It’s no surprise that schools were one of the first institutions that had to be closed to enforce the social distancing command brought about by COVID-19. Just ask any teacher-school is Social Fun Central for kids, right? But compulsory free education is a law, too, so how do we deal with this conundrum? With online distance learning, of course.
Well, as a retired teacher, and one who did not grow up in the computer age, I have concerns about how well this will work to educate our kids. I’ll admit it; I am old school. So I did another informal, anonymous, unscientific survey of teachers and students to find out what they, the soldiers in the trenches of the education war with the virus, are experiencing as they work with distance learning.
I spoke to elementary and secondary teachers first, and it was obvious that it didn’t matter what age students they teach, the teachers missed them. Even the ones who act up on occasion! I also picked up a few comments from some of the parents of these home-bound students. Then I talked to elementary and secondary students and a couple of college students from five school districts, urban and rural, and one college.
The teachers who shared their thoughts on distance learning with me felt like their districts were doing the very best they could under the circumstances. I heard comments that it’s the best substitute [for school] we have right now, it’s a good solution to a unique problem, that we are dealing with these uncharted waters the best we can. And really, what other choice do we have? Teachers are dedicated to kids and learning, or they wouldn’t be teachers, so of course they are rising to the occasion and relying on the obvious other way to reach the students-computers and the Internet. District administrators and teachers are having to hurdle the learning curve with online tools and are discovering there are many of them that offer real benefits and are helpful in getting lessons done. And while those tools are out there to help, more communication between parents and teacher was mentioned by everyone as being one of the best tools to come out of this situation. Even in a regular classroom setting, parent/teacher/student interaction plays a vital role in student success; now phone calls, texts, emails, and the use of Messenger have increased as parents are having to take a more active role in their child’s education since they are the adult supervising what goes on in the home classroom. Elementary age students in particular need more help at home understanding how to use the computer and learning the lessons necessary for promotion to the next grade in the upcoming school year, whether that turns out to be online or back at school. I was told that building relationships with parents is what needs to happen, and then it needs to become the norm.
But all that available help at home also brings up another problem: is the student really doing the work? Accountability can be an issue even with classroom assigned homework, but with everything happening at home, more of a temptation presents itself, and the teachers were concerned about that, too.
Then of course there is the issue of state accountability and the STARR test, all of which have simply gone away for the time being. District accountability with the state has gone away, and students will not be held accountable for scores this year or next, so this might pave the way for a completely new and better system. Or none at all. One can hope.
Some districts have provided all students, but particularly those in high school, with Chromebooks or laptops or tablets of some sort that go home with them to do the assignments and send that work to the teachers. Some districts don’t have the funds to do this, and students have to provide their own devices, and that can present a problem. Some students have good Internet service; others, perhaps not so good. I was told slow and unpredictable Internet can also be a problem for teachers trying to load assignments and receive student work.
I had one teacher in tears who was concerned about not being able to reach students at the appropriate level when they can be taught in the classroom one on one when there is so much out of the teacher’s control with online learning. This teacher, like others I spoke with, wanted a more personal connection with the student because of individual differences. This also makes it harder for students to ask questions of the teachers when it is needed. And kids just need that human contact, whether they realize it or not. They need interaction, not only with the teachers, but also with other kids. Based on what I was told, I think most teachers really hope the kids get to finish the year at school, even if it is only for the month of May.This would provide closure for all concerned.
I was told this system provides some flexibility and options, which in some cases becomes a burden since it makes it hard to choose which option to use and creates information overload. Teachers are learning how to teach online, rewording and rewriting for clearer instruction. Home life for many students has changed with many becoming the caretakers of smaller children also home and out of school. Some have taken jobs to help out, which cuts into their study time. For students who are self-starters, intrinsically motivated, online learning moves right along. Students who recognize they are not self-motivated told me it is easy to get distracted and they sometimes need a push and help from siblings and parents; not always a bad thing, but what if they don’t get that push or wind up getting the assignment done by someone else? The consensus of the teachers is that basically the kids who will work hard in class will work hard online, and the kids who don’t want to do it in class certainly aren’t going to be motivated to do it at home.
One urban contact mentioned an idea that has been floating around in that area that involves a possible online solution to the frantic building of more high schools in the area. Basically it would put all major sports occurring after the school day so sports would not involved scheduling a class time for them, and kids could participate in sports all year if they wanted to. Students would choose which semester to go to school and which semester to do online learning at home; then switch and do the other option the next semester, thereby cutting down on the number of kids using the building at one time. This all sounds well and good until it was pointed out to me by a parent that it would be leaving teenagers at home in many cases unsupervised during the online semester, not a perfect plan when dealing with all teenagers. Come on, think back to your teenage years and remember all the things you did that, at the time, seemed like a really good idea, but weren’t. We might want to rethink that one. But now that educators will come away from all this with more online learning involvement, this idea may resurface in the future.
More than one teacher fears that as the school population does become comfortable and more proficient with online instruction, school administrators may see this as a solution to offer more online classes rather than hire more classroom teachers. Besides putting some teachers out of work, this just takes away more of that personal one on one contact between teachers and students.
Another educator hopes this situation will show the extent to which public schools play a much bigger role in society than people realize. Consider that schools provide lunches, are a form of childcare because kids have a place to be during the day. gives access to school nurses and exercise through PE classes, and the one on one attention for school work needed for special needs children that the parents now have to provide, without the help of an aide, I might add. Perhaps parents who are struggling with kids at home will realize how much school filled the need for technological support and personal teacher interaction. There is also concern about kids from divorced families who spend summer time with a different parent in a different town and aren’t available for catch-up classes in the summer.
Teachers are having to learn appropriate amounts of homework and projects to assign, and this has created frustration for students and parents when work for one class may take all day, leaving no time for the other subjects. This is one of those uncharted territory problems, and teachers and administrators are addressing the issue after being made aware of it by parents. Some students even questioned whether all the work would be graded, that perhaps they would only get a check mark or something for just turning it in.
One teacher did see this computer focus as a positive, giving younger teachers a chance to be mentors to the older, less computer-savvy veteran teachers who helped the young teachers at the start of their teaching careers.
Which brings us to the students who are having a school year like no other they have ever experienced. Several students I visited with brought up many of the same student concerns regardless of their age or grade level. I did talk to more parents of younger elementary kids rather than the kids themselves, since I was afraid talking to the kids would just stress them out more, but parents knew what was bothering them just hearing their comments. The younger kids were missing their friends and teachers and were ready to go back school, but were dealing with homework the best they could. Many elementary teachers are doing things like recording activities and reading books to them on You Tube, sharing other links on You Tube, Class Dojo, Google Classroom, and other helpful links, and making suggestions for ways parents could help reinforce some concepts at home with the kids. On the other hand, distance learning was seen as one way these younger kids would be better prepared to use technology in the future. Some districts dealt with the technology issue for the little ones by making sure those without computers at home were provided with tablets to take home when schools had to close.
High school students definitely missed their friends and the memories they will not be able to make. Seniors, in particular, mentioned missing a great deal of memory-making opportunities, like prom, and positive experiences, like a full graduation ceremony. One said it seemed like school just went away. Seniors, I think, will be some of the hardest hit by all this and miss the most, and those planning on college in the fall may or may not be ready. The amount of homework has been overwhelming in many cases, and yet a few said the work was easier, and they didn’t have to study as much as they would have in school. The lack of actual teacher contact when an explanation or more instruction would help is a minus. Cancelled sporting events are being sorely missed. One student said it is too easy to be distracted, but another said it just feels like a good break. A few students mentioned liking the time at home with family.
The high school students are not happy with the pass-fail system that some districts and colleges are adopting, and college students are definitely not happy with it, either. It rankled them that they worked hard all year to raise their GPA and the kids who just coast and make a C- will get the same credit they do. Class rankings are also in question. One college student said being at home keeps him from having a quiet place to study and focus on school.
Only time will tell whether or not students are learning what they need to learn for their next year in school or college, but they are learning. Those who might have been less proficient on the computer will improve that skill, but some will still fall throw the cracks. even though everyone involved is trying to keep that from happening. Of course, some of the same problems mentioned with online learning are the same problems teachers deal with in the classroom. That is a given. But no matter how valuable technology can be as a learning too, based on what I was told by teachers and students, a computer will never take the place of a real live teacher.
So I will leave you with this. One student told me this should be looked upon as a challenge which should make us stronger and help us work harder in the future.
Not a bad way to look at things, I must say.
Thank you to the many anonymous teachers, students, and parents who graciously shared their thoughts with me for this story.