by Mary Jo David
Spend a few minutes online, and thanks to COVID-19, you’re bound to see a joke about parents filling in as teachers while schools are closed due to the pandemic.
“Day 3 of teaching my kids at home. Suspended my youngest for skipping class and the oldest has already been expelled!”
“Day 5: If you see my kids locked outside the house today, don’t worry. It’s just a fire drill.”
Many parents are anxiously awaiting the day when their children can safely return to re-opened schools and the capable hands of experienced teachers. Teachers, too, were thrown off-balance by the school closings, but they quickly joined forces with administrators to develop distance learning alternatives for Stockbridge students at different grade levels. By April 15, Stockbridge Community Schools rolled out a distance-learning plan in response to the pandemic emergency. Early district efforts focused on outreach, including contacting students and families to determine their needs—from food to technology.
The at-home curriculum for younger grades has been primarily paper-and-pencil-based with learning packets going home to students in April and May. Brad Edwards, principal at Smith Elementary explained, “Although the younger grades aren’t expected to return the learning packets, teachers check in with their students and families on a weekly basis to review academics and student wellbeing.”
Elementary students have some online supplemental resources and lesson materials but not to the extent of the older grades. At the junior/senior high school level, technology is playing a major role in helping students and teachers navigate this unusual situation. No one could have anticipated at the time how the passage of the November 2015 school millage greatly improved the school’s ability to address the challenges of this coronavirus pandemic through technology.
“Having the technology already in place put us way ahead of the curve for this situation,” remarked Steve Allison, who teaches high school geometry and algebra in Stockbridge. Jennifer Leuneberg, who is currently teaching high school government and economics online, agrees. “Thanks to that millage, our students have Chromebooks, and Stockbridge teachers are trained on using the technology.”
LOGISTICS OF DISTANCE LEARNING DURING THE PANDEMIC
The district has provided teachers with state guidelines for how many hours students should be expected to spend on their home-based schoolwork during this time. The total per week varies from one to three hours, depending on grade level—nowhere near the amount of time students would spend on schoolwork in face-to-face classrooms. But these are unprecedented times.
“Some students are balancing schoolwork with helping to care for siblings and preparing meals while parents go out to work or try to work from home,” Allison noted.
Nonexistent, slow, or limited Internet may also be an issue at home for students, so most teachers refrain from holding online class meetings. Instead, many junior/senior high teachers are posting lessons and assignments for students to work on independently, including lectures, reading, videos to view, and problems to solve. Occasionally, some try to arrange one-on-one time to help struggling students with a problem or concept. Lissa Avis, eighth-grade math and senior calculus teacher, recently spent extra time with her advanced placement math students helping them prepare for the national AP Calculus AB exam.
Student attendance started out high—between 75 and 100 percent—but has since dwindled to less than 50 percent in mid-May according to estimates by both Allison and Leuneberg. Avis estimated attendance was still near 90 percent for her eighth-grade math sections in May, but closer to 55 percent for her senior calculus students.
The state also mandates that students’ third-quarter grades may be raised this quarter but not lowered. In Stockbridge, junior/senior high students will get a Pass or Incomplete for each class. Those with an Incomplete may retake the class or do a credit recovery.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ONLINE LEARNING
Teachers interviewed for this article spend from four to seven hours a day on school tasks like prepping, creating videos, monitoring email for questions, and attending meetings. Each acknowledged the practical benefits of online learning during this pandemic but agree that having the technical platform and tools for online learning is only one part of the equation.
All three mentioned that only the most mature students are likely to thrive when learning online. “It takes a significant amount of maturity to do well in an online-only environment,” Avis remarked. “There are so many missed learning opportunities when students can’t share and work together in person as a team to achieve their learning goals. It’s also easier to give up and take a zero when you’re learning online.”
These teachers also indicated they miss the face-to-face relationships they’ve developed with their students. “Online education offers flexibility and a more relaxed environment,” Leuneberg acknowledged. “But it’s not a substitute for the student-teacher relationships you develop in the classroom. And even though we try hard to level the playing field, I think it heightens the inequality between income levels.”
“I prefer the authentic discussions we can have face-to-face,” Allison said. “Students and teachers take away so much more from an in-person learning experience that relies on all of our senses.”
As is the case with many of the district’s students and parents, these teachers are unanimous in their hopes for a return to their traditional classrooms in fall 2020.