What started a week ago as a phone call between the Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent and the leader of the city’s flagship PBS stations has quickly turned into a massive at-home learning initiative being implemented by public TV stations across the country.
As concerns continued to grow over the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19), LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner contacted PBS SoCal/KCET CEO Andrew Russell on Sunday, March 8 with a question: Could the school district, which operates its own, smaller PBS TV station (KLCS-Channel 58) partner with the market’s two major public broadcasters (PBS SoCal/KOCE-Channel 50 and KCET-Channel 28) to help serve students should schools be shut down?
Both sides wasted no time springing into action. By March 12, a day before before LAUSD confirmed that students would be sent home and taught via remote learning, PBS SoCal and KCET (which merged operations in 2018) announced an unprecedented plan to program its two channels, plus KLCS, during he day with educational programs and resources.
The “At Home Learning” program launched on Monday with programs geared toward Pre-K through Grade 3 on PBS SoCal; Grades 4 through 8 on KLCS; and Grades 9 through 12 on KCET. PBS LearningMedia, an online resource previously geared toward teachers, has now also been opened up for students.
“It’s amazing the work we have done just in the last week,” Russell told Variety. “We didn’t have a contingency plan, we had to develop it as quickly as we could.”
Planning for the service got underway last Monday, March 9, starting with a 9:30 a.m. meeting where LAUSD shared its needs, and PBS SoCal/KCET highlighted the program resources that were available.
“At public media, we’ve always supported teacher-based learning, classroom-based learning and so educational service to he home is really not what we’ve been doing. But we had a lot of resources, media resources to tap,” Russell said. “In LAUSD’s case, 25 percent of their students would not have any online access. And also we realized that for students that might have some online access, that may be diminishing as parents start working from home.”
Also, both sides discussed how to launch the service quickly with very limited communication between teachers and their students.
From there, by 11:30 a.m. LAUSD curriculum specialists and PBS SoCal/KCET were in a programming war room, mapping out priorities by grade, and identifying shows inside the TV stations’ library that might match up. Also, San Francisco PBS station KQED was brought in, and took the lead in developing an online service to match the broadcast service being developed in Los Angeles.
Among shows adapted for the service: “Nova” for middle schoolers; Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” for high school, and PBS Kids series “Peg + Cat” and “Cyberchase” for early elementary school kids.
PBS SoCal/KCET put together an initial two-week schedule to kick off “At-Home Learning.” Because of the quick launch, the stations looked first at programs that they already had broadcast rights to air. But several programs had only been cleared for classroom use, and not for broadcast, which means PBS SoCal/KCET has also been racing to obtain those rights (and relying on PBS and other stations like WGBH Boston to do so).
“There are a few programs that we hope to use but need a little more time to go into clearances,” Russell said. “So that’s moved to the rights people to see if we can get additional uses and additional rights clearances to provide this kind of service to students in these really extraordinary times.”
Meanwhile, At-Home Learning launched on Monday with a handful of interstitials between programs, but PBS SoCal/KCET is also quickly producing intros and outros to shows in order to frame the instructional elements of these shows.
“Our production team, they are writing scripts, producing additional spots and we’ll have those as interstitial inventory that stations can access from around the country,” Russell said. “To build up those blocks of time in between programs we had a team working over the weekend and working with teachers to help. Right before programs and right after programs we’re building basic introductions, telling students the kind of things they should look for and think about. At the end of the program, now here are a couple of key questions for you to think about based on what you saw. We’ll be folding those in through this week. And so our goal was every show where that’s appropriate to have that open and that close to underscore that education that’s going on in the program.”
PBS SoCal/KCET has been planning and producing all of this while simultaneously sending most of its staff to work from home, which has given the project an added layer of complexity, Russell said.
“Of course, some of this work in order to deliver the service requires some people to be here,” he said. “We’re going to a mandatory work at home for our company with limited exceptions where people simply can’t do that and we need their commitment and work in order to continue to offer the service. I know the stations in San Francisco went to remote operation on Thursday. So we’re having to run this thing while at the same time run remote operation.”
Other PBS stations in California and across the nation are now following the PBS SoCal/KCET plan, including Sacramento’s PBS station, which launched a similar service on Monday. “Many PBS stations are following the California partnership closely and thinking about the services they provide, their community needs, and how they can do something similar,” a PBS spokesperson said. “More partnership announcements will be rolling out over the coming days.”
According to the America’s Public Television Stations (APTS) organization, other stations organizing curriculum efforts for local school districts include KPBS San Diego; WGBH Boston and WGBY Springfield in Massachusetts; Detroit Public TV in Michigan; Nine Network in St. Louis, Mo.; OETA in Oklahoma; and WHRO Norfolk, Va.
“As we working through and designing how we would approach it, first we started thinking about Southern California and then pretty quickly as we started reaching out to other stations we realized that stations around the state would be interested, and then potentially around the country,” Russell said. “We’re a very collaborative system by nature, and they were interested in our work. I was connecting with WGBH in Boston, which was being asked by the state of Massachusetts to develop a service to serve the state. I was on the phone with the CEO of Houston PBS and Texas, those stations are working on a plan to serve all of Texas with this kind of service. Word was quickly getting out collaboratively what we’re doing and by the time it got to Friday, PBS sent out the broadcast schedule to all stations in the system to let them know that this was available to them.”
Russell credits LAUSD for getting the ball rolling. According to stats from the school district, Los Angeles Unified serves almost 700,000 students spread across more than 700 square miles. About 80% of students come from families living in poverty, 73% of students are Latino, 8% are African-American and 13% are students with disabilities. Los Angeles Unified serves more than 17,000 students who are homeless and about 24,000 students with moderate to severe disabilities. An estimated 50% of students in Los Angeles Unified lack the digital tools (computer or tablet) to participate in online curriculum and 25% of families lack access to the internet at home.
“We want to continue to provide the best possible education for our students, even in the event of a significant number of school closures for an extended period of time,” Beutner said. “So we asked PBS to work with us with a simple goal: We know what good looks like, let’s find a way to share it with our students.”