Expectations for Online Student Behavior Vary During Coronavirus School Closures

By Madeline Will — April 08, 2020 6 min read
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There are countless distractions while learning at home: a cat walking across the keyboard, a sibling goofing off in the background, a comfy bed to lounge on, a pantry full of tempting snacks.

As teachers tread into uncharted territory with an abrupt mass transition to online learning, many are now having to decide: How much should they be enforcing school rules via webcam?

Some teachers are making their own set of online class rules and posting them for others on Pinterest, Instagram, and other lesson-sharing sites such as TeachersPayTeachers. Many of these posts seem to replicate the expectations of a normal school day as much as possible.

“Find a quiet place, free from distraction (sibling, pets, parents, televisions),” one set of Zoom class rules said. “Video needs to remain ON to promote focus. Eye contact should be maintained. Refrain from chewing gum, eating, or drinking in front of the camera.”

“Remember,” the poster said, “this is a class, so treat it as such.”

According to a nationally representative Education Week Research Center survey of more than 900 educators, more than a fifth said that during school-building closures, they have taught live, virtual classes at specific, predesignated times where students can interact with each other and with the teacher. That can give students a sense of normalcy and connection—but it can also leave teachers trying to keep students on task and engaged in virtual environments they are not familiar with.

As a consequence, expectations for student behavior in online classes range widely from strict adherence to physical classroom rules to much more laissez-faire approaches during the school building shutdowns. One teacher, for instance, told students to dress appropriately as they would in school, not to eat or snack, limit distractions, and be mindful of their surroundings. Students who don’t follow these rules will be removed from the virtual classroom and given a zero, the teacher wrote.

But these types of strict guidelines have raised some concern among educators, who say that students need to be given grace during a difficult, scary time.

“Student well-being and faculty well-being should be the priority at this time, and teachers should be flexible where they can be,” said Ryann Fapohunda, the co-director of the Teaching and Learning Center at the National Cathedral School, an all-girls private school in Washington, D.C. “Is it more important how students dress and are presenting themselves, or their social-emotional well-being? If students are adhering to guidelines in class—participating, showing up—I’m inclined to not call them out for wearing a hoodie or being in pajama pants.”

Striking a Balance

Leah Smith, a 7th grade English teacher in Litchfield, Conn., has a few basic ground rules for her live virtual classes: Mute your microphone when others are talking, don’t purposely distract others (that means no practicing TikTok dance moves on video), and above all, be kind and respectful.

She hosts a 20-minute lesson each day on Google Meet, and then students can connect individually with her afterward. Teachers don’t have the ability to mute the entire class in Google Meet, so establishing these classroom norms early on was important, said Smith, who adapted these norms from a colleague. (Zoom does allow teachers to mute everyone, but many schools have shied away from using the videoconferencing tool due to privacy and security concerns.)

So far, there haven’t been any major behavioral issues, Smith said. She’s tried to strike a balance between maintaining order and embracing the quirks of learning from home.

“The first day, they all seemed to be munching on something, so I grabbed a snack and munched with them,” Smith said.

Students can’t wear hats at school, but they’re allowed to at home—they even had a virtual crazy hat day. Smith also spent a chunk of class time one day encouraging students to show off their pets.

Now, “typically when a cat walks across the screen, I’ll say, ‘Oh, cute cat,’ and keep moving and not make a big deal of it,” Smith said. “To not accept some of those funny moments is not really conducive to teaching middle school, but at the same time, it needs to be harnessed so you can get things done.”

While students are allowed to work from their beds, she’ll tell them to sit up if she sees them lying down. And Smith had to remind students to keep their chatbox usage appropriate after she noticed them sharing their TikTok handles with each other during class.

Still, “the last thing they need is to have somebody be super strict with them,” she said.

Other teachers echo Smith’s sentiments. This is a scary time, and students need reassurances from their teachers, not punishment and extra rules, said Dave Austin, a 7th grade social studies teacher in Marlton, N.J.

While he hasn’t yet started live online classes, he plans to maintain his normal class expectations—don’t talk over each other, don’t be inappropriate—while letting other behaviors slide.

“We have to give them a little slack,” he said. “My kids are 12 years old. They’re anxious, and they’re scared, and if [they’re] in their room in their PJs, having a snack while they talk to me about the Second World War—you showed up, that’s fine.”

‘School Rules in Someone’s Home’

Plus, some classroom behavior expectations are out of students’ control in remote learning environments, teachers said. Students might not have their own private, quiet space to log on to class meetings. Their parents might be at work or working from home and unable to supervise. Students might also be tasked with watching younger siblings while their parents are at work.

“It’s a situation where we need to extend grace,” said Merisha Leak, the director of outreach for a charter school in Charlotte, N.C. “I don’t think it’s a school’s right or a teacher’s right to enforce school rules in someone’s home.”

Students might already feel vulnerable for opening up their homes to their classmates, she said, and teachers need to “come up with equitable practices that would work for all families in a way [in which] we aren’t causing anxiety or stressing anyone out.”

Teachers also need to be conscious of the fact that students are not receiving the same behavioral supports at home that they got in class, said Kenneth Schuster, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit for children with mental health and learning disorders.

Children with disabilities are still entitled to special education services during online learning, which many schools have been scrambling to make work. But they might look different during online learning, which can be an adjustment, Schuster said. Even informal supports—like a teacher tapping a particularly active child on the shoulder to remind him to focus—are no longer available in a remote learning situation, he added.

And the lack of those informal supports, as well as other factors, could be having an impact on the level of attention students are giving to their online schoolwork. The Education Week Research Center survey found that when teachers were asked to select a major challenge for instruction during school closures, a third of teachers said their students have “a lot more trouble focusing on work at home than they do at school.”

Nearly three-fourths of teachers said their students’ engagement levels are “somewhat” or “much” lower during this time than they are normally, and 66 percent of teachers said students’ morale was “somewhat” or “much” lower.

Teachers’ own morale has also taken a hit, according to the survey.

“I think we really should remind teachers that they’re doing a great job, this is uncharted territory, and we’re all figuring it out,” said Fapohunda, from the National Cathedral School in Washington. “I would really encourage them to adapt a less-is-more approach. What success may have looked like when they’re physically in school will look different now.”

Image: Lamar Elementary School principal Erin Honeycutt sets up a Zoom class for 1st through 5th graders to learn art from Holly Triplett in Meridian, Miss., on March 24. —Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star via AP

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