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Impact of distance learning to potentially be determined come fall

AT HOME — Langston Hughes Elementary School third-grade teacher Michelle McLenon accesses the Google site through which she and her fellow teachers connect with their students May 5 at her Lawrence, Kansas, home.

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The third trimester of the school year is when third-graders at Langston Hughes Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas, usually learn about the town’s unique history, founded by abolitionists in the 1850s to tip the scales to enter the Union as a free state.

That’s accomplished through hands-on activities with all four classes, including a walking field trip and a re-enactor portrayal of William Quantrill, whose Confederate raiders burned and looted the town in 1863 and killed nearly 200 men and boys.

But with schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers like Michelle McLenon have been trying to adapt these lessons and more into slideshows, videos and other online resources for their students.

“I would have to say the biggest challenge is not being able to have that face time with my students,” said McLenon, wrapping up her fourth year as a third-grade teacher at Langston Hughes and 12th year teaching overall. “We go in every morning and we give them their hugs and we get our hugs back.”

McLenon has two online sessions a week with her students. Most students participate in both, but she said not all families in the Lawrence Public Schools district have internet access.

It’s a struggle families and educators around the country are facing as they wind down the school year from a distance.

“Nothing is more important than good teaching, so the face-to-face instruction is definitely missed,” said Greg Merritt, an instructional coach for K-12 teachers at Wood County Schools in West Virginia. “Technology can be tricky. Not everybody has the same background in technology.

“I think everybody’s rising to the challenge,” he said. “There is quality instruction happening. It just looks different, feels different.”

Sara Nelson, an early education specialist at Iowa State University’s School of Education, said one of her concerns is the amount of screen time younger students receive as a result of distance learning.

“It’s better for that age group not to be online for an extended amount of time,” Nelson said, adding that the question on many early educators’ minds is, “How can we use online learning as a tool to support hands-on learning?”

Nelson said she recommends reading as one of the most important activities for young students at this time.

She also noted that in order to keep students in a healthy mental state, she recommends attempting to form a sense of community virtually. To do this, Nelson suggested activities such as educational games, questions and polls that might help stir discussion and keep students engaged.

The Weber School District in Utah was in the midst of developing a 1-to-1 student-device ratio with Chromebooks when schools closed down in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. That helped with the transition, but different students respond in different ways, said Lane Findlay, community relations and safety specialist for the school district.

“You have students that do well in school and this was just a different format,” he said.

Others may struggle because of individual circumstances, such as access to technology or having to share resources with multiple siblings. A small percentage of students don’t do the assignments or engage at all, Findlay said.

“Those are the ones that you really worry about as far as the impact,” he said. “Now you’re going to have this extended break of almost six months” outside of classrooms.

McLenon noted that “even in our regular classroom years, we always have what they call the ‘summer slump,'” which is why most school years begin with a review period.

“I think … we’re going to have to do that even moreso,” McLenon said.

But assessing students’ needs and meeting them where they are is what teachers do, she said.

“Teachers are going to have to examine their students (and) say to themselves, ‘What prerequisite has been missed?'” Merritt said. “But students will have moved on to the next grade or the next course (and) the standards for that grade or that course are important, too.”

Weber teachers have been asked to consider students’ individual circumstances as they give out grades, Findlay said. One option will be giving more “incompletes.”

“They will then have until right before the start of next school year to make up that work,” Findlay said.

As the mother of a sophomore in high school and a seventh-grader, McLenon is experiencing the new normal in education at multiple levels. She said her children’s schools had moved to a 1-to-1 student-device ratio, so the change wasn’t as abrupt for them.

Her son Aidan, a high school sophomore, and daughter Adyson, a seventh-grader, have set schedules and do their work between Zoom and Google Classroom.

“I know that some of the students are taking the lessons and activities seriously; some are not,” she said.

No grades are being given for the elementary schools for the third trimester. The middle and high schools are on quarters, and the grade for the third quarter will stand for the second semester — unless students continue working and improve it, McLenon said.

Her childrens’ teachers have emphasized to students how important it is to learn the skills they’ll need to move forward next year.

“I think probably the biggest concern is the heavy-lifting areas, like math,” McLenon said, noting her son doesn’t miss Algebra II classes so he can be ready for the next course.

It also doesn’t hurt that Mom is a teacher and making sure they keep up with their work.

Findlay said educators won’t know the full impact of the shift to distance learning until they assess students when they return in the fall.

Like Weber, the nearby Ogden, Utah School District is making plans for summer support programs and resources aimed at helping students “enter the 2020-2021 school year just as prepared as they would have been without the disruption that we are all currently facing,” said Jer Bates, director of communications for Ogden schools.

Yong Zhao, a foundation distinguished professor at the University of Kansas’ School of Education, said he is not terribly concerned that the time away from in-person classes will negatively affect students’ development. He said in the long run, the extra months at home are like an “extended vacation” and that if one combines the amount of time off school from kindergarten to 12th grade, the months at home are not a huge amount of time, all things considered.

Zhao actually said he can see a lot of good come out of the current predicament.

He said he’s “worried that we are treating this as a problem that’s going to have significant negative consequences,” he said. Instead, “we could use this opportunity to rethink how we do education.”

The pandemic has forced the nation’s education system to rethink how they provide education, Zhao said, and he believes that they might actually find some good out of that.

(Lauren Fox contributed to this story.)

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