Michelle Murphy (B.A. 89, M.A. 90) received the Alumnus of Point Loma (APL) award at PLNU’s 2019 Homecoming. Murphy is superintendent of the Rim of the World Unified School District.

She previously spent three years as the Coachella Valley District’s chief technology officer (CTO) in addition to multiple years spent as a teacher and administrator. The Viewpoint asked Murphy to share a bit about how her district has had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

California schools were closed for in-person instruction starting the week of March 16.

How did you go about planning the transition to remote learning for students in your district?

The first week the shutdown was expected to be temporary, so we used the four snow days we had left on the calendar. After that, our district provided learning packets that could be accessed online or be picked up to give teachers two weeks to plan for the transition to remote learning. Then, we had spring break. We started the Monday after Easter with teachers taking over learning. During our month of teacher transition, the state [of California] went to full closure for the year.

What kinds of things had to happen during the transition time?

The first day, we put chart paper up and listed problems and questions: How will we develop a plan for continued learning during this time? How will we meet students’ need for food? Who will come into the schools and offices? Who is essential? We worked a lot more hours, but it was so great to see people being innovative and caring about each other — not that they weren’t before, but it’s different. 

What does school look like now?

School is not six hours a day right now. We want to provide some routine and supplemental learning; we want to keep kids’ brains active and check in with them. Not all students have remained engaged.

Is that partly due to technology access and materials?

Probably 30% of our students don’t have computers and the internet at home. We don’t have enough Chromebooks to give them out, but we have applied for Chromebooks and devices from the state. Right now, kids with computers and internet access can download materials and use Google Classroom and Zoom. Otherwise, on Wednesdays, students can pick up learning packets, and we are giving out library books for free. 

With the challenges, how are you handling student grades and assessment?

For this year, their third quarter grade will be their final grade. Supplemental work they do can raise their grade but not lower it. For high school seniors, those grades are important. State testing for this school year has been canceled. 

We’ve heard about how many students depend on school lunches to meet their nutritional needs.

How has your district been able to help with this?

On Wednesdays, we are giving out meals along with a grab-and-go bag to help students throughout the week. We’ve served more than 60,000 meals to the 3,100 students in our district this way. In addition, one of our school board members opened a food bank for the community, and four of our board members are delivering meals to people who don’t have the means to come to school every Wednesday. 

What are some of the other ways your district has been working to support families during this time?

We have a parent page on our website with a schedule that includes play and exercise. We’ve asked ourselves how we can take care of our seniors. We considered options like doing prom in the summer and graduation on video or as a drive-through and using an FM radio station for audio. We also have banners outside the school that say we love you, we miss you, Stay Rim Strong. We have completed the Adopt-A-Senior program, provided yard signs for all 210 seniors, and have a planned a senior parade for across the mountain. We have also adopted an online concierge service to connect students to counseling. So far over 288 referrals have been made since the closure. 

How are teachers in your district coping with all the changes?

Our teachers are appreciating the flexibility for determining what works for them and their students. Some districts are dictating curriculum and grading, but we wanted to consider that our teachers have to take care of their own families, too. I’ve received teacher texts and emails thanking me for the flexibility and ability to innovate we’ve given them. Seeing them volunteering with the food bank and meal delivery is really encouraging. We’ve also seen really positive collaboration with the teachers’ union and classified union. Everyone is focused on what’s important. Testing isn’t the most important thing right now. Connections to kids and families are the most important.

How are you, personally, doing?

I’m stressed and excited. I’ve always been a lifelong learner. This is kind of what I thrive upon; I love rising to the occasion. I have led our management team through the process of writing a strategic plan for reopening schools in August. This plan is for our employees as we wait for guidelines from the California Department of Education on this topic. I also have weekly virtual meeting at both the county and state level. 

Related story: Alumnus of Point Loma (APL) Awardee: Michelle Murphy

At the time of this interview, much is unknown about what next school year will be able to look like. What do you do in that kind of situation?

We work on plans for our current situation weekly. As soon as the government releases new guidelines, we can make concrete plans for next school year. Possible scenarios include 100% of the students returning to campus in August with new routines in place, 50% of our students being on campus at a time, and continuing distance learning full time. We don’t know what next year will look like, but we ask ourselves questions like: How do we plan to make this better if we go into a school closure again? How can we use the resources we have to get Chromebooks to families and get better at the craft of teaching this way? If we are able to return, how do we do this safely? Will we need to have staggered schedules? How will we address passing periods, locker rooms, and lunchrooms? What backwards mapping do we need to do to assess what students have missed, and how can we catch them up?

This has been a stressful time for educators. Can some good come from what has happened?

I think this will definitely open up teachers’ minds to new ways of teaching and learning. For teachers who didn’t use technology before, maybe they see how easy it is to collect assignments through Google Classroom and won’t have to carry home a box of papers anymore. Maybe young people can see an opportunity to use their technology skills and be creative and make a difference. The innovation and the rapport being built with students, the service to our community, these are good things. 

The Viewpoint would like to thank Michelle Murphy and all the PLNU alumni serving in the education field for all they do for their students.

Christine is the editor of the Viewpoint magazine at PLNU.