By Frances Reade

“We’re thinking about how we can utilize these partnerships to not return to normal per se after COVID is over, but [to think about] how do we use this crisis to our benefit? How can we teach and learn differently?” – Hybrid and Distance Learning Collaborative district participant

Starting this summer, California school districts will begin spending $4.6 billion distributed from the state as Expanded Learning Opportunities (ELO) grants. At the same time, staff in many districts are reflecting on gaps that COVID school shutdowns revealed between schools and the students and families they serve.

Many districts are also reflecting on a year of unprecedented collaboration with people and organizations in their local communities — partnering on supports from distributing food and devices to families, to providing instruction, enrichment, and wellbeing programming — and are looking forward to a new vision of schooling in which learning is more deeply rooted in the everyday strengths of students and families.

This puts district leaders in a unique position to combine these elements — ELO funds, new and strengthened partnerships with outside organizations and providers, and a focus on revitalizing and rethinking leaning and community connections — in novel ways that could more deeply integrate schools with the community and the lives of the people they serve. Schools could become portals through which students, scientists and other professionals, public institutions, and families could interact and inquire about the world together.


Educator and administrator voices in this post

Starting in November, the Hybrid and Distance Learning Collaborative (HDLC) has brought together staff from 22 California school districts to share resources and learning about supporting K–8 students in math and science this year and beyond. As part of the initiative, the Lawrence Hall of Science is conducting a series of interviews with participants to understand the challenges and successes they’ve encountered.

This post and others in this blog series will draw on these interviews to share bright spots, interesting implementation stories, and emerging trends in teaching and learning taken from the two rounds of district interviews.

Not all California districts were eligible for ELO funds, and some are using other funding streams, such as federal relief funds, instead of or in addition to the ELO grant. Regardless of each district’s specific funding mechanisms, it’s clear that the return to in-person learning after widespread school shutdowns caused by COVID offers districts a chance to rethink how to tap into local resources and form lasting partnerships to provide richer instruction.

Guidance from the California Department of Education: “Lead with love, and we’ll get to learning.”

Michael Funk is the Director of the Expanded Learning Division at the California Department of Education (CDE) and the administrator of the ELO program. In a recent podcast with the California STEAM Symposium, “Seize the Moment with Expanded Learning Opportunities Grants,” Funk described his own vision of how districts should approach creating a vibrant recovery: “Lead with love, and we’ll get to learning.”

He encouraged school staff to think of recovery as a community undertaking, to look for community-based organizations that are already positioned to reconnect students and families to schools, and to think of ways to use ELO funds and other relief money to work with these groups to create more comprehensive systems of support around schools, students, and families driven by that communities specific student needs.

“There’s so much flexibility in how this money can be spent,” Funk said, from spending on curriculum to summer programming to field trips to ed tech products. “The reality is … as long as you can, with integrity, tie the expenditure back to supporting the students’ wellbeing, or the family, or your staff, you’re going to be fine. That’s the intention of this funding.”

Creative partnerships and community flourishing: Ideas from HDLC districts

Our HDLC partners at the Lawrence Hall of Science have conducted two rounds of interviews with K–8 staff (including teacher leaders, curriculum and instruction staff and coaches, and administrators) in participating districts to understand how math and science education have been playing out during the 2020–21 school year.

One theme that came through loud and clear was the way in which creative partnerships between districts and outside groups (some new and some predating COVID) have provided students with engaging science learning and new ways to access science instruction and content, and have deepened bonds between schools and the wider communities they serve.

We hope that some of these examples of creative partnerships from HDLC districts can inspire new thinking about ways to re-energize STEM learning in the fall and to forge new connections with local groups and institutions — making schools hubs of rich community support for students and families.


Getting outside: Many school districts were in the midst of adopting new science curricula when the 2019-20 school year began. Others were committed to science instruction that foregrounded hands-on activity and exploration. When COVID struck, science staff told us they struggled with the constraints of online labs, physical material distribution to students, and district encouragement to prioritize math and English language arts instructional time.

For a number of districts, getting students outdoors for science during distance learning, in partnership with groups that specialize in outdoor education, gave everyone the breathing room they needed. One small HDLC district, for example, has a school that borders Bureau of Land Management land. The Bureau provided a “chaperone” who was interested in science education to take students out exploring while traditional classroom science learning was difficult. The partnership is a work in progress: science staff in the district want to better integrate the possibilities of learning on Bureau land with their adopted science curriculum, and the Bureau itself is has balance public land access with its own science and conservation work. But the district reported that both teams are committed to building the relationship to make science education stronger in the future.

Districts also described valuable science and enrichment collaborations with local zoos and ocean institutes, gardening programs such as the Heal Project, birdwatching groups, land trusts and conservation projects, and the Orange County Dept of Education’s Inside the Outdoors program.

“I think that teachers who had access to anything outdoors were thrilled to be able to get any resources around that,” one HDLC participant told us. “And teachers who hadn’t necessarily been focusing on it jumped on board with others, especially if others in our school were doing it.” It required ongoing work to move some of these activities from fun enrichment to activities that support science instruction aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards. However, many districts still wanted to keep the partnerships in place and work on improving the rigor of outdoor activities.

Partnering with scientists and industry: Districts brought scientists and students into conversation with each other by drawing on opportunities provided by distance learning, their new and existing partnerships with local industry, and their partnerships with groups that connect working scientists to classrooms. These partnerships can expose students to science career ideas they might not otherwise learn about, and can help students see the real-world implications of science content.

Several districts who employ project-based learning described working with local public institutions such as the local Air Quality Management District, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the local California State Water Project on inquiries about environmental conditions affecting their communities. These inquiries included a Bay Area district exploring air quality in the region and a rural district exploring local water and pesticide use. Both districts considered these inquiries to be instructionally sound enrichment activities that connect their schools to deeply felt issues in the communities.

Other districts began or continued work with partners that put students in contact with working scientists, either through formal work with groups such as Science From Scientists, or through more informal connections with volunteers from local biotechnology, manufacturing, and dotcom companies. One district described working with two local biotech companies to develop “Skyping a scientist” — a learning opportunity in which biotech workers could present their research to students.

Creative summer offerings: In San Diego, years of partnerships with local industry and philanthropy resulted in Level Up SD: A Summer of Learning and Joy. The Level Up programs offer a wide range of summer enrichment activities to students, using both local district relief funds and philanthropy money. Students can choose from STEM and STEAM offerings such as “delightful hacking,” health wearable technology, robotics, and outdoor education. Unlike previous years’ summer schools, the program is offered to all students.

An HDLC participant from San Diego said the summer programming allows them to expand on instructional approaches that are important to the district: the partnerships “echoe the theme of what we want to see in science, which is integrated experiences that help students identify their interests, explore those interests and tap into more of a project-based, personalized approach. I would say our approach to education is seeping into summer and we’re not going to provide anything that’s not going to reconnect, re-engage, and re-energize kids.”

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) also leveraged partnerships across the city to boost summer enrichment offerings in 2020, including classes on video production with Hollywood professionals and programming from Los Angeles’s many museums. After the success of this programming in summer 2020, the district worked to extend some of it to afterschool in 2020–21, and now into summer 2021.

LAUSD’s approach echoes Michael Funk’s encouragement to use new funding streams and new partnerships to make 2021–22 not just a year of recovery, but a year of revitalization. “We’re thinking about how we can utilize these partnerships to not return to normal per se after COVID is over,” said LAUSD’s HDLC participant. “How do we use this crisis to our benefit? How can we teach and learn differently?”