Virtual Learning: Will Fall Learn from Spring’s Real Struggles?

The mnemonic reminder for when and how we adjust our clocks is: fall back, spring forward. In somewhat of a reversal of that adage, many are hoping the upcoming school year will be a fall that is forward moving after learning from the spring setbacks experienced in remote/online/virtual learning that was exchanged for standard in-class learning due to the COVID-19 shut down. All levels of the student body experienced harsh obstacles in their quest to finish the 2019-2020 school year. In addition to students this unprecedented learning curve was navigated by educators, school administrators, district leadership, and last but definitely not least, parents.

Two mothers shared their experiences with remote learning during the spring and their hopes for the upcoming school year.

Karina, mother of three, in Spring 2020: her daughter was a Junior in High School, a son was an 8th grader in middle school, and a son was a 5th grader in middle school. “It was definitely a learning process for all of us involved. The infrastructure was not in place and parents were called to be employees, teachers, lunch workers, and parents. There was definitely a lot of pressure on parents to keep children motivated and their grades up or better as they were in school! It was not an easy load!” Looking forward to this school year she added, “And as luck might have it, here we go again! God help us!”  

Ishay, mother of one, in Spring 2020: her daughter, Ariana was a 5th grader. Ariana is in blended learning for the fall at Success Academy. Currently, she goes to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the rest of the week is virtual. Ishay is a working mother who needs to work, and if school went completely remote she would need to have child care. She also worries for her daughter’s health, but feels the school is keeping things very clean.

The following are some of the issues experienced during spring’s remote learning.

Computer Woes:  
This issue combined with glitches in Google Classroom opened doors to the biggest challenges Karina faced with remote learning in spring. She was confronted with the problem of not having enough computers to go around. There was a need for four computers (three children in online classes and one adult working from home). “It took a few weeks for my son’s school to FedEx a Chromebook to him. He was initially doing work on paper packets given the last day of school [before the shutdown]. In the meantime, we missed one week of work because when I was reading the correspondence on my phone, it did not display the entire message.” This resulted in the son receiving a low grade in math, a subject he excelled in prior to PAUSE. It was up to Karina to rectify the matter so her son would receive a justifiable grade. This took time, courage, patience, and it was stressful as she didn’t want this to limit her son’s future education opportunities. After she explained why there was a week of work missing, her son was able to make up the work and he received a higher grade.

Ishay’s computer problems centered on the fact that the computer her child was sent was defective. “The brand of laptop was not good – shut down in the middle of calls, we had issues logging on, and a difficulty getting onto Google Classroom.” She mentioned she had used that brand and model of computer in the past and encountered similar problems. They received another laptop and haven’t had any problems since.

Internet Problems: In spring Ishay experienced issues with her internet service, “overload of system” and she maintains, “[The] internet still hasn’t gotten better.”

Karina’s household also experienced her internet speed slowing down a great deal. “Zoom classes started to drop and submitting work was not seamless,” Karina said. She decided to switch her provider to improve her internet. The process of this switch had her actively doing some of the repair work. A technician arrived three weeks after her request. He did the exterior installation and handed Karina a crate with parts and instructed her how to do the installation on the inside of her house.  Although the new internet was installed and working at this point, the technician returned two months later to put finishing touches on the interior work.  

Karina said, “Remote learning is not a simple task. Parents who are fortunate to work from home part-time or full-time, are [also] attending to their children’s questions, frustrations, and needs in addition to navigating Google Classroom, adjusting to changing schedules from Zoom classes to Google Classroom to YouTube videos. Everything is not in one place.” She went on to explain that as she is experienced with many types of virtual documents she was there to oversee and guide her children in the proper way to use them. In addition, she’s fluent in English, so she was concerned, “about immigrant and non-English speaking families that have never used these portals and may not understand English to help their children. I hope they are ok.”

Lack of Interactive Instruction:
“At first the teacher wasn’t staying. [They’d] talk about certain things ask a couple of questions then sign off and allow [the students] to do the work on their own. If [the teacher] was in the classroom there would be a chance to discuss further,” Ishay said. She further explained that in the beginning the online class format the teachers were on for fifteen minutes per subject. Now it’s one hour per subject and “teachers are staying on the call during the work until its done.”

Glitches: Another concern Karina experienced was the question of how to be sure the assignment they submitted was received by the teacher. Glitches in Google Classroom and other platforms were experienced. Karina took screenshots to prove the work was submitted on her end, which came in handy when the work hadn’t been received on the teacher’s side. “Report card time was tough, but we were able to work it all out at the end as they allowed us to resubmit any assignments that seemed to be missing or stuck.”

Staying Motivated:
“Ariana is a hands-on learner — likes to be there at the moment when things are taking place. To be at the computer for an hour straight that was difficult,” said Ishay. She has discussed with the teacher different strategies to keep the students engaged such as games as a reward or going to a breakout room for interactive discussions.

New Beginnings:
The fall term has begun for Success Academy. Ishay reports, “Things have gotten better. If there is any issue I’ll put in my two cents to make things better.”  Some of Ishay’s ideas are having students dress for online classes like they would if they were going to school. “Maybe in a uniform or a t-shirt with the school logo” — something that viscerally puts them in the mindset and community of being at school. As for the teachers, “Whether charter school or public school, teachers who stay online to assist their students keep the kids on point. If the teacher is sitting in front of the laptop they can see what they are doing. And maybe get a background that looks like a classroom.”

Susan Anderson, executive director of Town Square and also a mother, in July started circulating a petition to improve online learning in NYC public schools. In particular she advocated for daily live synchronous instruction.

It is a concern that some of the above-mentioned issues will produce a significant learning gap in households that are economically challenged and are not able to afford high-speed internet or tools for virtual learning. In July the National Survey on Public Education’s Coronavirus Pandemic Response’s First Look Brief was released. It showed a striking gap in quality between students in high-poverty districts and low-poverty districts. For instance, 32% of students in high-poverty districts received live virtual instructional support from the student’s teacher compared to 53% of students in low-poverty districts.

Students who are not fluent in English are another group who may struggle more with an online learning platform. This was addressed by a Chalkbeat article published on August 31, 2020. “Months of remote instruction could mean these high-need students are starting the school year with big learning losses, especially because social interaction at school is key for practicing a new language, educators said. As the majority of learning will continue remotely, it could deepen inequities between them and their fellow students who are fluent in English.”

The first day of remote learning for the New York City Department of Education (DOE) will be September 16. (Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on September 1 that an agreement between Schools Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, CSA President Mark Cannizzaro, DC 37 Executive Director Henry A. Garrido, and him had been made to begin in-person learning on September 21st.) All students (those choosing remote and blended learning) will participate in a virtual orientation on Wed, September 16 through Friday, September 18. This will give them the opportunity to, “reconnect to their school community, learn the health and safety procedures, check technical connectivity, and have wellness checks with their teachers and guidance staff,” from the DOE website. The DOE website does not go into much detail as to the form and structure that remote learning will take.

As there is no such thing as a nutritious virtual lunch, beginning with the 2020-2021 school year, students or their parents/guardians may pick up meals for students on days they are attending school remotely. Take-Out meals for students will be available on school days only, 9:00AM-12 noon. Take-Out meal locations will be shared soon.

Author: Lori Ann Doyon

Managing editor, head writer, and lead photographer of Greenline | North Brooklyn News since October 2014. Resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 1990.

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