***Names have been changed with respect to my friends.***
In the recent wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, American educators are scrambling to figure out a new normal as campuses prepare to reopen in August. In a virtual meeting, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said it will be up to school districts to continue online instruction or return to in-person classes, or perhaps a combination of both. Though, if educators are going to continue with remote learning or a hybrid, we probably have to address some of the tomfoolery caused by this “solution.”
For instance, it seems like remote learning was only really beneficial for more affluent schools/students. (And, let’s be real here, rich kids are probably going to Lori Loughlin their way to college anyways.) But for everyone else, online education kinda sucks. The only finite thing we’ve learned from this byzantine experiment to save our fragile American education system was that both teachers and students were overwhelmed by the complications exacerbated by remote learning.
“I think the world needs to see that the teachers are breaking,” Jessica Lifshitz, Northbrook, Ill, wrote. What was meant to be a solution has only been a shower of tears for this 5th-grade teacher. The shift to virtual learning has put a tremendous strain on Lifshitz’s professional and personal life. In spite of her best ability to respond to an ever-growing list of requests from administrators, parents are blaming her and her peers for their child’s lackluster performance on social media. “And then yet somehow, we are made to feel, by the world, that it is still not enough.”
Talk about kicking a horse while it’s down. Needless to say, the transition was a mess. For real, for real, the Department of Education’s hasty-remote-learning-plan was just a fluffer for pissed off parents with no real end game. Thank you, Betsy.
“It was just so clear that our school system had no real plans for the pandemic or how to roll out virtual learning at all,” Annie Tan told The New Republic. “Not that anyone expected any of this to happen, but to have no contingency at all and then to shift the burden to educators is demeaning and demoralizing.”
In the midst of checking up with her students and their parents, the 5th-grade teacher from Brooklyn had to quickly learn the new software while simultaneously showing her students how to use it. “So because none of us teachers had ever used Google Classroom, as we were calling up students’ parents and checking in, we were also learning the system ourselves.” Again, remote learning wasn’t a practical solution for Tan; it was just another thing to worry about.
A vital reason why Tan’s students had a hard time doing online assignments is because some of them actually didn’t even have the essential hardware to do the online assignments. Remote learning doesn’t work, if them kids can’t do the assignments! And when Tan put in the request for devices from the DoE, she had to wait over a month for them to arrive. “It was just crazy,” she said, which is probably a gross understatement.
One would think technology shouldn’t have been a problem, right? Compared to when I was a teen, growing up having to remember phone numbers because I didn’t have a freakin PAGER, these kids should have been loaded with tech!
How can this be? This is America, we’re a first world country. We should be trying to tackle first world problems like picking the right Instagram filter or what to order off Uber Eats. Despite the recent plague of TikTok videos, a surprising number of American students don’t have sufficient access to technology. (Unlike those tech-savvy Japanese kids who gots giant robots and shit!)
James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense, told USA Today that roughly about 12 million low-income and rural-based kids do not have adequate access to high-speed internet and modern devices. “Now that most American school kids must learn from home because of COVID-19, it is an even bigger problem,” he said. So if you’re poor or live in the middle of nowhere, you’re probably gonna have a hard time learning remotely.
But for Lifshitz and her students, their struggle with remote learning is much more than a technology problem. “I watched as my fellow teachers began to reveal the cracks that we had all been trying so desperately trying to cover up.”
I believe the cracks she mentioned are about the learning inequalities between affluent and at-risk students. Lifshitz doesn’t outright say it, but, like how a televangelist feels an invisible holy spirit during a Sunday broadcast, I feel it. (I’m not trying to knock religion, but I feel some sort of fire when I see those saved jumping around after being touched by a preacher.) If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the movie Freedom Writers, or just check out the “Nice White Lady” sketch by MADtv on YouTube. Oh, and I also grew up poor and went to public school.
But don’t just take my word for it.
“The messy transition to remote learning in America’s K-12 education system as a result of COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by glaring disparities among schools,” Benjamin Herold wrote in Education Week. His piece reviewed a survey done by the EdWeek Research Center about inequalities within remote learning during the Coronavirus pandemic. Check it out, it has some sweet pictures of some sexy, sexy charts.
Herold claimed “the most significant gaps between the country’s poorest and wealthiest schools” are “around access to basic technology and live remote instruction.” Basically, if you or your school have money, then you’re going to have a better chance with remote academics than poor people. “As it’s done with the country’s health care system, economy, and social safety net, the pandemic is exposing . . . the deep inequities that have long shaped American public education.”
*Cough* Aunt Becky and the college admissions scandal *Cough*
Herold did point out that teachers in lower-income schools were more likely to contact their students and have a more creative curriculum. Like Dave Chapelle said, you better learn how to dance or something. So, good luck?
To be honest, I didn’t even think about how teachers felt during this pandemic until I came across Lifshitz’s blog. Everyone whom I’ve talked to assume that teachers have it good right now with remote learning since they are employed and working from home. But after speaking with my friend about her online teaching experience, I learned that it was quite the opposite.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” NorCal told me. “This huge equity problem has always been there, but this time it’s like, IDK, shooting at it point-blank.” So despite being in different states, these three teachers are having the same problems with remote learning. “It’s going to take years for us to recover.”
It’s a tale as old as time: poor kids learn bad, school hard. Growing up, the pressure to do well in school sometimes psyche me out. So it’s not surprising that these students, who are having a hard time with remote learning, are skipping online instructions.
According to a poll of 849 teenagers by Common Sense Media, a whopping 4 out of 10 students said they didn’t even bother with remote learning. Ditching class isn’t something new, but with modern problems, students are using modern solutions.
“The absence rate appears particularly high in schools with many low-income students, whose access to home computers and internet connections can be spotty,” Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu, and Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in The New York Times. “Some teachers report that fewer than half of their students are regularly participating.” Researchers fear some students might be forced to repeat a grade or be pushed to the next degree prematurely if they do not participate with remote learning.
Though attendance might not be enough if students are distracted during an online lecture. “You just can’t teach students who have their mics and screens off,” NorCal said. Remote learning just becomes the Judge Judy students put on in the background just to fulfill an attendance requirement. The lack of mental focus can affect a student’s motivation to learn and complete assignments.
“I have 90 students; from each class, about 3-4 don’t look at the weekly overview of assignments that have the directions and resources like videos, etc. But you can tell that more don’t watch the videos from the type of things they ask.”
“The videos are 5 minutes and take me all day to make. It’s just a lot of f**king work, and I’m going insane,” NorCal said. Teachers put in a lot of hard work to ensure students have the right tools to learn remotely. So when a student doesn’t even attempt to use the materials created, it can affect a teachers’ motivation. “And I don’t even get the reward of seeing my students.”
“They would be like ‘I’m struggling with this,’ and I would ask them if they watched the video,” NorCal said. “Typically, they would say no, and then I would tell them to watch the video and then get back to me. After that, they would magically do the assignment.”
“They have an hour of work. If it looks like the students tried, then awesome. Done. It depends on the age.” NorCal said that some of her students ask questions as a means of encouragement, a little nudge, to get started on assignments. “Kids are dependent on teachers, yes. I get a lot of confirmation questions where they ‘ask’ questions like that. And I’m happy to be like ‘Yes, that’s right.'” This human relationship between a teacher and student isn’t as accessible with remote learning.
Another friend of mine, Cali, also believes remote learning is detrimental to a student’s motivation. “It makes motivating students to maintain their work ethic from a distance difficult,” he said. “I’d love to be able to interact with my students, but because of privacy laws, our district can only allow one-way communication (i.e., post a video to Google Classroom).”
According to the EdWeek survey, the social aspect of schooling is beneficial and can even help kids be more mentally present. “For many children, under many circumstances, the chance to talk with a teacher and see friends and receive personal support for social-emotional concerns remains fundamental to what school is all about,” Herold wrote. Seeing your friends on a computer screen or emailing your teacher might emulate that feeling but will always fall short.
“I do miss being in school,” Kayden, a student, told me. “Having someone teaching you is easier than randomly doing it at home. Plus, I can’t see all those loud people that annoy me but are still my friends.”
Students in the Common Sense poll said they have a hard time focusing on school because they are worried about the coronavirus pandemic. 4 out of 5 teens said they have been closely following the news. More than 60% said they are afraid of contracting the virus or someone in their family will be exposed to it (which might affect their family’s income).
Unsurprising, at-risk students or teenagers of color who took the poll said they are more likely to be worried about the pandemic. I understand if the last thing you want to do, when you’re a hormonal imbalance teenager feeling “more lonely than usual,” are some online classes and just want to post sad kitty memes. I do it all the time.
An Insider piece slyly suggested that schools should actually abandon the idea of remote learning since it may cause unwanted stress. “Many parents say they’re more concerned about the consequences of pushing their children too hard.” The author believed this pandemic could be a chance for students to relax and be kids. Schools out, baby.
The report featured a career teacher, Christine Tyler, who is allowing her two sons to play Dungeons and Dragons with friends on Zoom. They are also learning Japanese and analyzing the stock market on their own time. Another parent, Andrea Pinkus, said that instead of fighting with her son (who has ADHD) and jeopardizing their family’s mental health, she rather skip the home school thing altogether and focus more on family time.
These parents and teachers are just saying the hell with it. But what about the kids who can just throw their hands in the air like they just don’t care? What about the kids who don’t need to roleplay Dungeons and Dragons because their lives don’t need any more fantasy to raise the stakes since failing primary education is already stressful enough?
Oh snaps, here’s where we can see some of that disparity of learning inequalities between at-risk and affluent students everyone’s been talking about. I’m not trying to bash these parents; I’m just trying to look at this from all POV.
Compared to the students like the ones in the Insider piece, some students don’t have the luxury of having a parent working from home or learning Japanese when they got other shit to worry about! At-risk students don’t have the privilege to opt-out of remote learning since missing school can negatively affect their academic future.
“It’s the same story,” African-American studies professor at UC Berkeley, Janelle Scott said in the EdWeek Survey. “Districts with more resources are likely going to be able to avail themselves of higher-quality instruction, and higher-income families are going to be much better positioned to support [remote] learning than less-resourced families who don’t have the privilege of staying at home.”
Also, only 18% of private school students reported skipping class in the Common Sense poll. Correlation? Naw, probably not.
“I see that in my own classes,” NorCal said. “Little boys are especially having problems with remote learning. Most of my [absent] kids are either ESL or little boys who just can’t time manage and do the work on their own.” On the plus side, she mentioned that her ESL families tend to spend more time with each other, especially Latinx girls. “In my ESL families, they are helping out their family while trying to do school work.” This is also reflected in the Common Sense poll “They are also overwhelmed and sad,” she said of her students.
Of course, educators only know what students and parents tell them. “Just yesterday, I was helping a girl who struggles with one-on-one live teaching, and I wondered why she hadn’t finished something,” NorCal said. “And her mom called me to tell me she was crying and couldn’t meet.” Without knowing for a definite fact what a students’ home situation is like, teachers can only try to provide the tools and hope for the best. “I don’t think she’s being abused. But obviously, she can’t handle the modified work. But in the end, I don’t know.”
No matter how available teachers are for their students, parents play a critical role in making remote learning a success. Unfortunately, some parents had a hard time teaching their kids because they are unfamiliar with the material or cannot use the tech.
“Meanwhile, distance learning requires a lot from parents,” Anna North wrote for VOX. “Who have to make sure that kids have the tools they need, are using them correctly, and then help them stay on task and complete assignments in the absence of face-to-face contact with teachers and other school staff.” She also pointed out that some lower-income families had to share tech or were limited in areas within their homes suitable for studying.
ESL parents have it rough, but some parents who can speak English aren’t even trying to teach their kids. “With the school, things didn’t work. Nothing worked!” Jerry, 44, told N.Y. Post. “They were supposed to set up online classes, but it didn’t work. We don’t know what to do.”
“Parents, including myself, are incredibly frustrated with the district’s lack of leadership in providing our children with adequate distance learning opportunities,” Bay Area parent Shanna Abeloff told the SFGate. “We are also incredibly frustrated with Rooftop’s lack of leadership in this arena as well. Our principals have not required our teachers to provide consistent, constructive work for our kids. “
I understand that not every parent wants to feel ill-equipped to teach their kids, but there is a sense of obligation to be, you know, a parent. Jokes. My father taught me every day when he was finished with work, even though it came with a backhand threat. Also jokes. Kinda.
Cali also had a hard time communicating with parents. “I can personally message them, and do. But so few choose to communicate regularly.” Without an open forum of communication, teachers cannot help plan their students’ success if they aren’t doing the remote learning. “It’d be great if more parents actually became parents during this time.” Parents need to have the teachers back and re-enforcing what the teachers are assigning or else nothing gets done! “The reality is that the majority of students sit at home and play video games/watch tv/listen to music. I do try and encourage my students to read every day, though.”
“Basically, parents want more and more. And I feel like nothing is ever enough.” NorCal spoke of her frustration with Chads and Karens. “Basically, I don’t want to deal with parents unless I have to.” She told me how some parents can be confrontational if they believe a teacher is giving them bad news about their child. “It’s sensitive to be told that your kid is struggling.” She also warns the possibility of parents hurting their kids or shifting the blame on you.
NorCal gave me an example of a prissy comment a parent has said: “The work is boring and not good enough to keep my kid engaged.”
None of the educators I’ve spoken to said this, but some parents can be a bag of dicks. I know it’s not their intention to take their aggression out on teachers, but damn. Take some responsibility for your kids’ education, yo. To be fair, not all parents are dicks. The majority of them are appreciative, like the ones in this BoardPanda post.
CNN reported how some young teachers are afraid of being fired after the wake of remote learning. “Oh, for sure, that’s gonna happen,” NorCal said. “There’s not enough money now. Budget cuts are def coming everywhere.” Her job is secured next year, but after that, she doesn’t know. It was hard to hear how someone with so much passion for teaching is shafted by the current model of online education.
“Ah, man, I’m sorry. You just made me realize I might get fired. I don’t have tenure,” NorCal couldn’t help but get emotional when she spoke of the possibility of getting fired post-Rona. “My position was supposed to go into tenure after next year. But if they do decide to let go of teachers, I will go. It’s okay! Who knows?!”
Recently, the U.S. government had approved $31 billion in funding for public schools. But I think the problems exposed by remote learning can’t be solved by just throwing money at it, hoping it crawls back into its troll hole.
Lifshitz suggested that educators must have a difficult conversation with parents and students to better understand the situation and make better decisions. “Complex problems cannot be solved by simple rules and mandates,” she said.
Tan also believed the conversation to reopen schools should include teachers. She said teachers were not “interviewed about how we thought remote learning should go,” but they are still the ones “rolling it out.” She is tired of how “Teachers are constantly left out of education policy and of making decisions about” on how to educate their students.
So, what have we learned about remote learning from the past few months? Teachers are crying, students are just mentally checking out because, believe it or not, they are emotionally intelligent, and parents are pissed. On top of that, people might get fired next year. Truth be told, remote learning has been nothing more than a digital band-aid the Department of Education used to reassure parents that their child will still receive their tax-paid-underfunded-public education.
I don’t know how to fix the American Education system if remote learning is still around when school opens. But I do know that it’s not the Flex Tape solution many would hope. I could repeat what Lifshiz, Tan, NorCal, or Cali have said, but at this point, I would just be a broken record. Maybe we should pay teachers more? Whatever, I’ll just leave you with some words from NorCal, “We’re [teachers] just sad and upset; I cry almost every day.”
PS: Here’s a funny rap video to end this post on a light note.