Virtual learning continues, but schools too important to stay in limbo

By Becki Gray

Raleigh, NC – I spent several days with three students who are, by mandate from the governor and the Mecklenburg County school board, learning at home. Hayden, Stephen, and Caroline are in the third, sixth, and eighth grades, respectively. Their mom, Hillary, who is single, started a new job in September and is working from home.  

photo of girl watching through imac
Photo by Julia M Cameron

Here’s what I learned about virtual learning:

  1. Students, teachers, and parents are doing their best. They’re all heroes.
  2. When schools were closed abruptly last spring, students across North Carolina were suddenly homeschoolers. Lessons were interrupted, delayed, and in some cases lost altogether. For example, the second-grade math curriculum includes multiplication as a final unit at year’s end. With the interruption from COVID-19, not all students were taught the multiplication unit at the end of second grade. At the beginning of third grade, they’re struggling to catch up. Learning is a series of building blocks; miss one and you fall behind.
  3. Having four — five, counting me — people working/learning online six to seven consecutive hours puts a strain on even the most reliable internet connection. Intermittent service leads to dropped connections, misplaced assignments, and frustration. CMS had hotspots available, but not enough for every household. Those with the most insecure connection got them first. Everyone else fended for themselves.
  4. Technology is challenging. CMS distributed Chromebooks to all students for online learning — other devices in your household don’t work. To access, students are issued a series of passwords and sign-on instructions. Platforms include Zscaler for VPN access, Canvas for assignments, Zoom for live meetings, PowerSchool for grades, and ParentSquare for communications. Students use separate programs for tests and assignments, like Flipgrid and testing sites. It’s a challenge for even the most tech-savvy.
  5. I thought the main challenge would be managing three schedules, making sure everyone was logged in at the appropriate time and to the correct class, returning on time after breaks. But the biggest challenge was navigating the technology to check on assignments — on what was submitted and what wasn’t — review work or access test results, and review what they got right, and what they got wrong. There should be a better system to see which work is missing, whether the work is turned in and not yet graded, and what can be reviewed and/or made up. It was confusing. Work the students thought they turned in wasn’t. Assignments weren’t always clear. For example, orchestra assignments posted for the violin included pieces for the viola and French horn. After consultation with the teacher, we were told violinists were to complete only the assignments for the violin and to ignore the others.
  6. Teachers should do a better job allowing kids to enter class and not to leave them stuck in the waiting room for 10 to 20 minutes. Everyone should be on time, but locking kids out, either intentionally or just forgetting, isn’t the best way to serve students in challenging times.
  7. The best online teachers hold office/help hours and work through technology challenges with individual students.
  8. Three kids — three different schedules. Part of learning is learning to manage, but juggling schedules with many moving parts is hard. Expecting kids to get it right, and for one adult who also has a work schedule to manage, is next to impossible. Everyone is dropping balls. They’re frustrated, stressed.
  9. Most work can be completed during the school hours, and homework is minimal. This is a blessing. Assigning several hours of homework per night after a full day of struggling to maintain the focus and structure of online learning would be too much.
  10. Kids learn differently. There should be options, and even options within options, to pick what works best for each student. Virtual learning drives home the importance of school choice.
  11. Learning from home gives kids the opportunity to run outside, swing, do jumping jacks in the driveway during breaks, play with pets. This is a critical part of productive learning, especially for boys.
  12. In-home learning leads to a lot of snacking. Apparently, eating during class is prohibited, but we cheated. It helps to be sure everyone always has a full water bottle at their desks, but that can lead to other concerns.
  13. Students are told they must remain logged on and tuned in to get credit for attendance in each class. Missing class is strongly discouraged. We learned that taking your Chromebook into the bathroom before a scheduled break is discouraged. We got a call from the teacher after class complaining that doing so was disruptive to some of the other students. 
  14. Asynchronous scheduling, or allowing students time to work independently, is supposed to reduce screen time. But I found mixed results. In some cases, it just led to releasing the students early. Stephen said his class “did not feel complete,” as he was dismissed with about half the class time remaining.
  15. What they like about virtual school? Hayden likes that he doesn’t have to get up and be rushed, to ease into the day. Stephen doesn’t love it, but, with some work, he manages. Caroline shares that it’s a new and interesting perspective; no one saw it coming, but everyone is making the best of a difficult situation. They all like being home.
  16. What they don’t like? Caroline says the breaks don’t allow enough time to go for a walk or to get exercise. Five or six hours in front of a screen makes Hayden’s eyes dry and hurt. Stephen says the introduction to new materials is too fast; in “normal” school they’d get more time to work into the assignment. This could have more to do with the transition from fifth grade to middle school than virtual instruction, though. Caroline isn’t anxious to get back to in-person instruction. After several weeks, she’s finally getting the hang of the virtual school, and another change or series of changes only increases the stress.
  17. No one has independent reading lists. We know reading skills are critical to academic success. Look no further than Judge Howard Manning’s latest comments on the Leandro case, the state’s Read to Achieve program, and Terry Stoops’ recommendations, along with scores of academic studies. We also know reading unlocks magical adventures and fosters a love of learning. It’s a missed opportunity not to encourage students to close the screens and open a book, and to provide them with a rich and varied suggested-reading list. Books could be provided through the same channels in which schools distribute food. 

As I took an up-close look at this new concept of online learning, I was reminded that too many kids are missing critical building blocks of learning. Technology is a challenge — even for the internet-savvy — and the effects on families and working parents are significant. Everyone is doing their best to adapt to unprecedented challenges, and the sooner kids get back in the classroom with their teachers, parents get back to work, and we safely return to some degree of normal, the better. The long-lasting effects of virtual learning for all are unknown. What we do know, however, is that education is too important to remain in limbo.

Becki Gray is senior vice president at the John Locke Foundation.