Wednesday, June 10, marked the official end of distance learning in Portland Public Schools and in school districts around the nation. This was the first ever interval of mass at-home learning performed in history. Over the past three months, students, teachers, and administrations across the world had to adapt their education models to fit a home learning environment.
This transition was unprecedented. And the reactions of teachers district wide show the effects of an unprepared for event that left school districts searching for a quick fix to an unanticipated challenge.
Distance learning in PPS schools has made drastic changes to the ways in which students learn, and on the schedule in which everyone operates. Due to teacher furloughs in order to save money for the following 2020-21 school year, all PPS staff worked four day weeks, Monday through Thursday. Each class had a designated one hour slot once a week. The coursework covered in the past three months of distance learning was thus cut, with the district advising teachers to not assign more than two hours of work a week. The materials covered in these three months was much less than it would have been had in-school learning remained the medium of education throughout the second semester of the 2019-20 school year.
Distance learning in Portland Public Schools (PPS) officially began in early April, after individual schools distributed Chromebooks to allow students with limited technology resources to do their schoolwork at home. The transition to distance learning created many issues for low-income students who depended on school for two meals a day, and individual schools attempted to minimize these inequities by whatever means they were able to provide. Many staff members took leadership to serve their communities, while PPS offered free WiFi to students and distributed meals. However, the results of distance learning were inevitable: for some, this system worked much better than others.
“Students in need of individual support from teachers are less likely to receive help, and if students have responsibilities at home such as helping to take care of younger siblings, they may not be able to invest the same amount of time and energy into their schoolwork as their classmates can. Technology barriers also, of course, continue to be an issue. If we return to online learning in the future, it would be beneficial to ensure that all students have a device and access to wifi and to immediately provide them with clear academic expectations,” said Matthew Parker, English and Advanced Speech and Debates teacher.
In reality distance learning could only exacerbate the disparities already existent within the standard educational system, and those with consistent Internet access, devices at home, and time not obscured by working for their families or watching younger siblings were able to complete distance learning much more easily. The data on these trends is not yet fully known.
“I spend a lot of time sending emails to students and parents. I usually get a response, but there are still some students I have yet to hear from and I have no idea why,” said IB math teacher Liz Crow. Crow says it is difficult as a teacher to manage disengaged students, who do not show up to classes nor turn in work. While she is able to reach most of them, some have remained unreachable throughout these past three months. This is a large concern within distance learning: that some students are struggling to learn, and teachers and schools have no power to support them.
“I want the feeling of making an impact back,” said Health teacher Camille Adana. She talks about the difficulty of teaching on a screen that minimized the amount of social and emotional learning, which is critical to her classes. “I miss everything,” Adana added, “the bells ringing, the intercom, flex time, being in students’ proximity, talking to my co-workers, junior class cabinet. I miss coaching boys tennis. It has been very difficult. A part of my identity is being at Cleveland.”
Some teachers are finding new and creative ways to rebuild the community that many staff members are missing alongside Adana. Alicen Gaitanis, a student teacher for multiple freshman and junior classes, has experienced similar difficulties.
“Continuing to build relationships and physically being there for students (especially if they are struggling) is so important. Not getting that in person opportunity has been quite difficult,” she said. Teachers have been put into a position where they have to engage students in an online environment. This unprecedented situation calls for new solutions. “I am trying to find more interactive connections through virtual classes for not only teacher-student, but peer-to-peer engagement,” added Gaitanis, about how she is attempting to overcome the struggles of not being able to teach in-person.
Gaitanis worked with a fellow teacher, Julia Blattner, to develop a weekly online cooking class for their freshmen students. This is one of many strategies that teachers have developed to confront the loss of a physical learning space with their students. These new spaces which are being created, such as Gaitanis’ and Blattners’ cooking class, facilitates interaction between teachers and their students, and also provides an opportunity for students to interact with their peers in new ways.
Other classes, such as theater, have required a shift in the focus of material being taught. James Payne, Cleveland’s theater director, said, “We have moved away from things in theater being from the viewpoint of the actor and started thinking of the playwright, director and designer. Writing and reading about theater works well in the discussion format.” This shift is not limited only to theater. Many classes have adapted course material that normally functions in a way dependent upon in-person interaction.
Cleveland’s choral department has had to go through a shift. “For a performance class we have completely lost the ability to work together as a class in “real-time” music making. Virtual choirs are a huge push right now but they are usually over 70hrs of video editing labor on the teacher’s side and are not students singing live together (despite it looking like it),” said Cleveland choir teacher Angela Bassett. Bassett has decided to focus on a distance learning approach that allows students to choose how they want to express their musicality each week, which has many positive benefits, as the learner is able to control their own learning based on their interest. However, this brings up a concern that seems to resonate with all teachers: the newfound student ability to choose to do, or not do, the work.
Many teachers have expressed a lack of being able to take action if students choose not to engage with school materials and virtual classes. This is an issue unknown to in-school learning, as teachers can check in with their students every day. Accountability mechanisms are built into the functioning of in-school learning, participation in class and in classwork is regulated and mandated. This is much more challenging in a virtual environment.
This is not the only challenge facing distance learning. Course material has been severely limited over the past three months to make learning more accessible, and it will most likely create a knowledge gap between the students of the 2019-20 school year and students of past school years who were in their places. Going into the 2020-21 school year, students will lack knowledge that they would have normally obtained after completing this school year. IB Spanish teacher Susan Douglass said, “Absolutely there will be a gap. I’ve seen the decline in students’ ability since we moved to a block schedule where students have more classes and teachers have more students. And now with even less instructional time, the gap will be even greater.”
For certain classes summer homework is already being recommended so that students can review and prepare themselves for difficult IB tests that take place junior and senior years, while in others meets are planned over the summer to organize student-led classes for the coming year.
Despite these challenges, there have been many positive outcomes of distance learning. Throughout the past three months teachers have been challenging their students to use this time to grow themselves and take their learning into their own hands. Many students have gone above and beyond in this new distance learning environment, and Douglass has had one of those experiences in which students have made the labor distance teaching oh so worth it.
After seniors technically graduated from school early on in the distance learning process, they were no longer obligated to attend their classes. However, Douglass said, “I have a group from my 9/10 classes who come every week and apologize if they can’t make it. I see in them a love of learning and such resilience and positivity.” Many students have risen to the challenges presented by distance learning and taken responsibility for their education in these unprecedented circumstances, giving everyone faith for the future.
Most teachers have transitioned to hosting live meets or “classes” every week on a virtual platform, and students are able to participate in an online community fostered by their teachers. Class discussions have taken new life in these platforms, and facilitated by teachers students are able to continue having constructive class discussions about the content they are learning. Curriculum has been distilled to its core components, making it accessible and achievable for students to succeed at home, with limited resources. Teachers have made themselves available to students whenever they need support.
This is a new era of education which has never before been crossed at so great a magnitude, and the results? Teachers are becoming more comfortable with online platforms, and are experiencing ways in which their students can personalize their learning experience. More than anything, teachers and students alike have felt the inequity of the distance learning method, and have seen the quality of education deteriorate. They are also reminded about why they love teaching. IB Coordinator Jennifer Wiandt said, “It has reminded me of what I love about it. I love being together. I have a much stronger sense for the humanity of the educational experience. It is more than information and assignments. There is a stronger connection to collective purpose.”
Teachers and students alike are reflecting on what the in-person learning system has to offer. Although it may not be perfect, there is something about the physical learning environment that cannot be replicated on virtual platforms. Teachers are ready to embrace the return to at-school learning, whenever that is once again deemed safe.
Douglass says what is on all of their minds, “We adore our students and wish we could be in the classroom engaging with you. We wish you strength, a critical mind and to always be part of your community who needs positive leadership with a strong moral compass. You are talented and wonderful people who will rise to the occasion we have been handed. You are in our thoughts and our hearts.”