Students within the Santa Maria Joint-Union High School District will be required to Zoom into class more frequently this week under a new schedule adopted by the district that will bring them in alignment with county education guidelines.
Thus far in the fall semester, students have been required to attend classes via Zoom three out of five days of the week. All students Zoom into periods 1 through 7 on Monday, then attend longer classes on either Tuesday and Thursday or Wednesday and Friday, with students split into two alphabetical groups.
The new schedule, shared with families on Wednesday, will require class attendance via Zoom for all students five days a week beginning Monday, with students no longer split via alphabetical status.
According to John Davis, district assistant superintendent of student services, the district was recently notified by the Santa Barbara County Board of Education that this model did not fulfill state requirements for daily live interaction between students and teachers, causing the district to "collapse" the alphabetical split system.
"The alpha-split was something we felt was important early on to help keep class sizes down and help teachers connect better [with students]. But we got feedback loud and clear from the county that it is something we need to collapse moving forward," Davis said Tuesday.
Some students have reacted strongly to the news, arguing that the district did not provide sufficient notice before requiring daily class attendance.
As of Friday afternoon, over 1,700 students have signed a petition demanding that the district seek further student input before implementing the schedule changes, and a newly formed student group called No Education Without Representation has organized a Monday protest outside the district office.
"We demand that the district listen to and consider our input on alternative plans before implementing any of these schedule changes. We also ask the California Board of Education to rethink its decision to issue this mandate without first considering the input of its stakeholders," district student Eliot Báez said Friday.
Other families and students had mixed reactions to the increased Zoom time, which administrators assured families would not spell out more classwork or homework but, rather, more time to complete assignments with teachers.
Carlos Rivas, a senior at Pioneer Valley High School, said he has felt comfortable with the level of work during distance learning and isn't worried about having to Zoom into class each day. However, he knows that isn't the case for all of his classmates, who have restrictive work schedules and other obligations.
"Personally, I have no issue with it. I thought the system in place already gave us enough time," Rivas said. "But for some of my peers, they've had to call their managers and let them know, like 'the district just made this decision.'"
He added that the new schedule is only expected to last for another three weeks of instruction before the semester ends in December. After that, the district is hoping to implement a hybrid learning schedule, depending on the rate of local COVID-19 cases.
"Obviously, as they said, their plan is to open in January," Rivas said. "My only challenge that I have is that sometimes I have internet issues, because my cousins are all also distance learning at my house."
Some families were happy to hear that students would have more interactions with teachers, while others expressed concern about their students' abilities to keep up with an already-demanding schedule.
"It seems like my child already has about 40 hours of homework a week," one Righetti parent said on Facebook. "We can barely get [our daughter] to break from homework for meals. It's like she has a full-time job."
Although the schedule change was adopted mostly due to county requirements, administrators said they hope the increased face time with teachers also will help bring up student grades in the semester's remaining weeks of instruction.
According to district progress report data, the percentage of failing grades at Righetti, Santa Maria and Pioneer Valley high schools has decreased between the first and second half of the semester.
Between the district's first and second grading periods, the amount of F grades dropped from 27% to around 22% at Righetti; from around 44% to 24% at Santa Maria High School; and from around 34% to 28% at Pioneer Valley.
Despite apparent improvements over the semester, failure rates still are double those from the same time last year, Davis said, suggesting that more accommodations may need to be given as students and teachers continue navigating distance learning.
"This really does show us that we need more work to be done, maybe with the grading practices, allowing late work, or not penalizing late work," Davis said.