Equity & Diversity

Teachers Scramble to Make Remote Learning Work: ‘It’s Very Stressful’

By Sarah Schwartz — March 18, 2020 7 min read
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Now that most states have closed schools in response to the coronavirus, teachers have found themselves planning for remote learning for the foreseeable future, often with a few days—or a few hours—notice.

But what this looks like is different from district to district, and even classroom to classroom. Some teachers have put together physical or virtual packets that they hope will bridge the gap for the few weeks their districts are shut down. Others have been asked to move their entire classroom online, conducting instruction live.

Still, many are facing the same questions: How do I make sure that students without internet access get the same resources as students with connectivity at home? Can we create a classroom community virtually? And what do I do when the technology fails?

And now, teachers are facing another hurdle: The potential that schools may stay closed longer than originally planned, possibly through the end of the year. On Tuesday, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that schools would shut down through the 2019-20 year. That same day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a news conference that the schools in his state would most likely stay closed for the rest of the academic year as well (the governor has not shut down schools statewide).

See also: Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

Anji Williams, a secondary English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, has already thought about the possibility of having to design more remote assignments.

“If you think you’re going to send kids home with a packet, and that’s going to be a substitute for being in a classroom for two weeks, it isn’t,” she said. Still, she said it was the best option when teachers started planning for a potential shut down earlier last week.

She knows, from a survey that the school sent out before the closures, that most of her students have internet access. But a lot of them rely on their phone to connect and have limited data. “They’re not going to have the same options,” she said.

When the school system announced last Friday that the district was closing, teachers had prepared a set of eight different assignments for each course, Williams said. She also took students to her class library and her school library, so they could stock up on books before they left.

“They’ve built a level of fluency; they’re enjoying their reading a little more,” said said. “That’s really hard, cutting that off.”

Her students have access to her through the school’s learning management system. On Tuesday night, she got her first message, from a student who was struggling with the work.

Not knowing how often kids will reach out for help, or how much they’ll be able to continue doing schoolwork at all, “that’s really scary,” Williams said. And she worries about equity. “My students who achieve at a higher academic level are going to benefit more from this. And my students who are struggling are going to lose more time,” she said.

Williams’ plans are for mostly asynchronous learning. But teachers in other districts have been asked to hold real-time classes, which they say come with another set of challenges.

“Teachers are getting up every day, trying to figure out how to teach on platforms they haven’t been taught how to use, in 24 hours time,” said Tyneisha Hamilton, a 5th grade teacher in Henry County schools in Georgia. Her district is using Google tools for remote lessons, she said.

On Monday, the district’s first day of remote learning, Hamilton logged onto Google Meet for her first class. About half of her students had also joined, but she couldn’t see their faces. They had been blocked for privacy reasons. Kids could only reply through the chat.

“As an educator, if you planned an activity and can’t see their faces, how effective is that lesson?” Hamilton said.

Everyone at the district has been supportive and responsive, especially in fixing technical problems, like helping students and teachers log on, she said. Still, Hamilton had been expecting a different experience. She’s taught online before, tutoring students one-on-one through VIPKid, a Beijing-based company that matches English teachers with kids in China for virtual lessons.

That platform allows teachers and students to see each other, Hamilton said. “How much am I really teaching you, if I can’t see you model?” she asked.

‘I Can’t Just Pause My Curriculum’

For other teachers, the process has gone more smoothly.

Michael Quist, a high school chemistry and Spanish teacher in Eminence, Ky., put together a week-long packet when he found out on Thursday that his district wouldn’t be coming back on Monday. He also uploaded everything onto Google Classroom.

All assignments are due on Friday—students can progress at their own pace, and then upload their work to the site or take a picture of the completed hard copy. Quist is available by email for questions.

So far, things are going pretty well. “I’ve been surprised about how many are actually taking it really seriously,” he said. But Quist acknowledges that he may have a head start when it comes to this kind of instruction.

For years, he’s taught with a mastery-based approach: Students have a lot of practice working on different projects at different paces, and Quist has experience managing that kind of schedule.

Quist’s school system also supports students in the rural community who have spotty internet access—they can dispatch WiFi-equipped school buses to key locations in the district, he said. The high school is distributing paper assignments to students without devices or connectivity throughout the week.

“At the drop of a hat, we were able to go to non-traditional instruction,” Quist said.

His students are doing remote learning this week, and then will be on spring break for the two weeks following. But after that, the future is less clear. While the Eminence Independent District isn’t currently planning to stay closed after spring break, leaders elsewhere in the country have raised the possibility that school may be out for the rest of the year. That’s already a reality in Kansas, where the governor announced Tuesday that all schools in the state would be closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Kaitlyn Barker worries about what longer closures would mean for her students. Barker, a 10th grade English/language arts teacher at Avon Community School Corporation in central Indiana, is on her second week of remote teaching. Schools closed earlier this month after a student in the district tested positive for COVID-19.

Barker is comfortable with her district’s e-learning platform, as she’s used it before on snow days and for other short, unexpected closings. But on those days, she’d usually do some sort of supplemental activity, like show a short PowerPoint and give a quick quiz, or have students practice for the state standardized tests they take in 10th grade.

“This, over an extended period of time, is a bit more challenging,” Barker said. “I can’t just pause my curriculum and do something different for a day.”

Right now, she’s working with one class on essay writing. She’s having students write it in chunks and turn them in each day. She’s offered video conferencing to talk about her feedback, but so far, no one has taken her up on it.

For another class, she’s trying Zoom meetings to talk about the book they’re reading. “When you don’t have that personal connection, it’s really hard to have those class discussions that are so important for English, and other subjects as well,” Barker said.

She’s in communication with her district’s special education department about how to make sure students get their accommodations online, and she’s given extra time to those who would also be getting it in the classroom. She’s also been contacting parents and messaging students to make sure they know about the assignments, as only about 50 to 75 percent of her students were turning in work when the district first moved to remote learning, she said.

The district has been very supportive, Barker said, offering resources and help. Still, she said, “it’s a lot to keep up with, to be honest.”

Teaching from home might seem fun or relaxing, but it’s not, Barker said. “Oh, you get to stay at home and stay in your pajamas and do work on your computer? But it’s actually very stressful.”

Image: Tony Berastegui, 12, left, and his sister Giselle, 9, do their school work at home on the dining room table as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close Monday, March 16, 2020, in Laveen, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.