Answer Sheet: Teachers, Parents and Principals Tell Their Stories About Remote Learning
The Network for Public Education, a nonprofit group that advocates for public schools, recently conducted a survey of parents and teachers to see how they were experiencing the sudden shift to remote learning because of the covid-19 crisis — and the results paint an interesting portrait of the homeschooling experiment now underway from coast to coast.
In this post, by Carol Burris, teachers and parents and principals tell their stories about how they are coping, and what they most worry about in this troubling period of schooling.
Burris is a former New York high school principal who serves as executive director of the Network for Public Education. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Burris has been writing for this blog for years about modern school restructuring and school choice.
By Carol Burris
When I asked Bronx high school Principal Jeff Palladino to describe his day recently, he replied: “That is hard to do. I don’t know when it begins and when it ends.”
He starts his day, he said, by checking into Google Classroom to see if students turned in their work. “Many of our students live in crowded apartments with family members that are ill, so the only time it’s quiet enough for them to do their work is at night,” he said.
Jeff Palladino is the principal of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, located in the most impoverished congressional district in the United States. Sixty percent of Fannie Lou Hamer students are Latino, and 39 percent are black. Their parents are either workers declared essential or suffering from the worry of being laid off.
The Bronx community that the high school serves has been devastated by covid-19. “Since this began, our students are losing family members," he said. "We lose two or three each week. We have lost an alumna. One of our students passed away, although we are not certain if the cause was covid-19. It is so hard because you cannot physically be there for them.”
Palladino told me about a student whom they could not contact for two weeks. Both parents had the virus, and she was caring not only for them but for the rest of the family as well. Everyone was relieved when they got the message that she was okay and catching up on her work.
In a New York suburb in hard-hit Nassau County, South Side High School Principal John Murphy begins his workday at 7 a.m.
“The first thing we do is check-in with our at-risk kids — kids with emotional issues, health issues, kids who were at-risk before covid-19," he said. "We call and make sure they are okay.” His school has lost four parents to the disease to date. One teacher, who since has recovered, was hospitalized and on a ventilator.
School counselors follow up with students who are struggling, speaking with parents as well as kids. Then Murphy moves on to supervising instruction by dropping in on online classes, with parent and teacher concerns, trouble-shooting software issues, and attending district meetings. Work moves into night and weekends, as crises pop up.
Murphy has high-praise for his teachers, who themselves are struggling to do the best they can. “Teachers and students miss each other desperately,” he said.
Meanwhile, Arthur Goldstein teaches his Francis Lewis High School students from his home on Long Island. His students are all beginning English Language learners. Some hide behind avatars in his virtual classroom. He worries about what is happening in their homes, which are often tiny apartments in Queens, New York, where covid-19 has taken a staggering toll.
In the Midwest, Fort Wayne elementary school teacher Eileen Doherty struggles to teach her inner-city students. She is dismayed by the differences between what her own children who attend a suburban school have when compared with those she teaches. One mom explained to her why schoolwork was not her first priority: “I am just trying to feed my children,"
Survey of emergency remote learning
Between April 8 to April 13, 2020, the Network for Public Education surveyed teachers and educators across the United States to find out how they were responding to and coping with the emergency closing of school buildings due to covid-19. The survey was distributed to our mailing list of 350,000, shared online via social media, and then subsequently shared by teacher, administrator, and family groups.
Here’s who responded: 7,249 public school teachers, 5,536 public school parents, and 354 public school administrators responded.
About half of the educator respondents reported that their own children are remotely learning, therefore it is possible that approximately half of the parent respondents are educators themselves. Responses came from every state.
In the educator surveys, urban, suburban, small city and rural districts were represented in proportions similar to the United States at large. Suburban parents were over-represented in the parent survey; however, 33 percent of respondents lived in urban centers or small cities. A majority of teachers (56 percent) taught in schools in which over half of the students received free or reduced-price lunch. Thirty percent taught in schools where the proportion of low socio-economic status students exceeded 80 percent.
In addition to the surveys, we conducted nine in-depth interviews with educators and parents from around the country to gain insights into emergency remote learning during the covid-19 pandemic. What follows is an account of what we found. You can find all three surveys and their results here.
A tough adjustment
Only 19 percent of teachers reported having completely adjusted; over 50 percent said their adjustment was difficult, and nearly 31 percent were, at the time of their response to the survey, still struggling to adjust. While 41 percent of parents reported that their child had adjusted and was able to complete assignments, 22 percent reported that their child was still struggling to adjust.
Emily Sawyer is the mother of five in Austin, Texas. Each of her children has reacted differently; each has his or her own adjustment challenges. Ironically, the child she worries about the most is her son who has transitioned the best. "He is the one who needs the most socialization that physical school attendance provides." She worries about his transition back to his brick and mortar school.
The difficulty of managing multiple children in a remote learning environment was echoed by Khanh-Lien Banko, who has four children in public schools in Alachua County, Florida. Both she and her husband are juggling to keep their children on task, while working remotely from home.
“We all have our devices in our home; however, it is still very, very difficult. Distance learning for middle-schoolers is probably the worst possible choice,” she said with a laugh.
The emotional toll
Over 80 percent of parents reported that their child misses his/her classmates, and over 60 percent reported they miss their teacher. Fifty-eight percent of parents told us their child misses sports and extracurricular activities, and 39 percent said he or she regularly expresses feelings of loneliness. Almost 10 percent — 9.5 percent — said their child prefers remote learning to classroom learning. Reactions were generally consistent across grade levels.
Teachers and administrators were asked to select adjectives that described how they were feeling regarding distance instruction. Both administrators (43 percent) and teachers (57 percent) most frequently chose “overwhelmed.” Large shares of both groups also chose “anxious” and “struggling.”
While 37.5 percent of administrators felt supported, only 29 percent of teachers chose that adjective as a descriptor. Eight percent of teachers and 11 percent of administrators were “enthusiastic” about distance learning.
For some children, attending school at home, coupled with the uncertainty about when they will return, has been traumatic. Khanh-Lien Banko’s youngest son “somehow got it in his head that he was going back in two weeks."
"When he found out he was not, he was heartbroken., she said. "All of our children are grieving and miss going to school.”
New York City teacher Gary Rubinstein told me his son “has wonderful teachers who create a social, highly interactive classroom in which he thrives.” Absent the support provided by teachers and friends, his young son is struggling both academically and emotionally.
Superintendent Joe Roy of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said he is proud of his teachers who are providing instruction; still, remote learning cannot begin to replace all of the socio-emotional benefits that learning with others offers.
He is acutely aware of the stress his families are going through as well. One father, a truck driver whose wife is a nurse, called to talk about how overwhelming it is as his family tries to balance work, health, and his children’s schoolwork. Roy’s message to his community is simple and straightforward: “Compassion before curriculum; grace before grades.” Roy uses self-produced videos to reassure his community, provide emotional support, and keep them informed.
Face-to-face contact, virtually
Sixty-four percent of teachers told us that they video-conference with their students at least once a week — 38 percent conference with students several times a week. Conferencing rates were relatively stable across school type with one exception—rural teachers were less likely to video conference (60 percent) than colleagues in city and suburban centers.
Although everyone we interviewed highly valued visual contact via technology, there were concerns regarding privacy issues, especially in the context of streamed classroom instruction.
“Kids are used to saying whatever they want, whenever they want on social media, and there is a fear, especially among students who have been bullied, that harassment will take place in online classrooms — including harassment that can be recorded and then shared,” said Principal Murphy.
Incidences of classrooms being “crashed” by non-students, other family members being seen on camera, and even an instance when a parent recorded and critiqued a lesson, have been posted on administrator email lists, giving schools pause when it comes to the use of live, online lessons.
Online live classroom management can also be more difficult. Goldstein, the teacher on Long Island, lamented that he could not control student behavior online the way he can in his classroom, in which he can cajole reluctant learners to participate.
“When they hide behind avatars it is difficult to see if they are engaged or lying in bed during class," he said. "But I have to respect their privacy, so I feel I have no right to tell them to come out from behind the avatar.”
Dual roles for teachers
Rubinstein teaches mathematics at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School. At the same time, he is taking care of two school-age children, one of whom has a learning disability.
Being isolated has taken a toll on his son, and hours of effort are required to help him do his work. He walked me through his exhausting daily schedule, explaining how he divides his time supporting his children and teaching his students. Rubinstein said he carefully crafts videos that students can watch on demand, posts assignments, and teaches a live class every day.
According to our survey, 76 percent of teachers work a minimum of five hours a day, with 20 percent logging in more than nine hours a day. Eighty-eight percent of administrators were working five or more hours a day, with more than 32 percent exceeding a nine-hour work day. Half of all teacher and administrator respondents have school-age children at home.
The tools and online platforms that teachers and schools are using vary. Seventy-two percent of all teachers email students. Sixty-four percent use Google Classroom, and 32 percent use Google Meet to create classroom groups. Zoom, which has been hit with privacy and intrusion concerns, is also a frequently used platform for conferencing and instruction (40 percent).
Whatever the platform, the delivery of instruction is challenging, educators say.
Murphy of South Side High School quickly learned that trying to keep up the pace of the in-school curriculum is an impossibility. “Learning a topic takes twice as long online.”
Teachers and students were burning out. “I finally had to tell them to slow down,” he said.
Not only were his teachers and students overloading, so were the online platforms they were using. “Once schools on the West Coast came online, everything would slow to a crawl. Students became frustrated as they futilely attempted to submit their work," he said.
Because Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School is a performance-based assessment school, free from the regulations that demand adherence to the New York State Regents curriculum, the transition to remote instruction has been easier.
“Project-based learning is the centerpiece of our instruction," Palladino said. “A test is not our endpoint, so our work in many ways has not changed. Teachers do not have to redo the curriculum.”
The school will have its cumulative portfolio conferences virtually. “Our teachers have been able to do office hours, small group conferencing, and one-on-one conferencing to support student work. It is a good match for what we do.”
Still, Palladino said, online learning is not optimal or a long-term strategy for the school. “What keeps remote learning going for us are the relationships we built before the building closed,” he said.
Fannie Lou Hamer is a full-service community school, with an 11-year relationship with The Children’s Aid Society. Relationships with community organizations that continue to support students, as well as strong advisory groups, have helped keep afloat instruction in a community devastated by covid-19.
Palladino said he also worries that his staff is overly concerned about students falling behind. “My teachers are entirely too hard on themselves. I have to tell them not to worry," he said. " We will figure all of this out.”
Connectivity and instruction
One of the greatest challenges for schools in implementing distance learning is providing access to both devices and connectivity. According to our survey, only 35 percent of administrators believe that all of their students have their own laptop or a tablet. Sixty-four percent of administrators reported some device distribution to fill the technology gap. Sixteen percent indicated that they had distributed laptops or tablets to all students before the covid-19 crisis began.
Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School modified and distributed 300 Chromebooks from their school supply. When 30 students were unable to pick them up, Palladino drove into the Bronx and distributed the laptops from his car window, he said. The school also distributed hot spots.
“Without connectivity, the laptop is just a paperweight," he said.
Students in Grades 8-12 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had Chromebooks, but students in Grades K-7 did not. Roy loaned school-based laptops to families, with priority going to those who have no laptops at all.
In the Duarte Unified School District in California, where 78 percent of all students receive free or reduced-price lunch, middle and high school students already had a school-issued laptop, but elementary students did not.
Heather Messner, teacher and union president, said school-based laptops are being given out, and “hot-spots” are distributed to families without internet services. In addition, Duarte teachers create paper learning packets, which school principals copy and distribute at both food-distribution centers and schools, trying to leave no child without instruction.
In some places, devices and connectivity shortages are particularly severe.
Fort Wayne, Indiana teacher Eileen Doherty told us, “Some of my students wait for their mother to come home so that they can access her phone to do the work. About 20 percent of my students come to my class on Zoom each day, and it is not even the same 20 percent.” Getting laptops to seniors who need them for credit recovery for graduation has been the first priority in Fort Wayne, she said.
Schools as centers of community
Nearly 95 percent of all school administrators reported that their school(s) were engaging in the distribution of food.
Roy runs eight support sites in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — seven from his schools, and one in a low-income housing center. The sites distribute food at the rate of 3,000 meals a day to the families of public, charter, and parochial school students.
According to Florida parent and PTA advocate, Khanh-Lien Banko, the district's food service is providing 20,000 meals a day at 76 locations. Fannie Lou Hamer distributes "grab and go" breakfasts and lunches to any community member who walks through the door.
But schools are doing far more than just distributing food to the public. They are providing emotional support services as well as making connections between families and social services.
There is a worry about families who have slipped through the cracks. Banko, who is a leader of the PTA in Florida and running for the school board in Alachua County, told us that despite outreach emails and phone calls, it has not been possible to contact every family. “School faculty and staff are now going door to door to check on kids and families in accordance with safety guidelines," she said.
The first priority
Fifty-five percent of teachers and 59 percent of administrators believed that students are likely to fall academically behind. Parents are more optimistic — only 27 percent thought their child would lag academically, likely a reflection of the large share of teacher-parents who took the survey. Large proportions of all three surveyed groups believed that they could not come to a judgment regarding student progress at this time (34 percent of teachers, 30 of administrators of administrators, 29 percent of parents.)
In every interview, student academic performance came second to worry about the physical and emotional health of children.
Rubinstein said worried about the health and safety of his predominantly Asian-American students, many of whom live in small, multi-generational apartments in Queens County of New York City. Not only are they living in one of the hardest-hit places in America, he told me, but they are also dealing with bias stemming from the origins of the disease.
Texas parent Emily Sawyer said she worried the most for the black and brown children of Austin, who had fewer resources and support than her five children. And the inability to physically see and support every child through the pandemic weighed deeply on everyone’s mind.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative non-profit think-tank, suggested that one solution to academic loss was to have large shares of students, especially those in Title I Schools, repeat their present grade. I asked interviewees what they thought of that idea.
All strongly disagreed, saying it was an ineffective and punitive measure. Goldstein, on Long Island, said, “That is heartless and cruel to punish kids for something they can’t control. We are through 70 percent of the school year … That is saying to kids. ‘You came for nothing.’”
Goldstein and a team of teachers from his school proposed a grading policy for students that would "do no harm," with teachers not assigning grades lower than the grade the student had achieved when the school building closed.
In states further south and west of the New York metropolitan area, schools were even closer to the end of the year. Fort Wayne teacher Doherty noted that most of April would have been devoted to prepping for and taking state-wide tests, with schools then closing in May.
Banko told us there was one upside to remote learning. Since state tests were canceled, the assignments students were being given were far more interesting than the usual spring test prep. “I am seeing more creativity and collaboration than I have seen in years," she said.
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