CEIS Alumnae Talk Education in the Time of COVID-19

Sue Johnson and Ether AnumbaAnaheim’s Savanna Elementary School District Superintendent Sue Johnson and Ethel Anumba, an assistant principal with the Pomona Unified School District, are grappling with something they have never faced in their combined more than six decades in education – a global pandemic. 

COVID-19 forced the shutting of school campuses and required teachers, administrators and staff to quickly transition from the traditional classroom to virtual instruction. In this Q&A, Johnson (’79, liberal studies), a 41-year educator and chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s Partners in Education fellowship program, and Anumba (’15, doctorate in educational leadership), a former special education teacher with 26 years in education, discuss how they have adapted to the changes. 

What has the transition been like for your school or district to remote learning from traditional in-classroom instruction?  

Johnson: Surreal was the word for it. I don’t know how else to explain it. Nobody in Orange County was going to even think about shutting down. We had a conference call, and I can’t believe how fast that changed in a one-hour conversation. The kids went home on March 13. Two weeks later was our scheduled spring break. We kept holding out a candle of hope that we were coming back at the end of March and or the first of May. We kept moving the return date because I really wanted them to be able to come back. We serve a population that can’t be out of school. This is their safe place. 

Anumba: Although it was a novel and unprecedented challenge, transitioning to online learning was successful in our district. Professional development for staff on how to use Zoom for meetings, teaching and learning took place before online learning started. Fortunately, three years ago, we began to implement 1:1 Chromebook program (students were given Chromebooks and hot spots as needed to enhance their learning). So, when we transitioned to online learning, our students already had the tools they needed to learn. District leadership provided guidelines along the way. The level of student participation in online learning, however, began to decrease toward the end of the school year. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected how you do your job? Have your responsibilities changed or increased? 

Johnson: It is significantly different. The expectations are more 24/7. You lose all track of days and times. We are planning how we do registration for 2021, but the news and public health guidelines change rapidly. Sometimes you get something on Monday morning, and by Monday afternoon, it has changed. It’s like whiplash. 

I’m proud that we provided childcare for our essential workers and we served 100,000 meals to children in the district. The teachers did a great job with virtual instruction. 

The school year starts on Aug. 10, and both a virtual program and in-person program will be offered, which based on what we heard from a parent survey. 

Anumba: COVID-19 has completely changed school administration both positively and negatively. Positively, it has forced us to embrace technology as a common tool with which we do our job on a daily basis. We received access to work at home using Q/Zangle (our district’s server and data system) that was previously available only at the school sites. Our responsibilities remained the same. However, the impact is that I see myself working longer hours daily. On a negative note, COVID has robbed us of vital human connection. I miss interacting with students and staff members. “Seeing” them on Zoom is completely different from what we were used to and may have taken for granted before COVID. 

What has been the most difficult aspect of transitioning to a virtual model? What are some of the challenges of remote learning for students and educators? 

Johnson: The most difficult aspect has been making sure everybody connects, everybody is engaged and everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing. It’s also making sure we provide support for parents. Families may be sharing just one computer at home for parents to use for work and the student needing it for school. I am glad to see state legislature coming out with guidelines for what distance learning should look like. 

Anumba: Loss of physical connection has been the most difficult in my opinion. Among students, the greatest challenge was fear of the unknown, fear for their health and well-being and those of their families and loss of motivation toward online learning once they learned that their grades would not be impacted negatively. 

What have you learned about yourself as an educator and a person through this experience? 

Johnson: I don’t know how to answer that. I know it has been really hard. The goal has always been keeping the focus on the kids. We have to make it safe for kids. I worry that we have a whole generation of children who may have missed first grade or fifth grade. How are we going to make up that learning loss? Instruction is inconsistent across the state. Everybody has done it differently. 

Anumba: It has enabled me to reflect, re-examine my priorities and put things in perspective. It has helped me to stay focus on what matters most.  

How have the teachers and staff adapted to the many changes?  

Johnson: I cannot tell you how proud I am of all that our staff accomplished during distance learning! I saw amazing lessons that were posted to YouTube, heard many stories of teachers providing instruction online, watched as parents navigated distance learning for the first time, stood with an awesome team of classified staff who served nearly 100,000 meals to children in our community in three months, and witnessed each and every Savanna staff member stepping up to help whenever and wherever needed.  This was awe-inspiring, as well as humbling, and I cannot say how impressed I was as I watched Savanna staff rise to the challenge we were presented with on such short notice. They are truly an amazing group of professionals who demonstrated their care and concern for our students, parents, and community through this challenging time. As we continue to expand our foray into distance learning, I have had many opportunities to enhance my own learning as I tried new sites, new programs and new ways to communicate. 

Anumba: I am most proud of how some teachers went above and beyond to differentiate instruction and support for students during online learning, especially for students who are receiving special education services. One teacher held private Zoom sessions for special ed students in her English classes. At Fremont Academy of Engineering and Design, we have a full inclusion/co-teaching program where both general ed and special education students are in the same classes and have access to the core curriculum from the same teacher. However, some special education students require more accommodations and modifications to be successful. One particular teacher wasn’t required to host private Zoom sessions for her students, but she did so because she felt it was the right thing to do for them. It really touched my heart to see this — equity in action!