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Land of the Free and Appropriate Education: How One Tiny School District is Coping with COVID-19

Niecea Wilson, Fulbright ETA 2018-2019 at Agriculture and Veterinary High School in Lanskroun, reports on her experience returning to teach in the USA and the effects of COVID-19 on teaching and learning in Downieville, a picturesque mountain town of 300 residents in the heart of the Sierra-Nevadas.

New teachers are told if they can persist through the difficulties of the first year, nothing is impossible. Well, this is my third year teaching, (my first year back in the United States after completing my 2018-2019 Fulbright ETA in Lanškroun, Czechia) and it has certainly been the most difficult. A year that began with rolling power outages, leaving millions of Californians without electricity, now concludes with a global pandemic that shut our schools so abruptly, many of us didn’t get to say goodbye to our students. Everything just came to a standstill.

School districts and states are now grappling with how to administer free and appropriate public education, a right to all students residing in the U.S., and quite an elusive term (What does “appropriate” education look like in a typical American city or state in a typical school year with such an expansive and diverse country?). Under these new and unique circumstances, this is exceptionally challenging: How can we equitably reach our students in this stressful time and not further widen existing gaps in access to resources and experiences? Regrettably, there isn’t one right answer, but I can share how I and my colleagues are navigating this new terrain.
Families picking up their lunches from the Downieville cafeteria during the COVID-19 crisis
Sierra County, California has about 3,000 residents; Downieville is located in the far west of the county, a picturesque mountain town of 300 in the heart of the Sierra-Nevadas. This pandemic has galvanized both teacher and community volunteerism to aid in educating students. Nonprofit organizations such as The Sierra Schools Foundation (co-founded by a Fulbright alumna, subject of my previous blog) have distributed resources like chalk, notebooks, and colored pencils. Teachers are distributing resources from their classrooms too. “Send out anything you can!” our superintendent principal reassures us, “We can buy more next year.” 
Donations from The Sierra Schools Foundation ready to be delivered to students
I teach 12 students in a combined 4th-6th grade class, and fortunately, we’ve been using Google Suite all year, developing technological competencies and 21st Century skills. Downieville School, part of the Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, has 1:1 Chromebooks to students for grades K-12—a resource developed well before COVID-19 to leverage students’ socioeconomic gaps. The school has been able to send these technological resources home for students to maintain learning engagement through video chats, articles, PowerPoints, and more! Admittedly, we only have 61 students.

My method of managing distance learning includes pre-recording weekly introduction videos and creating assignment menus of various projects in English-language arts, math, science, social studies, art, and P.E for students to complete at their own pace. This week, owing to the cancellation of our International Day, my students and I will have a virtual potluck of recipes throughout Africa, also celebrating the completion of their Africa country reports. Downieville teachers are challenging themselves to think of ways to support students’ social-emotional health, using online platforms creatively to cultivate school culture and community.
Downieville School (K-12), Downieville, CA
Additionally, I schedule weekly one-on-one video chats or phone calls to tutor students, guiding them through assignments. On Fridays, I schedule an optional class Zoom meeting to play games and socialize. Last week we played a trivia game for test preparation; the week before, we played an online version of Pictionary to practice our virtual drawing skills and social studies vocabulary—drawing a map of Africa is no easy feat on a laptop mouse pad!

But many of our students don’t have reliable internet access. Some addresses in Sierra County don’t even have access to a provider. To help offset this, teachers also provide paper packets. Every Monday, students in town use social distancing guidelines to come collect new assignments and drop off completed work. Teachers and volunteers take packets for out-of-town students on bus routes with the district-sponsored meal delivery service—anyone younger than 18, regardless of income, qualifies for free lunch during the crisis. 
A student collecting his weekly packet, practicing extreme social distancing
The paper packets also assist students who qualify for special education services, providing alternate ways for students to complete work. As a staff, we recognize that “crisis learning” is not the same as independent study or homeschooling—many families are going through hardships. This was not a choice parents and students made for themselves and so, as educators, we’re being as flexible and as accommodating as possible, while still trying to provide engaging and enriching curriculum.

While the future remains uncertain and current circumstances are far from ideal, I do think there is a potential for many positive outcomes in the learning community. Schools may dialogue about enhancing student use of technology in the classroom, how to continue to develop individualized learning modules to support learners, and may even create hybrid online/physical curriculums. But for now, all we can do is continue to support our students and hope for a safe return to school in the fall.
The Sierra Buttes just outside of Downieville, CA in beautiful Sierra County