Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
June is here. For students, this particular month usually signifies the end of the school year and the start of summer vacation. Moreover, educators mark this time of the year by finalizing their grades, packing up their classrooms, and turning in laptops and textbooks to school administrators. They too take a break until mid to late August, when it's time to prepare for a new school year.
That’s how it typically ends. However, the academic school year of 2019-2020 was anything but typical. Halfway through, the traditional face-to-face instruction came to an abrupt -- and unprecedented -- end.
Suddenly, our classrooms became chat rooms and video feeds. Our assignments came from the Internet and much of our pedagogy was dictated by educational software and cyber tools. Our students were miles away or somewhere within the impersonal realm of the Internet.
My school and district were not alone. The educational system in the United States and the rest of the world went from face-to-face learning to video sessions on Webex, Google Meet, Skype or Zoom. Still, the experience of distance learning (as this new way of learning came to be known) felt like a lonely and impersonal endeavor.
The 2019-2020 school year will forever be known as the year marred by a pandemic. The novel coronavirus (better known as COVID-19) didn’t just shut down and alter nearly every facet of society, it changed the way education was delivered by teachers and how students learned.
Looking back on this year, an educator -- like me -- will walk away with a few negative and positive thoughts about what had just transpired.
Was COVID-19 just a horrible fluke, or a sign of things to come in the world of education?
Looking back on this year, an educator -- like me -- will walk away with a few negative and positive thoughts about what had just transpired. No doubt, it was a tough year in which many were unprepared for the changes and challenges. However, when reflecting upon it, there’s a sense that the pandemic may have changed the way education will be delivered in the future.
Technology Over the Years
An apparent change was technology in the classroom. It’s no surprise that the Internet was being transitioned into the public school curriculum. This has been happening since the 2000s. In fact, in the last few years, school began assigning Chromebooks, email addresses, and access to numerous Internet-based educational programs.
Still, face-to-face instruction was (and will most likely continue to be ) the main source of delivery. Technology such as smart boards (a hybrid of a large monitor and “inkboard”) were merely used as curricular supplements, or to take care of clerical-type tasks such as recording attendance, logging incidents or referral reports, compiling student grades, and communicating via email.
Aside from the hardware (smart board, laptops) software and apps became crucial. They included:
- Power School for recording daily attendance and grades, as well as writing log entries on student academic progress or disciplinary incidents;
- Turn-it-in for collect schoolwork electronically;
- Education platform that bundles various Internet and software programs such as Canvas (more on that later);
- SEIS, which is an online program designed for writing individual education plans (IEP) for special education students (exclusively used by specialists and educators within the special education circle);
- Usage for reading intervention programs and math enrichment programs; and
- Usage for state standard exams such as SBAC, which has been used in California since the early 2010s.
Also, there were several programs that generated worksheets, interactive lessons and/or exams.
Technology in school wasn't exclusively for educators. Students had access, as well. In the beginning, they had computer labs, desktops in classrooms, and access to the Internet, via a school library, during my first ten years of teaching. Access increased in the last five years to include:
- Issuance of Chromebooks;
- password/portals to Power School’s Grade Book program (so their parents and them can be updated on their grades);
- Access to Internet education platform and software program; and
- Programs for credit recovery (such as E2020).
The increased access, it should be pointed out, is a result of the widespread use of smartphones and increased coverage of Wi-fi. Although many students will use smartphones for their own personal reason, others will use it to access educational courses.
With educators and students seemingly becoming proficient with Internet technology, the transition to distance learning should have been easy.
Most teachers, administrators, students and parents are computer savvy. But, that doesn’t mean the transition to distance learning was easy. Many factors served as barriers to a complete and flawless conversion.
In part, some educators may have known how to use the district’s choice of educational delivery platform (Canvas), but didn’t know how to apply or transpose their lessons in a way that fit their style or expectations. In addition, it didn’t help that Canvas was loaded with numerous bells and whistles that can be overwhelming.
Students had problems utilizing it, as well. Many were not familiar with its inner workings (this is particularly true among my special education students).
Numerous issues occurred during the first initial weeks of implementing distance learning. They included the following:
- Many teachers, especially those that started this year, were not trained to use Canvas;
- The platform didn’t support video-conferencing, which was something district officials requested the teachers to have;
- Not all students had access to the Internet or Wi-Fi (this was a glaring problem in the district I taught in. Most of the students’ families were economically disadvantaged); and
- Functions such as IEP meetings became problematic, considering that live signatures were needed.
One thing to keep in mind: many teachers were given a week to transition to distance learning. The rush to get their lessons online meant many mistakes were made. In my cases, I didn’t hit one of three buttons to publish the lesson for the students (other teachers could see the lesson, but the students couldn’t). Luckily, this was a simple fix.
Solutions were found. Impromptu workshops were set up by the district’s tech support crew to instruct teachers on the various uses of Canvas. In addition, administrators supplied links to Google Meet, a video conferencing software to allow students, teachers, and administrators to converse with each other.
Special education teachers received a teleconference service to conduct meetings over the phone. Later, SEIS offered an electronic signature service. This helped to get IEPs signed by all those present for the meeting. Luckily, teleconferencing an IEP meeting was adaptable.
Still, it was a strange way to have a meeting in which the members are not in the same room, let alone the same city or state (as was in my case).
As time went on, many teachers became accustomed to distance learning. However, students weren’t exactly having the same success.
Student Not Connecting
Traditionally, attendance is everything in public education. Attendance (via funding formula) is the basis for acquiring money to help schools and school districts run its day-to-day operations. Also, the funding generated from attendance helps school officials to create educational programs and additional training for teachers.
Distance learning proved how vulnerable this system is. As mentioned, some students couldn’t connect to the Internet from home. In many cases, the students failed to log in (which became the closest thing to attendance) on a regular basis. Some students never logged in.
This was not an isolated case. Numerous accounts from across the country revealed that participation was low. In some cases, it was 50 percent lower than when school was in session.
A major problem was implementing a system to track attendance. In many cases, districts that implemented tracking systems found them to be inconsistent due to faulty programs or hastily constructed tracking systems.
The results are dire, as an Edweek article on the matter states: “Inconsistent data-collection practices led to unreliable data, raising questions about everything from graduation requirements to school funding formulas.”
Moreover, socio-economic factors played a role.
Aside from inconsistent tracking programs, there were other factors to consider. They included:
- Some students didn’t have the technology to participate;
- Students with no access often had sets of paper assignments (packets) mailed to them and spent weeks, months completing packets before mailing them back;
- Others had no clue how to use the technology and/or were overwhelmed (this was true for several autistic students I had);
- A few simply didn’t bother to log-in (these were the ones that rarely if ever did any work in class before the school campus closed down); and
- Extra curricular activities such as sports or band were eliminated for the year. For many students, this was the thing they looked forward to doing. Suddenly, this important aspect of school life was taken away. Why bother?
Moreover, socio-economic factors played a role. It didn’t matter if the school was in an urban or rural area. Attendance/participation became a problem, especially for low-income students. Many of my students fell in this category.
Teaching from Home
Distance learning had another challenge. As a teacher and a parent of a school-age child, I had to pull double-duty. First, I had to find time to create lesson plans and log-in for office hours to meet with my students.
Second, I spent time helping my son navigate his school’s Internet learning platform, See-Saw. In addition to that, he used supplemental programs such as Raz-Kids (for reading) and Splash-Learn (for math) and had weekly Webex meetings with his teacher, classmates, and speech pathologist.
It became a balancing act. And, it was taxing. I might have been at home, but I was working more than I did when I was in the classroom. And, at times, it felt thankless, especially when the students didn’t turn in assignments or didn’t check in.
Some Bright Spots
While most students were not consistent, others were. In some cases, students that didn’t perform or take part in traditional classroom settings were consistent with completing the given assignments on Canvas. In one case, a quiet autistic student completed nearly every assignment given to her. And, the work revealed a lot about her competency in meeting the standards.
In addition, teachers were able to learn how to use the various tools offered. One teacher (a former classmate of mine) created a makeshift classroom in her living room and posted it live on Zoom. This attracted news coverage on a Sacramento TV news program.
It’s summer; however, distance learning is not going away. As of this writing, the pandemic is not slowing down. In California, most school districts have chosen to start the 2020-2021 school year with distance learning.
This is not without controversy. Distance learning has become political. The Trump administration wants schools to open (threatens to remove federal funding if they don’t). However, medical experts, state and district officials throughout the country warn against reopening schools without a sound plan.
As a result of the mixed messages coming from federal, state and local governments, some school districts will adopt a hybrid approach to the upcoming school year. My son’s school district is an example. They’ve decided to partially open their schools. Elementary schools (K-3rd grades) will be traditional in-class teaching. Grades 4th and 5th -- as well and middle and high schools -- will incorporate some face-to-face teaching and distance learning.
This can change, however, especially if parents and teachers have a say in the matter. In fact, as the pandemic worsens, many parents and teachers question reopening of schools in the Fall.
Whatever the case may be, distance learning is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s possible that this will lead to a new pedagogical approach, in which education will start reflecting the type of hybrid models that will start in some districts this September.
In addition, it will not be surprising that some courses will be moved exclusively onto the Internet. Before the pandemic, some reading intervention programs and credit recovery courses were either partially done on the Internet or fully placed on it.
There’s also been some benefits that the distance learning created for some students. Some initial reports indicate that students with special needs, in particular, those with emotional disorders, appeared to be more involved with it. Some suggest that the lack of distraction in the classroom was the reason for them excelling.
In my experience, students with high-functioning autism took to distance learning. They completed all assignments placed on Canvas and turned in excellent work. This, however, may be an outlier.
There are concerns that distance learning may have negative impacts on students with disabilities (again, based on personal experience, students within the autism spectrum -- especially lower than the other students mentioned before --- who had trouble navigating the Canvas program).
The first foray in distance learning was sloppy. And, for the most part, educators had to adjust and learn on the fly. As time progressed, it became easier. Will it become easy to transition to this form if something like the COVID-19 were to strike again?
Let’s hope so. Then again, let’s hope we don’t have another pandemic to disrupt daily life and learning.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Dean Traylor
Jack Shorebird from Central Florida, US on August 07, 2020:
My sister is a teacher. She is voicing similar concerns. The humanity is leaking out, not only of education though. Technology, email, texting--is changing how people interact. How they communicate--emotionally. Where does it lead? Good info.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 04, 2020:
Hmm. A lot to consider. Our ten year old is thriving. But we are hardcore at home teachers. But hey it is summertime now anyway so music and language and crafts are the ticket.
Harder to keep up with physical exercise.