Classroom Technology

Teachers in Limbo as Districts Rush to Boot Up Online Learning

By Madeline Will — March 25, 2020 6 min read
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Now that most school districts in the nation have closed their doors for weeks, if not months, to help stem the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are trying to adjust to their new normal.

While many districts have already kicked off online learning programs, others have hit pause on the school year. Many districts are trying to figure out how to proceed both practically and technically. Some don’t have the infrastructure set up to do online learning, and many students don’t have access to the internet or devices. Other districts are trying to figure out how best to serve their students with disabilities.

For now, teachers in those school districts are in limbo. Unable to teach, they spend their days trying to maintain relationships with students, planning for what remote instruction could look like—and waiting.

“We’re planning, but we’re not sure when we’ll be able to use what we’re planning,” said Mitch Shaw, a grade 7-12 English teacher in Butler, Pa. “We are trying to put this together so fast—you’re flying so fast, and you’re trying to make sure everything is covered. ... I think it’s stressful because there’s no end in sight.”

See Also: Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

Shaw’s district is trying to figure out how to provide online learning to students with disabilities, especially those who need one-on-one paraprofessionals. Teachers spent the first week of the closure going through training on how to use Google Classroom and coming up with online lesson plans.

This week, the district has started to make the transition to remote learning, as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has closed all schools through April 9.

“None of us have planned for anything like this, but we have to live in reality,” Shaw said.

In Montgomery County, Md., the first two weeks of closed schools are being treated like inclement weather days. Per district policy, teachers are not allowed to give students any new instruction or assignments, other than review. The districtwide distance learning system will launch March 30. Maryland officials announced Thursday that all public schools in the state would be closed through at least April 24.

“We really need to have just a little bit of time to figure out exactly how we’re going to do this for as long as it goes on,” said Dave Airozo, a 4th grade teacher in the district and the head of the communications committee for the Montgomery County Education Association’s board of directors.

It’s not yet clear if these 10 days of no instruction will be waived or added to the end of the school year, he said. In the meantime, many teachers—and parents—are feeling anxious as they wait to see what comes next, Airozo said.

“Teachers want to teach,” he said. “It’s a little frustrating, of course, the waiting for more direction.”

During this time period, Superintendent Jack Smith wrote, district leaders have been busy creating meal distribution systems, organizing cleaning regimens in the 208 schools, and building out a structured online learning program.

While the district already had many online learning tools, “they were in no way, however, organized to launch as a structured learning system the day the announcement was made to close schools for two weeks,” Smith wrote.

Reaching Out to Students

Teachers in Montgomery County have sent home review packets with their students. They’re also allowed to reach out to their students to keep the connection going, Airozo said, and many are.

Especially for younger students, like his 4th graders, “you just worry about them,” Airozo said. “They’re probably quite confused about what’s going on, maybe a little scared.”

Teachers everywhere are eager to maintain their relationships with students from afar. In several cities across the country, from Towson, Md., to Cape Giradeau, Mo., teachers have driven through their students’ neighborhoods, honking and waving out their car windows at their students. Some have held up signs that read, “We miss you!”

“[Teachers’] single greatest concern is helping students manage their own concerns and anxieties and all of the social-emotional weight of this moment,” said Laura Tavares, the program director of organizational learning and thought leadership at the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, which hosted a webinar for teachers last week.

Top of mind for teachers was “thinking about how to be there for students and help them process at a distance,” she said.

In school districts where formal online learning hasn’t yet started, many teachers have designed optional, supplemental assignments and made themselves available for virtual office hours. But when schools aren’t requiring online learning, it can be tough to get students to opt in.

Holly Johnson, a high school English teacher at the Advanced Math and Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Mass., said her school isn’t currently doing formal online instruction with graded assignments because of equity concerns for both students with disabilities and those who don’t have access to technology. Instead, teachers are providing weekly enrichment activities that are ungraded and optional. (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has told school districts that while they need to provide equal instruction to all learners under federal law, they will have flexibility in meeting that goal and should not let the federal law stand in the way of offering online learning.)

So far, Johnson has put up activities that ask students to read a poem or listen to a podcast and then come together and discuss. But no students have participated yet, which Johnson said has been disappointing.

“I really would like more face time with the students,” she said. “We’re a constant for them, and they’re a constant for us.”

To spur more student engagement, the English teachers at her school have started a virtual book club. Each teacher picked a book or two, and students will be able to choose which one they want to read. Johnson picked the book Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.

A dozen students have signed up for the book club so far, Johnson said, and she hopes more will join. Still, she realizes that students are dealing with a lot of emotions right now about the disruption to their school year.

“I think about my seniors—they must just be depressed,” she said. “Me saying, ‘Hey, want to read Outliers?’ is probably not very enticing right now.”

Offering Help

In the absence of online learning programs, parents have been tapped to fill in the gaps. To help, many teachers have posted offers on social media to help parents understand school assignments or give additional school resources, using the hashtag #bettertogether.

Chelsie Griffin Davis, a 5th grade teacher in Ascension Parish, La., has been teaching her students on Google Classroom since mid-last week. The experience has gone so smoothly that she started an additional Google Classroom for students outside of her district who might need some remote instruction.

“Anybody who needed additional support or whose schools are not teaching still, I just invited them to join my classroom, so they can get some instruction as well,” she said.

Griffin Davis has been putting the work her Ascension Parish students are doing in the second Google Classroom that she’s opened up. So far, five students have joined, but Griffin Davis has heard from other interested parents and suspects that by the end of the week, she’ll have about 15 students in the new classroom.

The main challenge, she said, is that she doesn’t yet know what support these students need, and she has to figure out how best to coach them. But Griffin Davis said she thinks this is a time to build community, and she wants to help.

“I think a lot of parents are concerned about putting food on the table, child care, and I just want to take something off somebody’s plate,” she said. “[My husband and I are] very safe and very privileged. We get to work from home and still get paid, and that’s not an opportunity that everybody gets.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2020 edition of Education Week as Rush to Online Learning Has Teachers in Limbo


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