Burbank Unified School Principals Weigh In On Fall 2020 Remote Learning

By On August 28, 2020

Nearly two weeks into remote learning since the first day of school on Monday, August 17, Burbank Unified School District teachers, administrators, parents and students are getting used to their new normal. What’s remote learning like? We talked to three BUSD principals, one each from an elementary, a middle and a high school, about some of the challenges and successes of the 100% distance learning experience from their perspective.

“I am proud of the collaborative efforts of our district. Burbank Unified was very strategic to create a reopening committee to ensure that all impacted stakeholders were involved in this process,” commented Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Oscar Macias. “At one point we were in full discussion of a hybrid model. Unfortunately, the reality and sudden turn of the Covid-19 pandemic in our Los Angeles County had us have to reshape our opening of the school year to 100% distance learning.”

“This has not been an easy undertaking for all impacted stakeholders. We had to change our entire school settings and deliver instruction 100% online,” he continued. “There have some hiccups here and there, but I am so impressed that all our school sites have worked so hard for all our learners and parents/guardians.”

Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Oscar Macias has created a welcoming digital image for his school community. (Image Courtesy Oscar Macias.)

“I think everyone is working really hard to make this learning model a success,” said William McKinley Elementary School Principal Liz Costella. “I think the biggest challenge has definitely been technology. It is of course unpredictable. Even if we are doing everything correctly but sometimes there is a glitch – microphones don’t work, websites won’t stream, students get logged off of meetings. We are doing our best to overcome those challenges.”

“We have seen so many positives. Teachers have really embraced the challenge. They are being so creative and re-imagining instruction,” Costella continued. “Families and students have been so supportive and engaging. Our students have been so excited to reconnect to each other and their teacher. The students have really embraced using new technology and are jumping right into the tasks.”

“Burbank High School opened this month short-handed with transitions in a site assistant principal and in counseling, so it is hard for me to determine if our challenges were more a result of this, or of the challenges associated with launching distance learning,” commented Burbank High Principal Tom Crowther.

“From a teaching and learning standpoint, however, I couldn’t have been happier with the first week of school. The live virtual sessions are so important,” Crowther added. “Seeing three or four teachers each day connects students to their learning and to BHS. Students also enjoyed catching-up with one another, albeit virtually.”

Burbank High School’s front entrance remains devoid of students. (Undated file photo by Ross Benson.)

“I also think we saw right away adjustments teachers made for the virtual setting. We know asking them to lecture into a camera for an hour isn’t the most effective way to deliver instruction, and we know students cannot be expected to sit in front of a screen for hours on end,” he added. “I feel that our Monday – Thursday instruction has really found that sweet spot.”

“The first Friday went fairly smoothly as well. Students are working on asynchronous lessons and teachers are hosting office hours to connect with students on a more personal level,” Crowther also said. “It will take some time to find our stride with Fridays, but I see them as a real opportunity to connect on a level that may not be possible otherwise. I hope most teachers will take some risks and see Fridays as an opportunity and extension of what they are doing in their virtual classrooms.”

One of the biggest challenges facing remote learning is technology, the uneveness of access and a not always reliable internet, interfaces and applications.

“The biggest challenge is to overcome any digital divide that exists with our BUSD learners and families,” acknowledged Macias. “Our district has developed a comprehensive approach to lend out Chromebooks and hotspots to families/learners in need.”

“The feedback I have gotten after the first week has been highly positive in terms of connectivity,” Macias continued. “There have been some hiccups as I mentioned, but we are experiencing issues with some things beyond our control, like Spectrum in extreme heat with some power outages.”

“The work at school sites is and always will be there. This is not any different in distance learning,” he added. “What stays the same is the constant of hard working BUSD teachers, CSEA support staff members, administrators and district officials working hard behind the scenes to do what is right for all our learners.”

Empty hallways are an unusual sight at William McKinley Elementary School in Burbank. (Photo Courtesy Liz Costella.)

“I think students and teachers are connecting well. I think we have been successful for this only being the second week of school,” commented Costella. “I think there is always work to be done, we wouldn’t be successful educators if we felt that there wasn’t room to grow. We are always looking to adjust things and make instruction more engaging and accessible to all.”

“Our challenges have never been greater, but so too, are our opportunities. Challenges are largely logistics – getting tech to students and a new found reliance on technology on a daily basis, attendance monitoring efforts, keeping staff safe who elect to work on site and supporting staff who may need to continue to work remotely,” Crowther commented.

Crowther also pointed out another challenge of 100% distance learning.

“The other real challenge is giving students something that resembles the high school experience they want and deserve. We miss each other, we miss sports, we miss hanging out in the quad,” he said. “I worry about our students’ stress and anxiety during this pandemic and want us to identify ways to tap into their social and emotional well being.”

Burbank High School has approximately 2500 students enrolled, including students in community based instruction and students dual-enrolled in the online only program Independent Learning Academy.

Luther Burbank Middle School Principal Oscar Macias gears up for on site work at the school. (Photo Courtesy Oscar Macias.)

Luther Middle School currently has 910 students enrolled. Principal Macias has seen a lot of positive feedback already for remote learning.

“At Luther Burbank Middle School, I have received positive feedback from our parents and teachers/support staff. We knew going in that all was not going to be perfect, however, after one week of instruction, there have been lots of positive comments,” Macias said. “I expect to see more in terms innovative and creative instruction from our teachers. I have been privy to some outstanding instruction and activities that are not only engaging, but instructionally appropriate and challenging.”

“I can also share that the collaboration between school site principals and assistant principals has been tremendous. For me, I have been in constant contact with Dr. Miller from John Muir Middle School and Dr. Meglemre from David Starr Jordan Middle School,” Macias continued. “The virtual meetings with them have been so inspiring and powerful. I am forever grateful and indebted to them I expect our professional and personal friendships to continue.”

“I feel so blessed to be a part of this community,” said Costella, who noted that McKinley’s enrollment is currently at 475 students. “I have been so impressed with our students and families and their commitment to education.”

“I am grateful for the patience and kindness they have shown,” she added. “Most of all I want our families and students to know how much we miss them and that we look forward to seeing them again in person just as soon as it is safe.”

Another view of the empty McKinley Elementary School playground. (Photo Courtesy Liz Costella.)

“Opportunities we have is to inspect what we expect,” commented Crowther. “For example, we must evaluate our standards to determine what is most essential as less minutes than our norm means clearly identifying what is most important for all students to learn and what all teachers must teach.”

“We should align what we do from a pedological standpoint. If something is effective in your distance teaching, share that success with colleagues,” he also said.  “If something isn’t working well, share that frustration too. Learn together. As young scholars, our students have to resist the distractions of being at home. They might have others in the house, they have television and their cell phones, but they need to stay present and engaged.”

“We are all in this together!” said Macias. “Every school site needs and wants to create a positive partnership between the home and school. This is necessary for our learners to have the opportunities to succeed.”

“We also all need to be patient and flexible given that 100% distance learning is a new undertaking in Burbank Unified,” he added. “I would also like to express how I and my colleagues all have a lot of confidence and trust with all our teachers, support staff members and district officials.”