My kids, in grades 11, 8 and 5, officially started “remote-learning” this week, as have children all across the nation. Admittedly, we are some of the lucky ones, each of my children has a school-issued Chromebook and is being provided remote instruction. Not all children are so lucky. For many, the job of schooling now falls squarely on the parents’ shoulders.
None of this easy.
As we, and millions of students across the country dive into the world of remote learning I have several thoughts about the process. I’m sharing them to help you keep your sanity during this unconventional time. I have well over fifteen years experience as an education professional (and too many to count as a student) and I have taught at both the elementary and post-secondary levels. I also have experience with online teaching. And, of course, as a mom of three children, the oldest of whom is a junior in high school, I have been engaged in education as a parent for a long time as well.
For the sake of keeping things organized I have divided my thoughts into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly aspects of remote-learning during the global pandemic of COVID-19.
First, the GOOD . . .
1. In the wake of unprecedented, extended school closures administrators have scrambled to piece together various types of educational programming for students stuck at home, while at the same time trying to navigate unclear and, in many cases, ill-communicated state and federal guidelines. I admire their tenacity and think they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. Hats off to them for their commitment to education and students during this difficult time.
2. Teachers all across the country have also exhibited devotion and dedication by reaching out to families, organizing materials and embarking on a fast-tracked independent study of how to teach remotely, all while trying to take care of their own families during this scary time. I know they are working furiously to connect with students and offer effective and meaningful instruction in a brand new format. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
3. For some kids, academic assignments and daily check-ins with teachers and other students will help to provide a schedule and some much needed consistency and predictability to their days. (But, we must remember that this is NOT true for all students).
4. Assignments can serve both as a much-needed distraction and help keep kids’ brains engaged. They can force children to put down their phones or Nintendo Switches and engage in more “productive” pursuits, although in many cases those pursuits are still technology driven. (But please notice I said, “can” – which means this is by no means a guarantee).
5. Federal and state-mandated tests have been canceled in the majority of (perhaps even all) places and that makes this an excellent time to engage students in meaningful and purposeful learning experiences. If teachers think outside the box and allow kids to be creative and follow their imaginations this could be an amazing opportunity to rethink “school”.
And the idealist in me hope that once we emerge from this pandemic and settle into a new normal in this country, that maybe our legislators will realize that true education does not need to revolve on high-stakes testing. That learning can and will occur in the absence of standardized tests and that that learning will be powerful.
Now, the BAD . . .
1. But even as I write that, I acknowledge that this is a stressful time for teachers. While they are not facing the same job insecurity and financial ruin that the rest of America is, they are surely feeling a multitude of stressors and fears at this time. On top of the many uncertainties of daily life they have now been asked to master a completely new skill in less than a week. These teachers are human beings who are likely worried about their own parents, children, spouses, health, and not least of all their students . . . and figuring out how to completely redesign their lesson plans so they work remotely is an added stressor for sure.
2. Speaking of stress, how about all the stress our kids our under right now. They too are watching this pandemic play out in real time and they are scared. The world as they know it is over. They can’t see their friends, participate in activities, play sports, get effective exercise or decompress by just “hanging out.” Some have lost their jobs, others are continuing to work in dangerous environments, and in some families kids are now the sole breadwinners!
Our kids are missing an entire season of their lives – a season which can feel like an eternity when your are young. For some this season was meant to include drivers’ licenses, sports championships, prom and graduation to name a few of the milestones that have now been indefinitely put on hold or outright canceled. Instead of having their entire futures ahead of them, they now have no idea what the future holds.
They are depressed, anxious, frustrated, stir crazy, bored, stressed and emotionally spent. Some of them are spending way more time with grown-ups than they ever wanted to. And others are the primary caregivers for younger siblings.
Their phones, which are akin to an extra appendage, provide them constant access to the news, admittedly from dubious sources. They watch with horror as the death toll rises and the number of confirmed cases multiplies and the virus moves into their own communities.
Some of them are cold, hungry, and have no safe space to call their own. For them, this is not the time for school, but for survival.
Whatever the circumstances facing our students today, the truth is that they are experiencing very difficult times and many are too distracted to learn.
3. There is also the stress on parents. Many parents are trying to work from home, others are maintaining stressful jobs in health care, transportation, grocery stores and other essential work environments, and still others are grappling with recent unemployment and wondering how they are going to pay the bills. Trying to figure out common core math, how to properly read areas of high and low pressure on a weather map or how to properly enter answers on a “Go Formative” assessment form so that the program accepts them as correct, just to name some personal examples, are additional stressors in an already traumatic time.
Most parents are not teachers and have had little day to day involvement in teaching their kids up until now. This is not the time to ask them all to suddenly become homeschooling gurus, a reality that is facing families across the country who don’t have the benefit of technology to assist in instruction.
4. As someone who has experience teaching online, I know that it takes a long time to develop effective online instruction. I surveyed a few of my former colleagues and the consensus is that it requires a minimum of 6-8 weeks to develop a distance learning course. While no-one is expecting perfection in the 3-5 days our teachers had to develop their plans, if this is going to work at all the focus needs to be on simplifying learning goals and unifying systems across a district.
5. For districts like mine that are relying on technology to provide the bulk of instruction, this presupposes that the technology works. Yes, the district provided Chromebooks for most students and internet service providers have stepped up and offered free internet to low income families for the duration of the school shutdowns. But neither of those things means the devices or the programs will work as they are supposed to. In the classroom it was not unusual to call on tech support multiple times in one week. If a program was acting up it could be multiple times in one class session. Just because technology has been provided to the students does not mean that it will work as intended or that there is someone at home who can troubleshoot when it doesn’t.
6. Even if the technology functions as planned, there are still going to be connectivity issues to contend with, especially if multiple classes, schools, or even districts, require students to meet online at a designated time. Just yesterday morning I was kicked off the internet on my phone because all three of my kids were attempting to participate in Google Meets or Hangouts at the same time. Students may also be sharing limited internet service with parents who are working from home. We cannot presume that all kids will be able to access the internet at all times.
7. This is a learning process for everyone – teachers, students and parents alike – and different people will have different aptitudes for remote learning. What really complicates matters is the different expectations, assignments, platforms and requirements of every single teacher. Each of my three children have distinct expectations for each class. This could become very difficult to manage as time goes on. I understand that remote learning plans were formulated individually, without any training, and at the blink of an eye, but the lack of consistency is not easy to contend with.
And finally, the UGLY . . .
1. Let’s just take a minute and think about our current reality. Our economy is in free fall. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. In Pennsylvania we are days into an unofficial quarantine, but freedom of movement has been greatly restricted throughout the U.S. People are getting sick and dying everyday. Every story suggest that things are going to keep getting worse. Our elected officials can’t put politics aside to help the American people and a stimulus package has failed for the second time. Government officials are self-isolating. Leaders are making rash, unilateral decisions that are often not based on facts. These are unprecedented times in America.
2. This is not the time for rigor. Teachers, students and parents are all completely stressed out. I’ve read a number of different recommendations from states and local districts about what learning should look like right now, but I do not feel we have received an adequate definition from our district. In any event, this is not the time to pile on the work or push kids to master hard content. Their brains just can’t take it right now. They are exhausted, emotionally drained, distracted and unfocused. Incidentally that sentence is 100% true about myself as well. Please be kind in your expectations and give them the grace they deserve. I know this isn’t fully applicable for students trying to complete AP courses right now, but I hope the College Board will also take the suggestion of grace seriously this year.
3. Similarly, this is not the time for busywork. Don’t make kids do meaningless assignments just to check a box. One of my children is currently required to complete a PSSA practice packet and then enter his responses online daily. Um, in case you didn’t get the memo, the PSSAs have been canceled. This is a boring, meaningless, uninspiring assignment even when preparing for the state tests. Since we have been given this one reprieve this year, could we perhaps put aside the workbook and assign a meaningful and engaging experience instead.
4. Studies have shown that stress leads to a weakened immune system. And right now, we all need robust immune systems to fight this virus. A great deal of stress cannot be eradicated – fears about health, isolation, loneliness, missed milestones, unemployment, financial ruin . . . the list goes on. Let’s make sure that we are not adding remote learning to the list of added stressors for kids or adults.
5. I’m sorry to report this, but it’s possible that the programs currently in place will not continue in their current iteration. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts provide an equal education to all students, including those with special needs, and the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) guidelines may expose districts to liability because of how these remote learning programs are being operated or necessitate the suspension or modification of existing programs. So there is no guarantee that the work our children are currently doing will count in the end.
6. Finally, these are not normal times. Not in the least. Expecting students and teachers to continue with learning “as normal” is not realistic. Americans are being repeatedly reminded that this is not the time for business as usual. That should apply to the business of school as well.
A few final thoughts:
On Thursday I am going to write about the many ways in which students are learning from the global pandemic even without formal instruction, so check back then if you want some added reassurance that your child’s brain is not going to turn to mush.
I also thought I’d share my kids’ assessments of how remote learning is going so far:
Kyle: “I love it!” Translation: he loves sleeping to 9:30, doing math in his pajamas with a cup of coffee in hand (I know, no-one needs to write me about my 11-year-old drinking coffee) and finishing all his school work before noon. I may not get him back to regular school.
Kelly: “It’s stupid.” She sees most of the material assigned as a “waste of time,” and acknowledges that she has already learned most of what she needs to for 8th grade. She’s my straight A student and is frustrated by the lack of competence of some of her teachers to teach online and the lack of clear expectations from the teachers and the district. One of her teachers is giving an “assessment” today – even though I thought there was to be no new content assigned nor assessing during this time period?
Kevin: “I hate it!” To be fair, Kevin hates school in general. The only parts he enjoys are the projects and debates in history class, hanging out with his friends and playing music in various bands – none of which are happening online. “It’s all the worst parts of school with none of the good stuff.” I share this because I don’t think his opinion can be discounted. In fact, I think it is probably what a lot of our kids are thinking right now.
Until next time, stay safe!