Los Angeles students are returning to classrooms this month that will look different and not only because desks will be six feet apart.
Laptops and tablets, which have been students' only connection to their teachers and classmates for the past year, will become prominent in classrooms that for generations have relied on paper and pen.
"I do think it's going to be a new game," said Michael Finn, who teaches at Marshall High School in Los Feliz. While technology has been available to Los Angeles Unified School District teachers long before the pandemic, teachers used it to varying degrees. Now, every teacher has adopted it and many are discovering more of its features and functions.
The nation's second largest school district began a phased reopening last week, with middle and high schools doors to open the week of April 26.
"Laptops, cameras, tablets are now just part of our learning environment," said Sophia Mendoza, who heads LAUSD's instructional technology division.
And so too are an array of educational software and other programs from Google Classroom and Schoology to quiz app Kahoot!, Newsela, a platform that hosts thousands of different texts geared toward different reading levels, and Nearpod, an app that allows teachers to take students on virtual field trips.
It will be a transformational shift in some classrooms where technology has been lacking.
When the pandemic hit last year and schools shuttered, districts across the country scrambled to ensure that students had devices to access online classes as well as a reliable connection to high-speed internet.
Some school districts also had to sign contracts for online learning management systems or other tools.
Google Classroom said more than 150 million students and teachers now use its services, up from 40 million last year.
And venture investment in education tech startups more than doubled last year to $13.49 billion compared to $5.1 billion in 2019, according to Pitchbook.
Analysts expect the pandemic to accelerate the growth of a digital learning infrastructure.
At the L.A.U.S.D. tech companies raked in $70 million during the first two months of the pandemic, documents first obtained by LAist show.
The largest share of the money, $37.8 million, went to Apple for iPads as the district scrambled to arm a half million students with internet access and devices.
The district spent another $22 million to purchase Chromebooks and Windows devices through a company called Arey Jones. Verizon also received school district money, although the exact amount wasn't clear based on the documents.
In May, Superintendent Austin Beutner said its push to distribute devices to all of the district's 550,000 students was nearly complete.
"If the transition to online learning is our moonshot, the rocket's been built and lift off has occurred. We're in the early days of an extraordinary voyage," Beutner said in May.
While teachers will still rely on fundamental techniques they've learned throughout their careers, new tech programs like Pear Deck — which integrates with Google Slides and allows students to interact with the teacher's presentation — could make teaching more effective.
"What we're seeing now is that teachers are starting to see the value in some of these things when they may not have really been interested in trying it out before," said Corinne Hyde, an associate teaching professor at USC's Rossier School of Education.
"A lot of teachers who were a little bit unsure before have gotten over that initial hump of being nervous of the technology or skeptical of the technology and seeing that there's some opportunity there even when students and teachers are going back into the classroom."
Flipgrid, a tool that was popular before the pandemic, is one that Hyde sees as remaining in use once students are back in classrooms. Teachers can create a prompt within a grid where students can collaborate to post video responses.
Hyde also imagines apps that allow students to take virtual field trips to places like the Louvre will remain in widespread use by teachers.
"There are certain things that we can do with technology on the ground that actually do transform the learning experience that are simply not possible without the technology," Hyde said.
Marshall High School's Finn said he'll continue to use a digital audio workstation program called Soundtrap for his songwriting class. He thinks other teachers will also be adopting apps and other tools they became accustomed to during the pandemic.
Mendoza envisions teachers using the technology for introductory videos from the teacher and students, digital forms for parents that can be accessed in real time, collaborative tools like digital documents that can be shared among students, and digital polls, quizzes, assessments and instant feedback.
"It's going to be strategic," Mendoza said. "Educators will have to decide when and how much and be purposeful."
What started out as crisis management has turned into a sustained change, Mendoza said.
"Our educators have really taken this crisis and turned it into opportunity," Mendoza said. "There are so many silver linings here in L.A. Unified...I do see our future as being very bright in the sense that a lot of learnings that we have all learned over the last 12 months will continue on."
Not Business as Usual
Devices will also take more of an outsized role as students gradually return. Teachers will still have to conduct their classes online, as some parents opt to keep their children home and many classes remain remote.
A recent survey by the district shows that less than a third of parents are ready to send their children back to the school yard. Those children will be offered instruction online.
At high schools, for example, students will only be on campus two to three days a week. The hustle and bustle of students rotating from classroom to classroom will be gone, instead, teenagers will have to remain seated at one desk and log on to classes. As a result, the teacher in the classroom may be teaching a completely different class than the ones students are logged into..
To accommodate this, the district is making noise-canceling headphones available.
Officials say while the arrangement isn't ideal, students will still have the social interaction with their classmates and teachers.
Instruction will also look different in elementary schools where students will attend class five days a week for a half day in small, staggered groups and log in for the remaining school day from home.
Mendoza envisions students coming to class with their device with them and when they sit down at their desks, they will pull it open to access the day's lesson plans and materials.
"The school walls have been broken down, virtually," Mendoza said.
Finn is looking forward to when he can stand up in the front of his classroom and ask his students to open their computers, without being worried that he's on mute.
"That's going to be magic," he said.
He's looking forward to being able to see students as they're completing their assignments online as some students turn off their cameras during virtual classes for various reasons.
"I'm excited and I feel it from my colleagues as well," he said. "We're excited to take the things that we've learned and be able to implement them with a student in front of us."
Lead image by Ian Hurley
All five of Adriana Ruiz's kids start school Tuesday, but she still doesn't know if all of them will even attend their virtual classes. Her kids, ages 10 through 16, all have district-issued laptops they were given their second week into remote learning in March, but the WiFi at her apartment in Cudahy is spotty and can't support five streaming devices for hours on end.
Last week, after picking up their books, Ruiz requested an internet hotspot. She's still on the waiting list.
In addition, Ruiz is worried that she'll need to help her children through their lessons, though she hasn't been trained on the district's teaching platforms.
She's not alone. Across the city, anxiety is rising as parents and children face a new type of school year. Parents have become both the district's IT team and teachers' aides. Advocates worry that low-income students without access to a quiet place to work and stable internet access will suffer most. And there's also concern about keeping school-age children's attention focused on a screen.
Despite months of preparation, LAUSD, the nation's second largest school district, still can't account for some basic connectivity issues. The district, which has partnered with several internet carriers, has no way of determining how many of its 600,000 students have access to WiFi, LAUSD spokesperson Barbara Jones told dot.LA.
Hannah Gravette from Innovate Public Schools, a Bay Area nonprofit that began working with public school parents in L.A. two years ago, said some parents aren't getting internet despite district promises because of unpaid bills. Some undocumented families were also uncomfortable with the information providers were requesting of them.
"In many of L.A.'s dense, urban-core communities, there are already equity issues with bandwidth. Less towers, more people," Gravette said. "So already there was spotty or poor connectivity."
There's a disconnect between what LAUSD is providing and whether parents feel prepared. At the same time, there's little the district can do to forecast what online learning will look like for many children.
Earlier this month, the California Department of Education was scrambling to provide resources for about 1 million students who didn't have the technology needed for remote learning.
When schools first shut down in March, LAUSD announced a $100 million initiative to provide every student with a laptop and internet hotspot. Superintendent Austin Beutner marked the issue nearly "solved" in early May during a weekly video update.
But it wasn't.
Many families still didn't have laptops. And Beutner has said that the first few days of school — the days most students remember for awkward introductions and first impressions — will be used for orientation, training and to hand out laptops and hotspots.
Schoology, the online course management system downloaded onto district-loaned devices.Sharaf Maksumov/ Shutterstock
For those families still without tech access, the district has set up a hotline. But getting the message out has been difficult, a reflection of the uneven communication in a district trying to reach busy parents.
Jenny Hontz, who works at the L.A. nonprofit Speak Up, an advocacy organization that represents over 4,000 parents across the city, said several families she has spoken with didn't even know there was a help number to call. Instead they were calling their local schools, which were closed. Desperate parents were leaving messages on voicemails that weren't always picked up.
L.A. Unified School District has over 1,000 schools and 200 independently-run charter schools. With about 80% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, many of the students come from households struggling financially.
"I believe that the effort was made. Principals went into students' homes to give screen devices, etc. It doesn't necessarily mean 100% of them got it," Pedro Noguera, dean of USC's school of education told dot.LA.
"How effectively they addressed the need remains to be seen. We know there are a lot of kids that, even if they had access, were not online, were not doing their work. We don't know why."
LAUSD's own survey shows that class participation this spring was disproportionately low for Latino and Black students, students classified as English learners, students with disabilities and students in foster care or experiencing homelessness.
A report from an over two-month period this spring covering secondary students showed only 60% of the district's middle and high school students were active each day on Schoology, the online course management system downloaded onto district-loaned devices. At the time, when it was unclear how long the pandemic would keep schools closed, students' participation wasn't required, so it's difficult to tell how much of this will predict the system's use in the fall.
"We've learned a good deal about online education since March and it's clear there is a need for more one-on-one support for students," Beutner said in an update last week. "The individual attention a teacher can provide to a student in a classroom at a school is not easily replicated in a Zoom class with 20 or 30 students."
He said the district will offer in-person and online tutoring for students who need it, an initiative with the new nonprofit Step Up Tutoring.
Meanwhile, the district has purchased some 200,000 computers.
But even once kids received devices, not every parent knew how to use it or log into the online school system where their kids would attend class and submit assignments.
The only official training Ruiz received on distanced-learning software was how to log in into Schoology, a platform her older children knew how to use. But this fall, her five kids might each use a different online platform because each teacher can choose their own.
Meanwhile, she's waiting for her hotspot. LAUSD's Jones told dot.LA that the school district has "been able to fulfill all requests for hotspots," but she wouldn't say whether there remained a waiting list for some.
When she is online, Ruiz will be doing what a lot of students are doing to get by — Googling it.
"It was new for us as parents," Ruiz said. "We didn't get a lot of training into navigating the different technology platforms. We had to Google and YouTube it. Just as the teachers got training, parents need training as well."