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Community reacts after homework becomes mandatory

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

With the recent decision to make online learning mandatory and issue grades for the remainder of the 2020 academic year, Claremont Unified School District has sparked a debate among students and parents that touches on issues of privilege, and whether academic normalcy is appropriate during this extraordinarily abnormal time. 

 “Distance learning,” had been optional since CUSD schools were closed March 14, and students’ work could not negatively affect the grades that were in place prior to the dismissal.

The hope was schools would reopen April 13, following spring break. But that proved overly ambitious, and following the lead of Governor Gavin Newsom and the Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo, CUSD announced April 1 all of its schools would remain closed for the rest of the year to limit the community spread of COVID-19.

On April 14, CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser announced the new academic directive:

“As of Monday, April 20, we will move from an optional enrichment based learning plan to a required remote learning plan in which students will receive grades,” read the release made via email to parents, caregivers and students.

The full release is viewable at www.claremont-ca.schoolloop.com, click on “Latest District Covid-19 Updates,” and “4-14-2020 Letter to Families.”

The school board said the move was made to ensure students were prepared for the 2020-21 school year.

“We are ultimately responsible for ensuring successful academic transition to the next level,” Mr. Elsasser told the COURIER Tuesday. “Allowing any students to not actively participate in the final third of the school year would most likely result in serious problems next fall, which we are trying to help students avoid.”

The move has been welcomed by some as a needed bit of routine and a valuable lesson that work must continue, even during times of crisis.

“We can’t just give them a break, because life does not give you a break,” said Shannon Mauga, mother of Claremont High senior Lonise, 17, and son Mose, 12, a sixth grader at Condit Elementary. “I realize that there’s a pandemic and there’s a lot going on, but you know, life’s not easy.”

Others say now is not to the time to add unnecessary stress to students and parents—many of whom are now unemployed—and that school can, and should, wait.

A petition posted last week on Change.org by Claremont High School senior Dirk Morken, 18, “Make CUSD Schoolwork Optional Due to COVID-19 Pandemic,” had 2,605 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. The majority of signatories are students, but parents and caregivers have also made their disapproval known. The petition at www.change.org is viewable by searching “make CUSD.”

Adding to the confusion, on April 16 the CUSD board held a remote meeting, hosted through Zoom. Some students who were attending the meeting through the online portal said they had their voices muted and in some instances their video feeds cut off, presumably at the district’s behest.

It turns out those censorship concerns were in fact technical mistakes made by district IT operators new to the Zoom platform and unfamiliar with how it functions, Mr. Elsasser said.

“The kids claim that we dropped them,” Mr. Elsasser said. “But we never dropped one member of the public from our meeting. That’s just a fact.”

He added that CUSD is working on fixing the snafus that disrupted the April 16 meeting. “We continually evaluate our systems and the best options for making our meetings transparent and accessible to the public,” Mr. Elsasser said, adding that he hopes to have an improved, streamlined online public participation protocol in place for the next board meeting on May 7.

Still, the perceived slight helped to galvanize protesting students, and the con argument gained traction after Claremont High’s Wolfpacket posted an opinion piece April 18 co-authored by three students—senior Angelo Thomas, 18; Claire Judson, a junior, 17; and Ady Bolinger, a 15-year-old sophomore.

The piece accuses the school board of suppressing protest, and in doing so violating various statutes. The impetus for the story came after Ady read some of the comments made by signers of the petition.

“There were a lot of people commenting on the petition that were in different home environments and financial situations, where it made it genuinely so hard to complete every last assignment, whether it was them helping to financially support their family, or caring for loved one that may be sick or hospitalized,” said Ady. “There were a lot of factors from learning in the home environment that maybe CUSD didn’t take into account as much as they should have when they moved to mandatory work.”

The district’s remedy for students who are having difficulty with their work is first for them reach out to teachers, and if that isn’t successful, their school’s principal. If either of those options are not desirable or satisfactory, middle and high school students can go to their counselor for assistance.

Mr. Elsasser said to his knowledge, thus far no elementary student or parent has come forward with such a complaint.

“Some of the concerns that some of the students brought forward related to finances or mental health would of course lead to flexibility on the part of the teachers,” Mr. Elsasser said, adding he’d read many of the comments left by signers of the petition. “This isn’t about penalizing them, this is about our moral imperative to prepare students for next year.”

Among the comments by signers of the petition were several pleas for leniency.

“My family has just lost two jobs and we can’t worry about five to seven periods worth of work while figuring out how we are going to pay our insurance bill,” wrote Chadd Zimmerman, a CHS senior.

Critics say the policy is short sighted and adds unnecessary stress to students and families who may be feeling the financial, medical and emotional effects of the pandemic in a more pronounced way than others.

Katie St. John, who has three kids in the CUSD system, a CHS senior and two Vista del Valle elementary students, is a professor of psychology at Cerritos College. She argues, for instance, that many children of abuse are reluctant to speak up, even during the best of times.

“They’d rather just fail or lose a job or whatever than talk about that, especially when talking to a bunch of strangers, like a school board,” Ms. St. John said. “It’s hard enough just to talk about it to a psychologist or a trusted a friend. So, while a few might be able to speak up, I’m not sure that a lot of them will, just because that’s the way it goes in populations where there is abuse.”

Some have also argued that making schoolwork mandatory and issuing grades disproportionately affects those on the lower end of the economic scale. 

“I just think some people could maybe fail for circumstances that are beyond a minor’s control,” said Ms. St. James. “It’s just a lot of stress and a lot of last minute decisions and I feel like the gap between the haves and have nots is just going to get bigger.”

But some parents are unmoved by the argument that completing schoolwork and being graded is too much to ask.

Julia James, mother of CHS senior Nate and freshman Juliet, for one. “Nate wanted me to sign that petition that the students started, and no. I didn’t sign it,” said Ms. James. “I believe if you want to succeed in school then do the work. If you want to succeed in college, do the work. If you want to succeed in a career, do the work!”

Other parents, like Steven Rushingwind, father of El Roble Intermediate School student Sienna, took a more nuanced approach. He has encouraged Sienna, a straight-A student, to complete her work as matter of pride and respect for her teachers. He added that every family’s situation should be considered.

“I understand the frustrations but we have to remember that CUSD has never done this before,” he said. “So personally I feel people should remember that and not be so judgmental, and I know that circumstances are different in every family so we need not to judge them as well. I’m proud of my kid especially since she’s lost her mom and her anxiety kicks in with this pandemic, she’s a trooper!”

Ady hopes the Wolfpacket piece, the petition and a groundswell of concerned parents and caregivers may be enough for the district to reconsider its position.

“I don’t think any student’s intention with this was to get into a fight with CUSD,” said the 15-year-old. “I think their intention was to help the students who genuinely need it at this time, and I think it’s a larger portion than CUSD may realize. It was to recognize some of the ignorance and privilege, in our opinion, coming from the mandatory grading policy, and to try to mend it as best we can.”

For the latest updates on CUSD’s policies and procedures, or to contact a board member or Mr. Elsasser, go to www.claremont-ca.schoolloop.com.

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