Tech issues. Labor strife. A budget crisis. Sacramento school district starts a difficult year

Garrett Kirkland was all smiles Thursday morning, though only his eyes revealed as such.


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The principal at Hiram Johnson High School had a bright green face guard bearing the name of his school district – Sacramento City Unified.

“I’m in my best distance-learning outfit,” Kirkland said with a laugh, looking down at his polo shirt, shorts and sneakers.

Kirkland on the first day of school would normally be in a shirt and tie, greeting scores of students as they poured onto campus. But there is little normal about the start of this academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic that has closed school campuses and heaped on challenges for administrators, teachers, counselors and students.

This academic year started the same way it ended last spring – off campus to quell the spread of the virus and online in an effort to keep instruction on track. It also started as the troubled district serving roughly 42,000 students faces severe challenges.

District officials announced in August that they will run out of cash by February 2021. Relations between district leaders and the teachers union remain frayed; the district and the union reached an impasse this week on how much live instruction will be provided to students each day, and the state will appoint a mediator to help them reach an agreement on how to proceed.

“I do know that we all want to put kids first,” said Kirkland, the Johnson principal.

Parents have expressed concern about not only the district’s long-term future, but about how the distance learning plan will be implemented. The start of school did not come without a glitch. Technical difficulties hit many households when classes began. An online program, Infinite Campus, was experiencing technical issues that made it challenging for students to sign into their classes.

“We apologize for this technical issue,” read a district letter to families. “We know this is disappointing, as we are all ready to begin distance learning this morning. We will get this technical issue resolved as soon as possible.”

Said Kirkland of such challenges, “Our teachers are now quasi disc jockeys with Zoom, directors switching cameras, dealing with technical issues. Have to find a way.”

An uncertain school year

In front of the Johnson campus, which opened in 1958, is a weather beaten sign from last spring. It reads, “Hiram Johnson HS – We love our seniors, class of 2020.”

Kirkland shares the sentiment of his peers in the hope and expectation that the class of 2021 finishes strong on campus.

“It’s different, distance learning, and it’s a daunting task, but we have an opportunity to still help our students academically,” Kirkland said. “I wish we had fun distractions to class like preparing for a dance, or a football game, or a volleyball game, or an on-campus student event. But it’s quiet here. No bells, no activity. Kids want normalcy and routine. We’re hopeful that’ll all happen soon.”

Coronavirus infections in Sacramento County have begun to fall after a summer surge, although public health officials warn that residents must remain vigilant. “Our hope is to continue to reduce the numbers so we can slowly reopen and not have a spike again. We want to get low enough to reopen schools,” said county health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye.

The first two days of instruction in SCUSD will focus on getting students in all grades up to speed with online learning, familiarizing themselves with their classes and various platforms. A full schedule will not be implemented until next week.

Freshmen students stopped by Johnson High and throughout the district on Thursday to collect Chromebooks while a line of cars inched through a drive-through lunch pick up. The district has handed out 3 million free lunches since the pandemic hammered schools in March.

In her Mickey Mouse face guard, freshman Elisabet Sotelo embraced her new laptop, admitting to mixed feelings.

”I’d rather be taking classes on campus and being with friends,” she said. “It can get noisy and crowded at home with distance learning, but I’ll do the best I can.”

Kirkland said he can relate. His wife, Shelly, is a physical education teacher at Fern Bacon Middle School within SCUSD, and they have two children studying online at home.

Emotional toll of distance learning

Kirkland said he can feel for students who had their lives turned upside down when the pandemic hit. For Johnson, the stalled momentum included a strong academic showing and a varsity football program that bounced back from a winless 2017 season to make the playoffs last fall for the first time since 2002.

Johnson broke in its spiffy new football digs last fall. There will be no such fun on the field this fall. No high school sports will be played until January, if the COVID-19 numbers do not spike.

“We had all this great momentum just wiped away, a sudden, quick end,” Kirkland said.

Alex Gomes-Coelho is a social science teacher at Johnson and the school’s fourth-year football coach. He has plenty of topics for students to discuss via Zoom – from the pandemic, to the economy, to protests and politics.

He said distance learning is “not a lot of fun. Teaching is all about in-person relationships. It’s different doing that through a computer. In our class, I’ll tell a student that I will challenge their belief on something to hear them explain it.”

Gomes-Coelho got into teaching because teachers helped influence him when he attended Mira Loma High. He said he “worries and stresses” about losing connections with his students who need positive role models.

”I worry about the mental and emotional toll of our students, 100 percent, and we’re impressionable voices to these kids on a campus,” Gomes-Coelho said. “Kids reach out to me a lot. I feel terrible that we can’t help them more than we are. I love our students. I feel like I can still impact their lives, but I can’t wait until we can all do it in person.”

Tech issues in SCUSD

Gwynnae Byrd, who has two children attending Kennedy and McClatchy high schools, said she received a robo call from the district about the technological problems that marred opening day.

“I just submitted a comment to the school board for (Thursday) asking them to beef up the IT dept so that there is 24/7 help available,” she shared with other parents on a Facebook forum. “Technology glitches are the last thing we need in an environment where all learning is dependent on it.”

Byrd said she is worried about the students who don’t have adult support at home, those who are English language learners and students who are unable to manage last minute issues online.

Ali Tubo, whose children are at West Campus High School and the School of Sciences and Engineering, said his students had “smooth sailing” with their log-ins.

“They had most of their log-ins by Tuesday with a few more last night. I am thankful to their teachers,” Tubo said. “And at the same time, sad that we have not succeeded in setting a standard for all kids to experience the same.”

District officials have provided 27,000 Chromebooks and partnered with Comcast and the city of Sacramento to provide students six months of free internet.

“We have a computer ready for every student who requests one – and have provided opportunities and events at sites for students to pick them up before school starts,” read a statement from the district. “Thankfully, our district ordered additional Chromebooks last year, putting us in a great position to support our students and provide them with technology to participate and remain engaged.”

Distance Learning Era: Know a teacher, administrator, counselor, coach or student doing amazing things during these daunting academic times? Email Sawsan Morrar at [email protected] and Joe Davidson at [email protected]


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