Last week I wrote about some of the benefits the novel coronavirus has brought us, but this week I am going to touch on a more disturbing subject--the impacts of distance learning on students.
It is summer vacation and schools are analyzing the results of distance learning in order to prepare for the fall semester. Because the social distancing measures are expected to still be in place in August and September when school starts back up, schools are evaluating all possible options such as smaller class sizes, alternating days, or continued distance learning. But let me tell you, the results from distance learning in the spring are not very encouraging to parents and educators.
As a teacher, I remember the day our principal sent out the email telling us we had two days to take our curriculum and adapt it to be taught entirely online. I panicked. It takes months to properly develop a curriculum and assessments, and you’re telling me I only have two days?! You are telling me I need to find a way to teach kids without actually being able to see them?! It’s hard enough when I’m in the same room as them, how am I supposed to transmit all that same information without the ability to see their reactions and have instant feedback?
Teachers had not received training for teaching during a quarantine. There was no professional development day in which educators were taught how to completely adjust a previously in-person curriculum to online learning. This left teachers scrabbling and latching on to whatever supports they could find.
The first three weeks of distance learning were trial and error, with lots of errors. Teaching a class of 34 students to use a new digital platform via email is nearly impossible, so during this time teachers were told not to present any new materials. The first three weeks teachers were told to only review past units in order to give students time to adjust. Three weeks that students normally receive instruction disappeared, automatically setting students back in their grade-level proficiency.
So what does a teacher do when they are told that they have a miniscule amount of time to restructure their entire curriculum? Well the answer depends on where they teach.
I teach in a district that is 1:1, meaning that each student is given a laptop by the school district with which they are to do their schoolwork. In districts like mine that are already high-tech, the transition was somewhat smooth. My students were familiar with using Canvas for homework, so all I had to do was explain to them that all of our lessons would now be found on Canvas. I could create video tutorials and PowerPoints for my students for them to access wherever and whenever. Simple enough, right? Not really.
According to the Associated Press, 18% of students do not have internet access at home. Which means that even if that student has a computer given to them by the school, they still can’t retrieve the resources their teachers provide. Teachers who had students in this situation had to work on creating activities that did not require the internet for those students. The added layer here being that the teacher had to ensure the lesson plans for students who had internet and the one for those who didn’t were equitable. However, a student who can watch a teacher’s tutorial video online, and then immediately email the teacher with questions has a much greater chance of success than those limited to paper worksheets and phone calls.
Unfortunately, according to CoSN’s 2019 K-12 IT Leadership Survey Report, only 60% of secondary schools and 43% of elementary schools in the U.S. are 1:1. For schools that are not 1:1, teachers were presented with an incredible challenge. Because these schools had to operate under the assumption that students did not have access to technology at home, teachers had to create packets of exercises and activities students could do without technology. This means that those students were not getting the support they needed, like the students without internet mentioned above.
Imagine a fifth-grade student in a school that is not 1:1, was given an activity that was supposed to teach them Common Core math standard 5.NF.1 [Add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators (including mixed numbers) by replacing given fractions with equivalent fractions in such a way as to produce an equivalent sum or difference of fractions with like denominators.] Imagine this student did not understand why fractions with unlike denominators cannot be added together. Now imagine that their parent worked all day and did not have time to help them with math, or maybe even that their parent did not understand this concept. What is that child supposed to do? They can’t raise their hand and ask their teacher for help. They don’t have a computer to send the teacher an email, and explaining problems like this over the phone is difficult to say the least. That child has now fallen behind and will have difficulty in the next grade level.
Even teachers in 1:1 schools struggled to transition lessons to be entirely online. My friend who teaches 4th grade in a 1:1 district said her greatest difficulty was finding resources that got kids excited to do school work. She used online tools like Seesaw, Flipgrid, and LoonyLearn, to get kids more invested in their education. Still, students can stay motivated only for so long before they start to lose interest. In classrooms, teachers can have kids get up and move around and constantly change activities, but online it is hard to make accommodations like this.
Special education students especially suffered during distance learning. Students who received services such as speech and occupational therapy at school could not get these services during school closures. These services are vital to some kids in special education. Because of distance learning, the accommodations outlined in some students’ Individualized Learning Plans were not met, meaning some children were unable to learn.
Overall, distance learning led to students’ receiving less support from teachers and a lessened quality of education.
Because of all the aforementioned reasons, there was an overall lack of learning between March 15th and the end of the school year. Students and educators were not adequately prepared for distance learning, and it has taken a toll on the grade-level preparedness of students.
If schools are required to continue to provide distance learning for students in the fall, there must be a complete restructuring of the current system. Students need better support systems if we expect them to be adequately prepared for the future.
While distance learning may have left our students slightly behind where they are supposed to be, there are things you can do as a parent to bridge the gap. The best thing for you to do for your child at this point in time is to prepare them for more distance learning. You can do this in a number of ways, but I am going to talk about only three:
I hope this blog has helped you understand the current deficits of distance learning as well as how you can prepare your child for the future. If you would like to read more about the COVID-19 pandemic and parenting, click the link below.