She got the idea from text messages from her cousins in Shanghai and Italy.

“My cousin in Shanghai had gotten quarantined very early on in January,” said Helen Chan Hill, a Pasadena Unified School District administrator. “Then my cousins in Italy got locked down… And then they all were saying, ‘Well, you’re crazy Helen if you don’t think that this [will happen] to you in another week or so.’ So I called my team in, about a week before we canceled school, and said, ‘We need to start planning.’”

PUSD’s director of curriculum and professional development, Hill is the architect behind the district’s online education platform that students currently use while schools are shut down. She and her team planned for the scenario her cousins in Shanghai and Italy described: a total lockdown.

With COVID-19 devastating other parts of the world, Hill asked her cousins for advice and tips for how to teach students during the pandemic. Soon, Hill and her team began to create a way for students to continue their education from home. They structured the online classroom through three stages. Stage 1 would begin immediately after the dismissal of schools on March 16. Hill and her team created an online platform filled with general learning content in order to give teachers and students time to adjust and prepare for online learning. 

“It was two to three weeks of material,” said Hill. “We were able to say to our teachers that first Monday morning, ‘We’re all in shock, but you’ve got time. Don’t freak out. You have two weeks for you to design your own custom online classroom.’”

In this time, PUSD supplied Google Chromebooks to all students so every student had a device to view the online platform.

After the two weeks, plus the one-week spring break on April 6, Stage 2 began as teachers implemented their own content. They posted their lessons online through videos and interacted with their students via discussion and assignments in the online classrooms.

Once teachers and students were eased into the online classrooms, PUSD began Stage 3 on April 20. Teachers and students would now meet via webcam.


Different Kinds of Learners

“It was so abrupt,” Sarah Lazo, who teaches the sixth grade at Marshall Fundamental School, said about the last in-person day of school. “I think when we all left we thought it was going to be for a week, maybe two. I don’t think any of us realized that it was going to go through the end of the school year.”

Lazo, like all teachers in Stage 3, has taken over the classroom, teaching her students through the online portal. She hosts a meeting every weekday at 1 p.m., creates video lessons and tries to connect with her students through a screen.

“It’s not the same, it’s definitely not the same,” said Lazo. “Everybody has a different family situation right now. Some of them aren’t able to show up at that one o’clock time. And that’s the part I miss the most, because I don’t get that connection with all of them.”

She also tries to give her students a chance to connect with one another, ending each class meeting with jokes, riddles and would you rather questions.

Lazo acknowledges that the change from in-person to an online classroom has been a hectic change, but she strives to give her students the best education possible.

“We always try to clearly explain stuff, but in the classroom you’re able to bring in different experiences because there are so many different types of learners,” said Lazo. “Being on a Chromebook, how do we help those kinesthetic learners or my English Language learners?… I’ve had to figure out some ways to adapt and bring some stuff to help them out.”

Lazo has figured out several ways to help her students, one of which is to post videos of her reading textbook assignments to the students so they can follow along with her. In subjects such as history and science Lazo takes time to define some of the harder vocabularies for her students.

Lazo admits that while she tries to tend to her own psyche, she spends most of her time ensuring her students and her own children are fine.

“Sometimes myself does get pushed to the side a little bit,” she said. “But I do try to kind of refill my cup, if you will, at the end of each day — even if it’s only for a little bit. Most of my time is on my students and my own kids right now.”

After talking about the mental toll her job has taken on her, Lazo reflected on her time before teaching when she worked as an executive for Target.

“I made a lot more money, but I did not love my job,” said Lazo. “Target felt like work.”

However, even in these uncertain times, Lazo finds the sacrifices that she made necessary for the success of not only her own children but her students as well.

“I always say every year I have 64 kids or sometimes 72,” said “You get just as invested in their success as you do your own kids.”


No Child Left Behind

While PUSD has tried to provide children with best education possible during a global pandemic, Hill acknowledges the challenges of remote learning.

“None of us are going to penalize kids or parents if kids don’t turn in things [or] if kids didn’t get a chance to work on something,” said Hill. “We already know and are planning for the fall to do a whole lot of differentiation to address [learning] gaps.”

While nothing is yet set in stone, Hill hopes to give universal diagnostics to students. The purpose of these tests is to diagnose the level of understanding a child has of a subject. While these tests were common pre-COVID-19, Hill hopes to expand these to all students for at least math, English and language arts. This would also allow faculty to group these students together to address their gaps in learning.

Hill also hopes to involve more workshop-type classes for smaller groups to learn.

“You know which kids are struggling with the same topic so group them,” said Hill. “Don’t try to work with the 40 kids who don’t all need that. Just work with the seven that do.”

Hill describes the process further as teaching a small group with a specific lesson, then allowing them to work independently while the educator teaches another group their specific lesson.

The efforts of PUSD faculty and staff have left a positive impression on some parents.

“Honestly, I don’t how you’d do you it any differently,” said Laura Diaz Allen, parent engagement director of Pasadena Education Network. “I was very surprised. I thought they were doing a fantastic job.

“I can’t complain. I normally do. Normally, I’m that person that’s like ‘what about this? And what about that?’ Now, I don’t know how they could do a better job given the population and the circumstances.”