What should “coronavirus school” look like?
In the early days of the pandemic, many districts were scrambling to put any kind of learning material in front of their students.
But as the closures continue—many will now last for at least several more weeks, if not the rest of the academic year—school systems are starting to settle into a routine.
But what they are expecting of children and families varies dramatically.
Maggie Hunter, an instructional designer and technical writer in Holmdel, N.J., has three sons: one in 1st grade, a second in preschool, and a toddler. Her district has provided daily assignments that closely mirror the different subjects that her 1st grader would get in a typical school day—including specials such as art, music, and physical education. The district had been posting work in the morning and asking parents to check off that it was done by 1 p.m.; that has now shifted to allowing a parent to check that the work is done by midnight of the day it was assigned.
In some ways, the prescriptive approach is helpful, said Hunter, who is single and working from home during the pandemic. Having set assignments gives her less to figure out on her own.
On the other hand, she was thrown by an art assignment where her son had to demonstrate six different shading techniques.
“There was crosshatch, hatching, and ‘scumbling’,” Hunter said. “I have no idea what scumbling is.” Fortunately, the art teacher sent a video explanation as well.
The setup does require her to make sure that her oldest son is completing all his work, because he is being graded and taking tests.
“Honestly, I think they’re just trying to plow through the curriculum,” Hunter said.
Sharing Frustrations, Weathering Mistakes
Misty Trevino, a digital learning consultant who supports schools and districts in north Texas, took to Twitter to share her frustration with her sons’ early experience with digital learning.
Her sons, in grades 10 and 8, are each enrolled in seven classes. Trevino had to read through more than 20 messages to find out teachers’ emails, office hours, and expectations.
Her sons needed help from her to translate unclear instructions, troubleshoot improperly linked assignments, submit classwork, and navigate through their digital spaces.
The assignments tended to come with pages of written instructions, which was a particular challenge for one son who has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And she said the assignments just took too long—an hour or two on average, which was hard to supervise while trying to manage her own work.
None of the pitfalls she described were intended by educators, she explained. But districts need to get feedback from teachers, students, and parents on how they can adjust as needed.
For example, it would help if schools offered fewer assignments, a single email that provides all the information for each teacher, an instructional video on how to use the learning platform, and text-to-speech options for written instructions, she said.
“Like I said before, we will not figure this out in the next couple of months. We are all going to make lots of mistakes. Now is a great time to learn from them,” Trevino posted.
Other districts have not taken nearly as prescriptive an approach with their online learning plans. The Philadelphia district, for example, has released sets of optional learning guides on its website and available in paper form at sites where it distributes meals. By late April, it plans to launch a “digital learning plan” that will offer more support from district teachers.
Montgomery County, Md., has made it clear in parent communications that digital learning will not look anything like a typical school day. “Our remote plan provides a good mix of teacher instruction and support; independent, age-appropriate self-paced work; and submission of graded assignments. We need to provide both structure and flexibility for students, teachers, and families,” said Superintendent Jack R. Smith, in a message to families.
Replicating a School Day Is Unrealistic
Many districts are trying to walk a fine line between keeping students engaged and learning, and recognizing that there’s no reasonable way many families can replicate a school day in their own homes.
Henry County, Ga., already has a program that puts devices in the hands of students in grades 3 through 12. So the district was well-positioned to continue online learning for children in those grades. Those with younger children can pick up paper packets, crayons, and pencils at the feeding centers established around the district.
“We’ve provided guidance for teachers so that a balance can be provided, and as much support as we can provide those at-home caregivers,” said Melissa Morse, the chief of learning and performance for the district, in the metropolitan Atlanta area. For students, that means there is “enough of a touch from the teacher that they stay connected to what’s happening.”
Teachers are not required to reach out online every day, nor are students required to sign on at the same time each day. Teachers are often choosing to give one “live” presentation and record it so that students can watch at different times. And, while there is no official attendance being taken, teachers are asked to be mindful if there are students whom they have not been able to reach.
Students have been excited to have regular connection with their classmates, said Brian Blanton, the district’s chief information officer. “What that does for them socially and emotionally is really powerful.”
For parents, that middle ground appears to work well.
Jennifer Martin, who has a 1st grader and a kindergarten student in the Riverview district near Seattle, said she liked that her children’s district sent out a calendar of activities, because that allows the family to create its own pacing, with guidance.
“I’m glad they don’t have to sit two hours a day in front of computer all at once.” Martin said. “And I’m glad we’re not in one of the districts where parents haven’t heard anything at all.
Superintendent: ‘Shut Off the Valve, Take a Break’
Jennifer Gallagher, the superintendent of the Long Beach, N.Y., district wrote a soothing message to parents, telling them to let go of any guilt they may feel that they’re not able to juggle every single task perfectly at such an extraordinary time. Her words have been picked up and shared by others outside her school system.
“Don’t worry if you are not the perfect homeschooling parent; don’t worry if you are torn between working at home and helping your kids. Don’t let your kids spend nine hours a day doing schoolwork online—cut them off and tell the teacher it was too much. Don’t let these days be joyless for your kids,” she wrote.
In an interview, Gallagher said those views came from her own personal experience, as she is working and now trying to support her school-age daughters. One daughter, who is in middle school and legally blind, spent nine hours on remote learning in one day. (Her daughter attends school in a different district.)
“For a child to struggle for nine hours, that’s ridiculous,” Gallagher said. Parents “have the ability and the permission to shut off the valve, take a break, judge whether their kids need less or more.”