This fall, many public schools are responding to COVID-19 by offering online learning. In this pandemic era, we’ve been discouraged from taking potentially life-saving medications without “gold standard” studies supporting their use, yet it seems parents are now being told to place their children in a brand-new learning environment with no study of any kind supporting its use.
In my northern Virginia school district of Loudoun County, online learning for most students is five days per week. The typical daily schedule includes three hours of whole-class instruction, one hour of small-group instruction, one hour of independent learning, and one hour of “specials” in the form of music, art, and physical education (yes, our district is even trying to teach P.E. online.).
As a licensed elementary teacher who has taught reading to children via Skype for the past five years, I have just one piece of advice for all parents of elementary school-aged children who are enrolled in virtual classrooms this fall: Sit with your children as much as possible during their online learning, and observe what they’re being asked to do. If you find it difficult to follow along and engage in the lessons, chances are your children are struggling too.
I have taught many children to read through a national virtual program called Rhyme & Reason Online. So I know firsthand that teaching by video conference can be highly effective. It enables me to meet with my students multiple times per week for short lessons, with little or no inconvenience to their parents. This arrangement is ideal for phonics instruction, where short drills work best and repetition is the key. That is not the case for all academic disciplines.
Along the way, I have learned some hard lessons — lessons that school administrators who are now plunging their entire districts into virtual learning have little time to learn. First and foremost, I’ve learned there is no way to effectively teach young children via video conferencing, whether on Skype, Zoom, or any other technology, except in very small groups. It does not work well even with as few as five students, let alone 10 or more.
Second, teaching by means of video conference requires that teachers work closely with parents to manage their child’s computer, internet speed, camera, audio, headphones, workspace, background noise, and lighting. This is a big task, and each child who is added to the call complicates it exponentially.
Third, I’ve learned that some parents, no matter how well-meaning, simply cannot do what is necessary to make this type of instruction work for their child. They might, for example, insist that the only workspace available for their child is the middle of their kitchen, with a steady stream of family members walking in and out and loud appliances running in the background. They might have an unreliable internet connection or faulty headphones, causing their child to drop in and out of calls frequently. They might have other young children at home whose noise levels they cannot adequately manage.
Any one of these problems, if it persists, can be a deal-breaker.
Trying to Teach
Many teachers who are working for public schools are required to teach up to 30 students at a time, while many of those students are experiencing one or more problems that interfere not just with their own ability to learn but also that of their classmates.
Even with very small student groups and parents who meet all the technical demands, virtual instruction requires strong teachers who are not only competent in the subjects they’re teaching but also able to motivate and inspire their students across the internet. Teachers must remain positive, encouraging, and friendly, even when the lessons aren’t going as planned.
Being able to smile easily is a real asset, as is using one’s voice and facial expressions to communicate, since body language is lost over the internet. Teachers who are incompetent, don’t truly like teaching, or smile little will have even more trouble engaging their students online than they do in person.
All of this might seem like a tall order. The requirements for making a virtual classroom work don’t end there, however. This method of instruction also demands that the curriculum be well-matched to the medium.
Reading instruction is well-suited to virtual learning. I teach a highly structured decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension program with precise objectives and goals. Students in our program have hard copies of our books and workbooks. Many children, not surprisingly, prefer to hold a colorful storybook in their hands and turn the pages with their fingers, rather than to stare at a computer screen and click an arrow button.
Most public schools this fall won’t be trying to teach this way online. They will be trying to teach all subjects, often with inadequate methods and materials as well as unrealistic goals. Imagine trying to teach a young child how to properly hold a pencil without ever being able to take that child’s hand in your own. Consider how frustrating it must be to attempt to simply read a story aloud together while students are dropping in and out of the call continuously.
I fear that virtual learning will be ineffective for many students this fall. School administrators do not seem to have a realistic idea of what can and cannot be accomplished through video-conferencing. Their online classrooms are likely to be noisy, chaotic environments, run by teachers who are, at best, uncomfortable in their new assignments and at worst, downright miserable.
The shutdowns pose unusual challenges, yet I am astounded at the apparent audacity of school administrators. I am not aware of a single published, peer-reviewed study that offers scientific evidence to support instructing large groups of young children online for many hours each day. Many children will likely be frustrated, and some will most certainly act out. Others might become depressed. For these children, finding an alternative schooling option might become a necessity.
Meanwhile, when evidence emerges that students gained little or nothing from their time spent in virtual classrooms, will there be any accountability for those who imposed this program on our children? Sadly, if history is our guide, the answer to that question is no.