Anne Okoreeh, a stay-at-home mom in Stockton, California, recalls the “chaos” of last spring when schools switched to distance learning due to pandemic closures. Nobody seemed to know what was happening, and not much teaching or learning went on. But what a difference the summer made.
The Okoreeh family is still online with the public school system, but two weeks into the new academic year, things are going pretty smoothly.
“The teachers are really great,” says Ms. Okoreeh. She’s also noticed her 10th and 12th graders are not as stressed and, with free time after school, they finish their homework earlier than usual. Her youngest may not be as challenged as she would be in the classroom (Ms. Okoreeh sits with her during live instruction to help her stay focused), but overall, “my whole experience with distance learning so far has been positive,” she says.
Online education was a bust for many American families at the end of the last school year. Their only comfort was that in-person school would return in the fall. But as schools open around the United States, many districts, including the largest, are starting with either some or all remote learning – the path for which they are least prepared.
Although many districts still struggle to help students who have no access to technology, many have at least taken basic steps to avoid past failures. Measures include more live instruction over the internet; consistent scheduling across grades and classes; a common communication tool for teachers, students, and parents; and a return to attendance-taking and grading.
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“There was almost nowhere to go but up. I think we are seeing up,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Probably the biggest improvement is that more districts are doing some face-to-face teaching online, she says. In the spring, only 20% of districts did such instruction, based on a representative sample of 500 districts studied by her center. This fall, 80% of districts plan to have at least some live instruction, she says.
“A huge blessing”
Measuring the quality of instruction is another matter. Content varies widely from district to district and even school to school. Some districts, such as Lodi Unified, where the Okoreeh children are enrolled, took some of their curriculum and digitized it. “That is a huge blessing,” says Lori Celiz, who teaches third grader Emma Okoreeh at Ansel Adams Elementary in Stockton.
Many teachers, including Mrs. Celiz, spent their summer training for online teaching. In Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, a third of the teachers completed an optional summer certification program for remote learning – this on top of required training in the spring and just before school started Aug. 18.
Social media is also buzzing with teachers sharing content ideas. “I’ve never seen teachers collaborate like we are collaborating right now,” says Mrs. Celiz. “If anything positive is coming out of this, that would be one thing.”
Last week, her class took a virtual field trip to the Statue of Liberty, then drew the statue as an art project – an idea she got from a teachers group on Facebook. “Students are learning they have to do school where they are,” she says.
Some districts are turning to established online programs, such as Zearn Math, or contracting with large online education providers, such as K12 Inc. and Florida Virtual School. The Sunshine State requires all districts to have an online curriculum, partly because of hurricanes.
Still, many students would rather be in the classroom. “I don’t like online learning at all,” says Will Knight, an honor-roll junior in Durango, Colorado. He and most students at Durango High School have chosen to return to school Aug. 31. He is looking forward to seeing his friends and having greater access to teachers.
Mrs. Celiz says her gut feeling is that remote learning is here to stay in some form – and that it will change the nature of K-12 education. Some kids do work better online, she says, and it can open new worlds to children.
It can also help save their current worlds. In California, where wildfires are raging, people are under widespread evacuation orders. When the town of Paradise burned in the 2018 Camp Fire, Mrs. Celiz’s school had to shut down due to poor air quality from drifting smoke. “Had we had a system in place, our kids would not have missed those instructional days.”
More research needed
Online learning at the K-12 level was not well studied before the pandemic, says Ms. Lake. She helped with a 2015 study of virtual charter schools that found students at these schools had “significantly weaker” academic performance than students in conventional schools. But these schools are alternatives for children who are struggling – a “completely different animal” from universal online education, she says. Other research supports the idea that online learning, when done right, can have benefits.
One of Ms. Lake’s greatest concerns is the digital divide between students who have access to computers and can connect to the internet, and those who cannot. She is also concerned about students in special education, and students who are homeless or in foster care. In California, the most populous state in the nation, most students are beginning the school year online (with new exceptions for in-person learning for students who need specialized services). And yet 700,000 students don’t have access to a computer, and 300,000 don’t have internet access – despite considerable efforts by state and local officials.
“Districts are very cognizant of the fact that they have to be much better [at distance learning], because there’s already a substantial loss of learning, and that can’t continue,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
According to a report by the Los Angeles Unified School District, 50,000 Black and Latino students in middle and high school did not regularly participate in online school in the spring, laying bare deep disparities. A spokesperson for LAUSD says in an emailed statement that the steps taken this school year include dividing the district “into 40 ‘communities of schools’ – clusters of elementary, middle and high schools that will partner with nonprofits and other local groups and will focus instruction and resources based on the unique needs of students.” The district will also provide one-on-one tutoring.
In Austin, Texas, where school will begin remotely Sept. 8, the Austin Independent School District is also trying to overcome that divide. It has “worked hard” to get Chromebooks to families that need computers, delivered Wi-Fi hot spots, and even sent specially equipped buses to various neighborhoods to act as Wi-Fi hubs, says Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the teachers union. The school district plans to invite students who don’t have access to technology to attend school in person for remote learning on campus. At least 10 districts around the country are planning something similar, according to Ms. Lake.
On the menu: live instruction
In the Northeast, the Center for Public Research and Leadership at Columbia Law School in New York studied distance-learning successes in Connecticut and has put together recommendations for public schools going virtual this fall. Structure, consistency, and live instruction in all core subjects are incredibly important, says Elizabeth Chu, executive director of the center. So is finding ways for children to socialize and enjoy each other at the start and end of the school day, as well as incorporating online teacher-family sessions each week. That should be doable given that the online school day is generally shorter than the in-class day, she says.
Even with all of her planning, the first day was rough in Mrs. Celiz’s class in Stockton. As she was teaching via Zoom, she got 64 messages from parents trying to troubleshoot problems. Some Chromebooks didn’t work properly. Some couldn’t connect.
“It’s a whole new world,” she says. “I’m not just teaching third graders; I’m teaching third graders plus their parents, because they are at home guiding their work.”
The second week went “much better.” Her students start the day at 8:30 doing independent work, and at 9:00 a.m. they are now on time for their first live session – math. As she learned last spring, the parents of some students work nontraditional hours, so she’s more flexible after lunch. If some of her students need to take a break till Mom or Dad get home, they can, as long as the next morning their work is turned in.
“They’re troopers,” she says glowingly of her students. The parents, too, “are working really hard at making this a success.” Mrs. Celiz maintains close contact with them through an app – Class Dojo – that also translates. Currently, she’s using Spanish and Vietnamese at a school where about 75% of the students get free or subsidized meals.
She wishes she could be with them – helping them form letters correctly, seeing their work. ”I have a lot to learn,” she says, “but I’m so far from where I started in March.”
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