The Remote Learning Curve: Educators, Parents, and Students Adjust During the Coronavirus Crisis

There are many more questions than answers right now as the K-12 world tries to find the best way to serve students during school closures.

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Educators, parents, and students across the U.S. are attempting to navigate the new educational landscape of remote (or distance) learning. It comes with a steep learning curve fraught with growing pains, debate, and controversy.

The first lesson was that this will be more homeschooling than most parents can handle. A day into er children's school shutdown, producer and writer Shonda Rhimes tweeted, “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

Many parents and educators jumped on in agreement and praise for teachers. Soon, though, parents were begging teachers to ease up, and teachers who are parents took to social media to ask colleagues to think before assigning—for example, remember not everyone has a printer, or that siblings who share computers can’t be in virtual classrooms at the same time. They also asked everyone to remember that some of them are parents, too, and that no matter what, all of them are also dealing with the trauma and uncertainty of the pandemic and unprecedented circumstances.

“This has been like the perfect storm—the mental loads of both motherhood and teaching all in one anxious tsunami,” Oona Abrams, a high school English Language Arts teacher in Chatham, NJ, who has four sons in second through eighth grade, wrote in an email.

The social media posts, blogs, and memes about homeschooling successes—the overachievers with their color-coded schedules and talk of cross-curricular lesson plans based on a kid’s random interests—and failures flooded feeds. There were also tales of tears and troubles, and of outright abandonment, as parents and kids just threw out the good intentions and turned to junk food and MarioKart. As more states decide to close for the year, the questions mount in need of quick but hard-to-find answers.

What does effective distance learning over an extended period of time look like? And how does that need to be adjusted considering the traumatic circumstances?

Schools must take everything into account. There are social service issues: How do we get kids food? What about counseling services? Is there anything that can be done to support the kids for whom school was the place of safety and security?

Then there are the academic and social-emotional ones: Should video classes be used more for instruction or connection? What about special needs students? Is it best to go with online classes or independent projects? What are the realistic and appropriate rules of Zoom and Google Meet classes? What about those with no internet access or computer?

Focus on academics or on children's welfare?
“Messages are varying from one teacher to another about the balance of health and wellness versus academics,” Jenn, an elementary school librarian in Massachusetts who asked that SLJ not use her last name, said via email. “And I know that parents are frustrated by this. It's evolving.”

Her school is not promoting trying to teach anything new right now or requiring students to do anything at the moment, which makes participation rates vary.

“I know that all of the teachers are concerned about this lack of participation only because we don't know what that means for our children in their homes,” she said.

In speaking with a classroom teacher recently she heard concerns about those who never log on and what happens when teachers can’t see and speak with the children daily.

“Without the daily check-in teachers worry about other things like ‘I know this student gets his break from his crazy family by going to school, how is he holding up?’ And ‘I know that I give that student breakfast multiple times a week, I hope she is getting enough food and care,’” said Jenn. “It's a real problem and I'm not sure it's being addressed thoroughly.”

Some schools had several days to plan and coordinate, while others had little to none. Librarians checked out books with abandon and flooded staff inboxes with resources. Many teachers made plans based on a two-week closure, but now are out indefinitely and have to adjust.

“As an English teacher, my focus has been on providing balance for my students,” emailed Sarah Mulhern Gross, a high school teacher in New Jersey. “I know they spend a lot of time looking at screens now, so I've shifted almost entirely to a reading/writing workshop curriculum online. It's working well so far.”

Educators and administrators are reaching out to their professional networks for advice. For schools that are late to start remote learning, there are lessons from their colleagues around the country.

Wisconsin elementary school teacher and Global Read Aloud creator Pernille Ripp tweeted Thursday, “Was just told by my district that whatever we have planned for our first week of online teaching, we should halve it, and then halve it again for realistic expectation. I appreciate this directive a lot.”

A way forward for the long haul
Some districts appeared to have grasped the emerging issues, emailing parents to acknowledge the difficulty of getting it all done, and to grant a reprieve from stress and guilt. In New Jersey, as the first week of school closures came to an end, one district sent parents a list of mental health resources with a note to prioritize student wellbeing over class assignments. Another sent a letter telling parents not to feel pressured by coursework, but to play a game or watch a movie with their kids if they can. In Brooklyn, NY, one high school abandoned keeping the regular schedule with one video class after another for long-term projects.

At Oona Abrams’ school, each student has a school-issued Chromebook and they are not working off the usual schedule.

“My supervisor schedules virtual office hours and we can choose when it's best for us to visit,” she said. “We have been advised to assign work that can be managed and completed asynchronously by students. We have a lot of choices about how to deliver instruction, from screencasting our lessons or using Google Meet and posting videos for students who are absent.”

The professional needs of staff are also being addressed. “The administration is scheduling ongoing virtual professional learning labs, and faculty members are sharing their expertise with each other all the time,” she said.

For parents trying to navigate the situation, it’s not just about having the time and ability to teach or help with schoolwork but learning the tools used.

“I cannot imagine being a parent who is not familiar with Google Apps and hitting the ground running with distance learning, visiting multiple platforms, printing some documents, doing other tasks exclusively on screen, and the like,” said Abrams. “The first day was like the first pancake on the pan. But by the second day, I set up a schedule so that I could help each of my kids without losing my mind.”

Each of her sons receives special services from their district, which is not the same as where she teaches, and she admits that even as a teacher she cannot replicate the work of those who help them daily in school. She created a scheduled and has managed to teach her students and assist her sons, but before the first week was over, she had to re-evaluate her motivations and process.

“When I think deeply about what most worries me, though, I realize that most of the worries are pretty shallow and superficial,” she said. “I am worried about how I will look as a parent if my child doesn't do all of this work, if he hasn't answered all the questions or watched the science or social studies videos or written his reading responses. And really, is that the point of distance learning? I don't think there's anyone out there who's going to shame me as a parent if my kid didn't do all of these tasks.”

Something had to give.

“I am giving myself permission to fail, because I cannot oversee kids with ADHD and ASD like a certified special educator would in a school setting, and we are blessed with great special services staff in my home district,” Abrams said. “It is important to me to stay as positive as I can for my kids.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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