Distant and (still?) Unequal: Parents and Educators on #DistanceLearning during COVID-19

Over the last month, schools nationwide have transitioned to various forms of online learning. Under the banners of ‘remote learning’, distance learning, ‘home school’, and others; students, teachers, parents, and education advocates have all navigated the transition in a multitude of ways. We asked a few people to share how they’re dealing with this new normal:

1) Describe your typical day navigating this new normal of schooling at home due to COVID-19

Evelia Ruiz, Parent & Social Worker, Gwinnett County, GA — I have four children, 3 are still in public school, two are high schoolers. My sophomore is very good at school, but he does not like the way he’s being taught now. He says that they give them a section to read, and then they have to answer questions after reading the section, and he really enjoyed the cool lecture style of his teacher and taking notes. He’s a note-taker, so he says reading and then having to come up with your own conclusions so quickly for a small paragraph is frustrating, because he would like to have all the information, move on with taking his notes, and then use his notes to do the work. We’ve taken an approach where we print out the lecture and he answers the questions even though he’s not very happy because he doesn’t capture the gist of all the information. He says it would be so much easier if he had a lecture, and then he could take his notes and get his words out. Not necessarily having to respond to what he just read. That’s only one of the pieces he’s struggling with. It took about two weeks to see that he was having a hard time, and I had to push him to share that with me. He’s an introvert. So he doesn’t like asking for help…But we do have access to a computer, we have access to a printer, which is not something everyone else has access to. I’m very lucky that I have access to all this.

Unika Colbert, Parent & Education Advocate, Las Vegas, NV — It’s been really challenging because I know that I’m not really a teacher. I don’t have that gift that I believe teachers have, you know? What they do is special. Prior to COVID-19, with my son who’s five in kindergarten, he already had this feeling that schoolwork shouldn’t really be done at home. In his mind, he goes to school, he does work, he comes home and that’s it. We’re at home. He’s not really liking the concept of having ‘homework’ or being at home doing work. So for me, this has been a challenge because when it’s time to do work with him and come up with activities, it’s tough. While his school is using Class Dojo as a means to be able to keep the students engaged, and being able to go on there has been helpful, now I have to be the one work with him and go through it with him, which doesn’t, always really work out. I feel like sometimes kids do better with other people, especially other authority figures.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah, Author & Educator, Boston, MA — This is actually the first school year in 14 years that I was not in the classroom. A lot of work I was doing was freelance. I was doing math tutoring, in-person math tutoring with different students. I was also writing some articles for different publications, talking about different topics in education, as well as doing some consulting projects on the side for different schools and districts. So when COVID-19 made its presence felt, I was already in this mode that people are trying to get into now, with teachers and parents trying to reinvent themselves and do things to supplement their time. I was already doing it throughout the year. So it hasn’t really been that much different. If it has impacted me in any way, it’s probably with the tutoring aspect of my work. I’m not able to meet my clients in-person because of social distancing. Otherwise, it hasn’t been that much of a difference on the personal front.

2) Everyone’s had to make major shifts on the fly. What’s been your biggest adjustment to teaching or learning remotely?

ER: Communication. It’s a big deal. If I don’t hear from the teachers or know what’s happening, I’m basically emailing the teachers at the end of the day. I take the time to do it, to make sure that they’re [my children] doing everything, and some of the teachers have learned that if the work not getting done, they’re emailing me to let me know. I’m bilingual, and I feel for my parents who don’t speak English. How is that going for them? How are schools dealing with that? I’m blessed to be a social worker because I have work. So does my husband, but most of our families here are Hispanic families who work in the restaurant industry. I know they’re not working… How are those kids doing? To me, it’s not only about my kids but also the kids in my area. Have forgotten that there’s this big economic disparity in this county? We have people who are homeless. People who can barely make it. As I said, I feel very blessed that I’m a social worker. I am scared. I’m going to work, but I’m still happy that I can provide for my family, but the bills are still coming. I think about who cannot afford the internet, who cannot afford to have a printer, and paper and ink. It was really weird that the first day [of remote education]  my youngest said, “Oh, I gotta print this out.” First, we were trying to figure out how to do the math homework, and he had totally forgotten how to deal with it. And then supposedly, he was supposed to copy and paste his answers onto a PDF, since the teacher was sending it as a PDF. So we’re copying and pasting it, trying to download it as a PDF and my computer is about 10 years old. So it wouldn’t take the PDF. We had to copy and paste it into Microsoft Word, and then print it. And then my son was like, “Wait! wait!” He remembered to ask his brother how to do it, and his brother said you just have to do this and this and then he remembered how to do deal with the file. They got to it and they were able to figure it out together. But what about a middle schooler that doesn’t a have high school brother?  In my head, I was like, ‘Woah!’,  you know? Also, one computer that we were given by the school froze a couple of times. My daughter who had attended an alternative school knew how to reset the computer to get it to work. So, I’m in a position where I am very blessed because I have kids that have tech knowledge, but I cannot help to think about those who don’t have that kind of support and those who are not aware.

UC: As far as our work is concerned at H.E.R.O.S, we’ve had to close down shop for our after-school and out of school programming. Our line of work is considered non-essential since schools are closed. But we’re still trying to keep up with the people that we work with and the clients that we advocate for. Working at home has been a big adjustment too. I’m surprised you haven’t heard my son, given how much he comes in here while I’m on meetings or things like that. At home, sometimes he is distracting. He’s come in here twice since I’ve been on the phone [with you], but I’ve just been able to kind of ‘shoo’ him away. I try to give my family a heads up like, “I’m gonna be on a call in a minute,” Trying to navigate that with everybody being at home and trying to be able to still keep up with your normal business of meetings, work stuff and the like is challenging. It has been hard doing that, and having someone over your shoulders, or telling you that they’re hungry while trying to do your work. When you’re in an office, you know they’re at school, you can just do what you need to do throughout the day.

KSM: I think the biggest adjustment is trying to figure out how to best deliver instruction in this new digital space. As you’ve already witnessed, there are a lot of different online platforms and websites that provide you with the ability to provide instruction digitally. But, there’s a learning curve involved; especially if you’re somebody who isn’t used to using technology. Thankfully for me, I have some experience using some of the platforms like Zoom. Google Classroom and Brain POP. I’ve become familiar with these classes from my past, but there are others who are starting from ground zero, right? They’re novices, they have no idea where to start when we talk about online learning. So I think, for me, it’s really forced me to learn more about the different educational technology tools that are available to us online and just choosing the right one that’s going to best meet the needs of my students who I tutor. That’s been the biggest challenge, figuring out the best tool(s) to use.

3) My experience with remote learning can improve if…

ER: My kids had more live online sessions, at least twice a week. Like, at the beginning of the week and then maybe the middle of the week to check on the kids to make sure that they’re catching on to the work, Perhaps also holding one individual session with a child if they need it… Just the teacher and the child so the child can get what they need. I think about my son who is an introvert. He’s not going to ask a question if there are twenty kids listening or typing. He needs that little corner, ten-second kind of conversation with the teacher.

UC: Distance learning was more organized, and I mean that in this way. I’ve taken online classes before and I’ve been to online school. If districts borrowed some things from people who already offer online classes and set things up in a way that was easier to navigate education in that way, I don’t think that things would be so hard.

KSM: I acquire a stronger knowledge base around the different tools available to deliver such type of learning.

4) How satisfied are you with the information and actions taken by your school or school district to address your needs at this time?

ER: I’m not really satisfied. I really think the district can do more. I can communicate with the teachers because I speak English and Spanish, but I don’t know how they’re going to connect with those who can’t communicate with the teachers. Let’s say that a teacher sends an email saying this [assignment] is not done. What do you do? You get your child to read it, but are they gonna tell you the truth? Are they gonna tell you, “Hey, yeah I didn’t do this.”  I really think that they could do more. They’re doing great on the whole providing food side, but as far as educational-wise, I think it’s a mixed bag. Also, a lot of teachers give students that last week of school to do makeup work to improve their grades, they call it ‘survival week’ or something like that. If you’re used to going through the year knowing you have that one week where you can turn in stuff, and now suddenly, we’re stuck in this situation, and your grades are only counted before March 13th… then what happens to those kids? That’s what they used to do with my son who already graduated. Every year, I was like, ‘we’ll push through’ and ‘get the work done’, and this and that. He had an IEP, and he was like, “Oh, it’s okay. At the end of the year. I’ll get that week where I can catch up.” Which I hated because then there’s a situation like what’s happening right now. Now what? They’re not going to get that week. Students then are seen as responsible for something the teachers started to save themselves by not having kids failing. But now, the kids are used to having ‘survival week’, it’s a tradition. Now, these kids are going to be like, ‘Okay, so what now?’ What about the kids whose parents don’t know that they’re failing?

UC: We get calls and emails and texts all day long from the school just saying, “We’re ramping up to support you,” or “you have access to the food station.” They’re giving general information, but nothing specific to help a person who is saying, “Okay, I need to call this number because I haven’t been able to get on my Google Classroom, or I don’t know the code,” right? So I can say that I’m really dissatisfied with that aspect. They are trying to keep us informed as to where the district is with purchasing laptops. They are giving general information but no specifics to what the general information is leading us to. They said, ‘Hey, we’re getting thousands of Chromebooks’, but there is no information on who’s gonna get them, how the district is gonna determine who’s getting them, where do parents get them if they need them? So, okay, you purchased them, now what? What are you going to do with them? When are you going to disperse them or how are you going to disperse them. That’s not being said…That’s not being said at all.

KSM: I think the district’s done a pretty good job as far as providing students with Chromebooks… with providing food for families who may not get the meals that they usually get if the school is still in session, because we do have a high level of homelessness and we have high levels of poverty in the Boston area, especially when it comes to our Black and brown families. As a result, they rely heavily on school meals in order to satisfy their hunger throughout the day. Now with school being out they have to have an alternative, and thankfully the City of Boston and Boston Public Schools have been able to provide packaged meals for families and school-aged children every day. Also, the question is kind of a loaded one, because there are different angles you have to take. So, while I did talk about the food security issue and the poverty issue… There’s a conversation around our special education population that needs to be had. Here in Massachusetts, and I can imagine other states, they pretty much let schools know that they’re not required to follow through on Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s) and other learning support plans because we’re not physically in the classroom. So, you’ve had many parents who have students with autism, parents who have students with other severe or moderate learning disabilities, who have been charged with the responsibility — the primary responsibility — of having to provide these accommodations to their children. For those who may be unaware, IEP’s are legally binding. Schools are required by federal law to provide those accommodations. But now, with this unprecedented COVID situation, that’s kind of been the scapegoat for districts to say, “Hey, we’re not obligated to do so.” There are some schools where SPED teachers are reaching out to their students on their load to monitor progress and see how they’re doing. But that doesn’t replace the in-person support that students need because with certain disabilities like autism, especially if you’re on the high end of the spectrum, talking to somebody over Zoom is not going to be enough support. There has to be some tactile support involved in order to fully help some of those students.

5) Six months from now, schooling will look like…

ER: I think we’re going to stay online for a while because we took a little too long to start controlling something that could have been controlled back in December when it started… when it became national news. I’m thinking we’re gonna stay online for a while. I just hope that schools have a little more knowledge and a little more consciousness towards our kids who are not able to reach the internet. They need something more open that can actually do for them, instead of just hoping they survive the squeeze. Because that’s what we’re doing now, right now we’re just surviving the school year.

UC: I think a lot of things are going to be done from home. I was hopeful at first that they would think about starting the next school year early. Normally, school comes back in August here, so I was thinking maybe what they’ll do when this is over is start school early, since kids have missed so much time. But then as I watched things that have been going on, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I’m so hoping that by August this over, but I think that this is going to have an impact on what school is gonna look like even then.

KSM: I’ve had these conversations with lots of other people. I’ve always been a firm believer in implementing educational technology in the classroom. Especially if we’re talking ways to provide culturally-responsive instruction to students. Here’s a reality that transcends race… Many of our children use technology to communicate, they are digital natives. A lot of what we do instructionally and pedagogically is very archaic. Because of stubbornness in some cases, and just a lack of getting with the times, we’ve had a lot of districts and schools that have just stuck with the old traditional ways of schooling, which, has been proven to not be effective in this day and age. Six months from now, I can see some states still out of school. As a matter of fact, I read an article recently stating that Maryland Public Schools will more than likely not be in school, [and to] prepare for online learning in the fall. I know that there are some other states who will probably be back in the classroom in September. On the teacher front, I do believe that this will impact the hiring process. I believe that school leaders will put more emphasis on teacher aptitude as it pertains to educational technology because of the possibility of still being out of school come September. Knowing how the industry of education is, I wouldn’t be surprised if… As a matter of fact, I’ll be shocked if not 100% of these school districts didn’t try to shift to, at the very least a more ‘blended learning’ or ‘flipped classroom’ model. But what does that mean? That means you have to look at how schools, particularly urban schools are funded. You got to make sure that they provide these schools with the ability to purchase the technology necessary for that to happen. That kind of investment is yet to be seen for maybe a generation, and there is so much research and literature to support that.


How are you navigating #covid19? Let us know using the #distancelearning on social media!