(Editor’s Note: Though this guest opinion references Oakdale specifically, some of the points are applicable for all schools during this unprecedented ‘distance learning’ and hybrid model approach to education.)
I am writing to defend the compassionate teachers at Oakdale High School who were cast in a very negative and erroneous light in an Oakdale Leader article on Nov. 18. The article “Officials Aiming To Bridge School’s Growing Digital Divide” excoriated our hard-working teachers who apparently “[did] not receive the memo” to be compassionate with our students. Facts were skewed, not a single teacher was interviewed for the article, and the concept of a “digital divide” is misinterpreted and misrepresented.
A growing digital divide implies a chasm between those with access to technology and those without. While this is certainly something playing out in our society, the article’s apparent purpose was to discuss how remote learning is losing students – students, by the way, who do have access to computers. Our district worked tirelessly to ensure all students had computers and hot spots, so that label of “digital divide” is misleading. The issue is not a digital divide, but a much more complicated issue that your newspaper should have further explored.
For example, the article points out – both with a sensationalized photo of a distraught-looking girl in front of a computer and some misleading details – that there has been a 54-percent increase in failing grades in English. This is accurate, but the issue is far more complex than this. The data compared the first quarter of 2019 with the first quarter of 2020. Students and teachers were navigating a completely new and cloudy system of distance learning, where the shock value for students unable to come back to school, coupled with the learning curve for teachers, were at their peak. Once teachers and students settled in, grades overall did go up. I would challenge this reporter to ask our teachers how much they’ve worked with their students to help bring their grades up since that time. I think you would find that publishing numbers at the end of the semester would represent distance learning more accurately.
We fully recognize that this system is not ideal. None of us - students, parents, teachers, and administrators – chose this. These numbers need to be put in the context of a once-in-a-century public health crisis, and I know of no teacher at Oakdale High School who is unwilling to work with students who reach out to us during this pandemic.
It is also important for our community to understand why we maintain high rigor and work standards, i.e. grading and late work policies. It behooves our young people to be accountable so that they are set up for their future. I can’t imagine a parent in our Oakdale community who would ask that we don’t teach their children responsibility and a strong work ethic. While this experience may be uncomfortable and challenging in a way that is not part of a traditional school year, that challenge is an opportunity for our students to develop endurance, perseverance, and perspective. Furthermore, we, as educators, are doing our best to motivate students to these ends; however, that ability to motivate and “have a little grace” becomes impossible when a student does not attend class, visit office hours, or respond to emails.
I firmly believe that our staff has a growth mindset to improve our craft and continue reaching out to students in multiple ways. I know the English Department meets together consistently to discuss students who may be struggling and what we can do to help them. We try to offer encouragement in the best ways possible, and editorializing that “some have stated resolutely that they will not accept any late work … offer extra credit opportunities, regardless of circumstances,” simply does not represent the vast majority of our staff. The article was an affront to our profession and lacked the sensitivity we expect of our community newspaper. It bears repeating that our district’s online schooling is the result of a once-in-a-century public health crisis; to omit this fact out of any reporting is to bury the lede.
To give the Oakdale Leader and the community we value some perspective: My students recently finished reading The Book Thief, a fictional account of the Holocaust told through the perspective of Death. In one student’s final reflection, she said “From The Book Thief we learn that words can hurt and heal: humans can wield words as weapons or as bandages. Words are everything.” I would like to return “the memo” and ask that your words, which are disseminated to many people in this community, be used to do more healing than harm at this time.
We hope that this pandemic will be over soon, and that these challenges will have only constituted seven or eight months of a child’s potentially 13-year-long OJUSD education. Meanwhile, we will continue to work hard to offer the best education possible for our students.
Kelly Olson serves as the Oakdale High School English Department Chairperson. The opinions expressed are those of the author.