis juggles working from home and providing instruction for his two children who are enrolled in Burbank public schools.

He said one of his children is enrolled in special-education classes and needs help with his instruction. He estimates that the amount of time working from home is about the same as in-person instruction, but it is scattered from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

“Working in public schools ... things take so long to get done. It’s bureaucracy. Seeing how they were able to get Chromebooks for every kid that needed it, seeing the Charter Communications giving free Wi-Fi hotspots to students that didn’t have it — it’s made me very proud to work for Burbank Unified,” McGinnis said.

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