No one thought we’ll be talking about remote learning for K-12 schools much less actually resorting to it in 2020. But COVID-19 has forced many school districts to go remote learning. Parents have struggled and are still struggling to adapt to this new form of learning for their young children. School districts and teachers are equally looking for ways to make it successful and better. Nevertheless, it is now dawning on us that this form of learning is here to stay, at least for now. Some parents have the option of allowing their children to go full remote. Others have the option of combining remote and in-person learning. Whatever choices school districts offer, and whatever option the parents are willing to allow their children to participate in, learning as it is now, has taken an unprecedented toll on teachers, students and parents.
Since remote learning is a new form of learning in our K-12 schools, there is no significant data available to fully evaluate the impact COVID-19 has had on our schools. What is obvious and noticeable are the many difficulties that teachers, students and parents have to contend with in the short run. Some of these difficulties are highlighted here.
Technical Issues: Remote learning essentially means that there is no in-person, face to face interaction between the teachers and the students. There is reliance on the use of technology to interact with the students in their homes or wherever the students can be accessible remotely. This warrants the reliance on the internet and computer or smartphone. In the best case scenario there is availability of computers or smartphones and internet, and the set up is perfect. But in the worst case scenario, even with the availability of all the above, the internet may be disrupted or spotty, thereby affecting learning. The instances of internet disruption are more likely to occur in rural America and in homes where high-speed internet is not affordable.
Unavailability of tools: It is estimated that about 15-16 million K-12 public school students in the United States live in homes where there is no high-speed internet and where learning devices such as laptops or tablets needed for remote learning are lacking. At the beginning of the pandemic when schools had to shut down, many school districts struggled to provide laptops and tablets for the students. Even as schools were preparing to resume for the Fall, there were backlogs of chromebooks orders, which the manufacturers feared would take months to fulfil. According to a recent study conducted by Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group published in June, the most affected students are in rural America and households with Blacks, Latinx and Native America. In a tweet from Kevin de Leon, President Pro-tempore of the California Senate, “About 40% of Latinos don’t have internet access”. According to Joint Center (jointcenter.org) in its August 4 publication, “34% of Black adults do not have home broadband, and 30.6% of Black households with one or more children age 17 or younger lack high-speed home internet (over 3.25 million Black children live in these households)”. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet”, June 12, 2019, Pew Research Center shows that only 21% of White Adults are affected. The lack of availability of necessary tools in the minority households is clearly a major concern. This disparity was recently brought to the limelight when two elementary school girls in Salinas, California were spotted outside a Taco Bell parking lot using Wifi to do their homework. This is one of the sad expositions the pandemic has brought to our collective attention.
In the same study conducted by Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group, it was further revealed that southern states tend to exhibit the largest digital divide for K-12 students. Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama show the highest deficit by proportion and Texas, California and Florida the largest by population.
Adapting to unfamiliar technology: Remote learning comes with the introduction of technology that the students (and teachers) were not familiar with. Technology such as google meet, zoom technologies were largely unfamiliar to some teachers and students because there were no needs for them. However, in the early weeks and months of remote learning these tools became the only tools teachers used to interact with students synchronously. There were struggles on all sides; teachers, students and parents. With the benefit of synchronous learning these tools offer other challenges of setup and successfully navigating through them to get learning uninterrupted became obvious. Few parents I talked to expressed their frustration due to lack familiarity and the potential risk these tools may expose their children to.
Lack of physical interaction: Conventional school for K-12 provides the opportunity of physical interactions between students in the classrooms and on the playgrounds, and between students and teachers. One of the impacts of remote learning that may take years before we can fully understand or evaluate is the lack of physical interactions between peers and interaction between teachers and students. The adverse effect of lack of interaction has expressed itself in many ways that have called to question the long term effect separation or remote learning may have on children. Physical and social interactions between children have a huge impact on their physical and mental development. Children learn from peers and thrive on interactions that help them grow. According to Dr. Jennifer Wojciechowski, a clinical child psychologist at Sharp Messa Vista Hospital, “Everyone needs social interaction to stay strong. But for young children in particular, learning how to connect with others is a vital skill for their development”. It is difficult for everyone including the children.
Longer hours staring at the computer: Remote learning comes with longer hours of staring at the computer. Long exposure to the computer can put a strain on the eyes. Study has shown that working on a computer screen for long hours can make people develop some symptoms which fall under the category called computer vision syndrome (CVS). This does not exclude children, especially those who spend long hours on the computer or tablet if the lighting and their posture are less than ideal.
Distractions: Children are susceptible to distractions of all kinds during learning, at times in the classroom. Distraction could become more pronounced in the home environment with all kinds of activities going on during remote learning. A single mother of two boys I spoke to recently lamented that her home environment is not conducive for total concentration for her 4th grader’s learning because while she is trying to help her 4th grader navigate through his lesson, her 8 month old son also needs her attention. According to her, her 8 month son intermittent cries distracts her 4th grader during his learning. Noises from the neighbor was another concern the mother raised. Classroom still remains the ideal place for children to learn but in this era of COVID-19 when children are forced to learn remotely from home or sometimes in the parking lots, as seen in the case of the two girls in Salinas, California, is not only inimical but disastrous to the academic success of our children.
Maintain Rigid Schedule: Remote learning has challenged and changed all involved in many ways. Teachers have to alter the ways they teach. Students have to learn new ways of learning and parents have to change their schedules or maintain a very rigid schedule to accommodate their children learning. Some parents have to negotiate with their employers to work from home so as to be able to accommodate their children’s learning at the same time. Time for house chores, doctor’s appointment, grocery shopping and doing other errands have to be on strict regimen.
It is a good time for the state and federal governments to take a good look at the disparity between urban and rural infrastructures that affect homes and in turn affect students’ learning. Living in the rural area should not cause the quality of learning the students receive to suffer. Parents should not just stick to party allegiance but should look beyond party affiliation and demand that whoever represents them bring good services which should include uninterrupted and affordable internet services.
The pandemic brought a lot of inadequacies in our schools to the limelight and one of them being an unbelievable shortage of computers, laptops and tablets in our schools. It is time the state and federal governments take a holistic look at education budgets and make adequate provisions for these learning tools. Each child in our K-12 schools should have access to a chromebook or tablet that enables him or her to make use of in a time like this. Learning should not be disrupted because of these tools considering the fact that the United States prides itself on being the wealthiest nation on earth. School districts across the nation should take another look at the school curricula and tweak teachers professional development days for fresh contents. Teachers and students should be exposed to the current technologies as the technologies are available. The school districts should ensure that teachers’ professional development days include mandatory training on new technologies that could be relevant in the classrooms or at homes in furtherance of students academic success.
Teachers have to include in their daily schedules a time when students can take a break. During the online breaktime or recess, parents can be of help to encourage their children to video chat with friends or call friends or simply go outside to play with siblings while enjoying the sun and breath fresh air. To cushion the effect of long exposure to computer related strain on the eyes, teachers should encourage their students to follow the 20-20-20 rule. The rule entails that students look away from the screen every 20 minutes, look at something around 20 feet away for about 20 seconds. Students can be encouraged to blink often to keep their eyes moist. Typical periods for lessons are at least 40-45 minutes long, breaks should be allowed between lessons for students to step away from the computers and reset. Parents should adjust the light in the room to a comfortable level and make sure the table or desk their children are using are set up at the right height. It is important that parents adjust their daily activities in ways that their daily activities do not coincide with their children’s learning periods, especially those circumstances they can control. For parents that can afford it, they can make changes to their schedule to work from home to be able to support their children. Maintaining a tight schedule is what this time calls for considering how difficult this may be to accommodate the children’s learning. This is what sacrifice looks like and I believe as parents, we are ready to go the extra mile for the successes of our children.
It is no fun time as the pandemic has wreaked and continues to wreak havoc on almost everything we know. We can not afford to give in but to stay focused and do the best we can to help and support our children in their learning. With the vaccination that has begun, I believe better days are closer than we first imagined. Let us keep reassuring the children that better days are ahead when things will return to normal even when our new normal may not be normal as we used to know it.
I want to use this opportunity to thank all the teachers and parents who are putting in their best to make sure that learning continues in spite of the time. You are also part of the frontline worker