By Colleen Cason
Colleen Robertson, EdD ‘ 12, found herself perplexed by an analogy she heard often in early March: If Disneyland was shutting down due to the COVID-19 crisis, why were classes still in session at the Somis Union School District where she served as superintendent?
Robertson failed to see the comparison of educating pupils in the one-school district with entertaining them in the Magic Kingdom. But as the coronavirus locked down California, the 64-year-old educator ventured into a scholastic administrator’s version of Adventureland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland.
The adventure began the same day Disneyland shut its gates – March 13. Along with superintendents of 18 other districts, Robertson agreed to a one-week closure.
When the shutdown expanded to five weeks, she directed teachers to issue students workbooks stockpiled as refresher lessons during summer break and to check in with each student’s parent at least once a week.
Ultimately, with COVID-19 cases escalating, officials would shutter classrooms through the end of the school year and transition to distance learning. None of the Somis faculty had done any remote teaching. Eighty percent never had taken an online course.
Her educational leadership doctoral program trained her to think through challenging scenarios, Robertson said.
“The Cal Lu classes were never about putting things into your brain but about pulling things out. ‘What would you do if this happened? Why would you do it?’ I feel like it helped me become a better leader.”
The 260-student district could match a Chromebook tablet to every pupil in the third through eighth grades. But what about children with no internet in their homes? About 20 miles west of Cal Lutheran’s main campus, Somis boasts the highest median home value in pricey Ventura County. But that statistic masks a vast income disparity. Many students are the children of agricultural workers. Almost half of the community lacks home internet.
A survey of students’ digital needs indicated the district had to supply 25 hot spots and data plans to students who had no other way of connecting to the internet, not even a cell phone.
By that time hot spots were on back order and, although they once had been offered free, they now cost $140 each.
Another vendor had to be found to link the hot spots with a filter that alerts administration if students search an inappropriate phrase.
Two hours of online learning a day was not only an adjustment for the students but for parents, said Robertson. “While one mom might ask why her child is not getting six hours a day of virtual learning, another parent might say, ‘Really? They have to be online every day?'”
Once she and the faculty realized how to team high tech with high touch, the virtual learning got its groove, Robertson said. Kindergartners put on virtual Mother’s Day when they brought their mom for show and tell. Eighth graders posted their science fair online. Each session started with a check-in question, such as students’ favorite pizza toppings.
Robertson, who retired July 1, has devoted much thought to how this chapter in education ultimately will play out.
“We [educators] made mistakes along the way,” she said. “But we modeled to our kids when you do something new you will make mistakes but you keep on trying until you get it right.