Napa County Teachers Rally Under School Closures Order

Distance learning, parental involvement, access to tech challenge kids’ learning experiences

Peg Maddocks, PhD, Executive Director, NapaLearns
Published on June 1, 2020

The last two months have been a time of upheaval caused by school closures that happened quickly and unexpectedly. Teachers and parents alike were unprepared for the magnitude and impact of this event. Differences in teacher skills in distance learning, parental involvement, and access to technology are all challenging our kids’ learning experiences. And adding to the bedlam is that online teaching resources, tools and tips are plentiful – even overwhelming based on the sheer number of them being offered – but how do we know which solutions and strategies really work? 

 NapaLearns supports Napa County educators by subsidizing their tuition cost to earn a master’s degree in Innovative Learning. Via a partnership with Touro University California, the NapaLearns Fellows program has grown to include more than 160 teachers and administrators across the county. To earn their degrees, Fellows spend 12 months in an online cohort exploring student-centered learning strategies. That experience prepares them with online teaching skills that have become the lifeline for education these days.

How 3 Teachers Are Responding 

We checked-in with a few of these teachers and administrators to understand how they are doing, to get their advice and to thank them for their efforts. They are demonstrating just how much schools, teachers and their work mean to our community.

Jen Ellison is a technology teacher at Phillips Elementary. She told us that even though we’ve been challenged in the past by fires and smoke days where students weren’t able to go to school, this particular situation is dramatically different. It has highlighted the lack of Internet access and the digital divide that exists in Napa County. 

Jen Ellison, Teacher, Phillips Elementary School

Ellison has found the learning she gained through the Innovative Learning program invaluable, stating, “I am super grateful that I am a NapaLearns Fellow because without knowing it, the information that I studied just a few years ago really prepared me to be a more digitally impactful teacher. But more than that, I think participating in the program opened a door to the idea that you can explore and learn and not be so concerned about failure – that making mistakes is just part of the journey.”

Ben Scinto, Principal, St. Helena High, and his son Lucca

 Ben Scinto, principal at St. Helena High School, told us that his job and life have changed dramatically. In addition to keeping up with his work responsibilities, he has three little boys at home with whom he’s trying to run a primary school. He indicated that online instruction is riddled with challenges starting with Internet access, but one of the toughest things for students and teachers to deal with is working in isolation. Being part of the program gave him the awareness of the resources and tools that are available to help teachers do their job, to communicate with others and their students, and to be effective during this time. 

Scinto went on to say, “I’m trying to not put a lot of pressure on teachers. If we started as an online school, then you could expect more; but the fact is that we had to transition to distance learning quickly. I’m just very appreciative of every sacrifice teachers are making. I know they’re responding and reaching out to kids at all hours of the day because they know that it’s been a struggle.”

Carla Surber, Calistoga Jr/Sr High School, College and Career Counselor

Carla Surber, college and career center coordinator at Calistoga Joint Unified School District, shared the gamut of responses to the school closures. Students initially responded positively because they wanted the structure and to continue with school. But as time has gone on, they have begun to feel overwhelmed by the variety of tools being used and seniors are frustrated that their graduation plans have been disrupted. She related that her fellow educators are starting to take a step back and remember to “put learning first and tech second” and to be really intentional in choosing the tech applications they are using. 

Surber reflected on her experience, “The master’s degree program really helped prepare me to be strategic about how I’m using technology tools and reflective on how they are working so that I can adjust as I go along; because if it’s not working for the kids, then it’s not working, right? During this challenging time, we need to remind ourselves that social/emotional education and development has got to come first. If students aren’t feeling safe and supported, they can’t access the disciplinary or the content skills and knowledge that they need to be moving forward so that they’re not losing a lot of ground during this event.”

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been, and will continue to be, a huge challenge and a learning experience for the community. Parents, teachers and students are all learning to value our teachers, and we are also seeing the need for better resources like Internet access for every home. Teachers who used educational technology tools previously are better prepared, but all educators are rising to the occasion. We thank them and applaud their efforts.  NapaLearns is committed to supporting Napa County educators and administrators to grow in their ability to innovate in this changing environment for learning.  Fellowships for summer and fall master’s degree cohorts in Innovative Learning are still available through the Graduate School of Education at Touro University California.