“a school is never complete without its most essential ingredient: students.”
Last night, upon entering my school in the north suburbs of Chicago, I had the rather surreal experience of walking into a building without another soul in sight. Of course, the past several months have been surreal on a global scale, but as a teacher entering his second decade in the profession, I was taken aback by the emotional experience of spending several hours in an empty school.
Hallways and classrooms that are usually filled with teachers and students felt more like something out of a movie. There were no teachers, who were busy at home preparing for the final week of distance learning. There were no students either, their work and belongings left untouched since the last in-person day of school on March 13th.
This is not an uncommon occurrence in late August, as teachers slowly return to set up their classrooms before the beginning of a new year school year. There’s a feeling of excitement and anticipation in those weeks leading up to opening day. The building almost feels alive.
But, an empty school on a Wednesday at the end of May? There is no excitement or anticipation there, only a surprising sadness and anxiety as to when (or if) we may be back at school with our students again.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, schools across the country have drastically altered their plans for the final three months of school. Some shifted to an online learning model, while others made the decision to close up entirely. Graduations and class trips have been canceled, replaced with virtual tours to museums and vehicle parades.
As we approach the end of the school year, or at least the one circled by students (and teachers) on their calendars, it serves as a good time to reflect upon the challenges of the past few months, the silver linings to come out of them, and what to expect as we look ahead to the 2020-21 school year.
(Note: There were 7 teachers interviewed for this article, all of whom teach in various K-8 districts in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. Their names will not be used for this piece)
As many schools shifted from traditional, in-person models to distance learning, there were immediate challenges.
In Chicago Public Schools, for example, the most important issue was access, highlighting an issue that goes well beyond coronavirus. CPS responded to this lack of resources by distributing 100,000 Chromebooks, iPads, and other devices (37,000 of which were newly purchased) with priority given to students in areas of lowest-income and highest need. While this was an impressive response to a deeper societal issue, many argued that it wasn’t enough.
“By the best of our estimates, the real number of devices needed is closer to 400,000,” said one administrator. “And that doesn’t even take into consideration areas that don’t have access to Wi-Fi.”
Access aside, CPS wasn’t ready to roll out distance learning until April 13th, nearly a month after schools had been shut down.
In those districts where access may not have been a problem, the rollout and success of distance learning proved to be a separate challenge.
In my district, for example, we had begun working on distance learning models as early as March 6th, only one week before everything changed. By March 13th, we had a system in place where lessons were written by a “distance learning team,” and distributed to teachers and students. While tweaks have been made since the initial roll out, the main structure remains the same: synchronous learning using Zoom once or twice a day, with students working asynchronously (independently) throughout the morning, able to work one-on-one or in small groups with teachers as necessary.
While the model has been a relative success (and is being further tweaked for our summer program), the initial rollout was a challenge.
“I feel like I was less a teacher than I was a tech person,” said one teacher in my district. “Those first few weeks felt like putting out fires on a daily basis. Yes, we have and are grateful for the support we have, but sometimes you’re on your own trying to figure out why a Zoom meeting won’t work, or why a student suddenly doesn’t have access to a file. It was tough.”
Teachers also remarked about the difficulty in trying to maintain a proper work-life balance with kids and parents in contact all day; the inability to work effectively with students with special needs; the lack of student supplies at home; and too much sedentary screen time.
“There are times where I’ve been on Zoom for 3 hours straight,” said one teacher. “If I’m reaching my breaking point at noon, after two months of this, then how can we truly expect students to be hanging in there?”
In fact, while student attendance has been surprisingly high (our district reports a daily attendance of over 90% of students), quality work being turned in by students has not.
Students have predominantly been using apps like Seesaw, Google Docs, and Schoology to turn in work. Submissions of assignments have varied greatly from class to class, with a noticeable dip the past two weeks.
“For some of my students, this has been a great experience,” one teacher told me. “But, others aren’t turning in work at all, and the work they have been turning in is completely lacking.
“You might think, well, if a student was high-achieving in class, that would translate to this model. That really hasn’t been the case at all. It’s been interesting, and disappointing, to lose some of my best students throughout this process. I wasn’t expecting that at all.”
Beyond what’s going on in these virtual classrooms, there is the issue of the different types of learning going on from school to school, district to district, state to state. While my district had distance learning up and running on March 16th, several other districts within a five mile radius didn’t start until April 13th. And while some districts have a fairly grueling online learning model, others have been content to offer weekly (or even monthly) choice boards for students.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, has been the lack of community. Classes rarely, if ever, communicate with each other in a distance learning model. Students don’t get to see their friends in other rooms, and teachers feel disconnected from their students and colleagues.
A sense of community in schools is something that can often be overlooked, but is perhaps the most essential piece of a school’s success.
“To the outside world, the main focus of school is learning and moving onto the next grade,” said a 4th grade teacher. “But, to us, especially at the elementary level, none of that means anything without students being provided a safe place to learn and share ideas. There isn’t an online model that could ever replace that.”
Despite the obvious issues with distance learning, some teachers remarked that the experience has actually been quite beneficial in many ways.
As traditional models of learning have been temporarily sidelined, students have become far more independent learners. This is something that we always strive for as educators, but has been a bit of an unexpected result during distance learning.
“The majority of my students had always struggled with writing,” a 5th grade teacher told me. “Over these past two months, I have seen a stark improvement. Some of this may be due to the expertly-written lessons being provided to us, but I think it’s something else. My students have done a great job taking ownership of their learning, carving out time to do meaningful work they are proud of. It’s been a true silver lining to all this.”
Teachers have also noted that because they are no longer dealing with classroom behavior dynamics, despite an occasional Zoom issue, they are better able to provide more meaningful, learning-based feedback.
“Let’s be honest, even the best run classroom is going to lose several minutes a day to correcting behaviors or waiting for students to make better choices,” a 4th grade teacher said. “I feel like I haven’t done any of that in the past two months. All of my interactions with students have been positive, and it’s allowed me to see another side of them as both learners and human beings.”
In fact, that has been one of the biggest positives of distance learning. Teachers and students have expressed that they feel more relaxed than they typically are in school, leading to more meaningful engagements with teachers (albeit through Zoom) and feeling like they are being noticed for themselves, not just their work as students.
“I think we’ve all let our guards down a little bit, knowing that learning about, say, personal narratives pales against the backdrop of a global pandemic,” one teacher noted. “But, that’s actually been good for everyone involved. We’re all still learning, but it’s just more relaxed.”
Of course, none of these silver linings can replace in-person learning and the true community that exists within the walls of a school. But, what will school look like when school districts prepare to start a new school year in the fall?
Many districts across the country are already planning to return to their buildings in the fall, some with a business-as-usual approach and others with modified schedules and class sizes. Other districts, faced with the potential of a second peak of coronavirus, are planning not to return right away, but rather continue some form of distance learning. In many ways, schools have to prepare to be ready for both scenarios.
For schools that may begin the year with a distance learning model, the question is: what will that look like?
A lot of the success of online learning has been the fact that most of the school year had already been completed: students and teachers knew each other, knew their systems and routines, and could carry that over into the virtual world. Not all teachers feel that there would be as much success beginning the year with a new class in this way.
“I absolutely cannot imagine starting a school year getting to know 25 new kids through a screen,” a 5th grade teacher lamented. “There’s just no way. It worked this year because we knew each other. I can’t really conceive how that would go.”
An easy comparison might be eLearning for college courses, where students and teachers never meet each other, and are limited to virtual interaction and independent work. But, younger students need more. As one teacher said, “[t]here’s a big difference between the needs of school-aged children and adults in grad school.”
But, even if schools do open for business in the fall, there is still going to be the need for a transition period, from modified schedules and closures for deep cleanings, to making sure content knowledge from the previous year is retaught and reviewed across the board.
“There’s always a bit of reteaching when we get back to school,” said one teacher. “But, this is going to be a whole different level.”
School districts will have to make decisions on the number of people allowed in each building, number of students in the lunchroom, shared equipment, and more. Will students continue to share playgrounds? What about borrowing library books?
These are just some of the many questions facing administrators all over the country as the coming school year quickly approaches. While distance learning has its pros and cons, one thing is for sure: school is going to look very different for the foreseeable future.