George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Wellness

During Coronavirus, a Teacher Describes the Scramble to Go Digital

In Bergen County, New Jersey, just outside New York City, a school closure pushes teachers to confront the challenges of online learning.

March 12, 2020
Colorful silhouettes of people wearing protective face masks against infection
istock / smartboy10

At the end of school two days ago, I heard students talking excitedly in the hall outside my classroom. Our school near New York City, in Bergen County, New Jersey, was closing for the next 10 days due to precautions surrounding COVID-19—the coronavirus.

Though we learned officially from the district an hour later, the students had picked up the news before us via local TV and social media feeds on their phones. As the announcement spilled out among staff, teachers gathered briefly, concerned that someone had been stricken with the virus—no one had, but someone died in our county—then rushed off to gather the hardware we’d need to use from our new home offices.

Earlier in the day, my students told me that their biology teachers were saying we’d be out for the rest of the year. I expressed skepticism, but now I’m not so sure. My phone buzzes by the minute with news of canceled events. As I write, Ohio has just announced that all K-12 schools in the state will be closed for three weeks, with Governor Mike DeWine calling for an “extended spring break.” 

In some ways, the announcement at my school is a relief. In the past week, signs had sprung up in our hallways reminding everyone to wash their hands for 20 seconds. During class, we could hear the maintenance crew rattling the door handles as they cleaned. And I had taken to starting classes by asking students, “So what are your fears, thoughts, anxieties?” In an attempt to address the latent sense of panic with numbers and calm, I reminded them that younger people were statistically less likely to face dire illness.

“Will the school dance still happen?” my students wondered. I thought it would. I was wrong. 

Suddenly, We’re Going Digital

Teachers like me are now preparing, in earnest, to teach remotely, a new circumstance that adds more work to our normal planning load. We are tasked with developing and posting two weeks of extra online lesson plans in case we take ill ourselves, along with daily plans with activities and assessments to get us through the next few weeks. Quizzes and tests that can be gamed by googling the answers are out; reflections and open-book writing tasks are in. In a strange way, we are excited, though exhausted, to take our existing curriculum and try something new.

In our district training yesterday, pulled together by hyper-organized lead teachers, we learned we should post agendas and do-nows every day, appear online with our students during a shortened regular class schedule, take roll virtually, have a daily exit ticket or other form of assessment, and figure out ways to make the online content intriguing.

It’s a lot to process, but my colleagues are keeping their spirits up and collaborating to share what they know. During the training, teachers turned to one another to trade tips, showing each other how to time postings and upload folders in our learning management system (LMS). I’m glad to have some guidance for this new world, even if we’re all really figuring things out as we go along.

Many teachers in New Jersey had a taste of online instruction with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but this feels different. The intensity of destruction Sandy brought—and the days or weeks of closures that followed—was a surprise. But the coronavirus is a slow-growing, increasingly certain disaster that allows for some planning—and home instruction that can be counted toward the school year requirement. We could be at home this time for a lot longer.

While every school in New Jersey has to have a plan to teach remotely, reformatting lessons to be online-only is a challenge that seemed remote itself, until now. In the past, when we’ve incorporated technology, we’ve been there to guide it, either in the classroom or by following up the next day. Now, I wonder how we will be able to make instruction clear without being able to look kids in the face. Will we be able to detect and redirect students who are spinning their wheels? Will we even be able to tell how many kids are paying attention, or falling hopelessly behind? And if we do pull this all off, what does that mean about the relevance of in-person teaching and the school community at-large?

As I told my students in our last class together this week, the research suggests that after more than a few days away from school, students just don’t learn as much. So the upside, I told them, is that in more ordinary times, showing up together every day does matter.

Unanswered Questions

As the coronavirus spreads, there’s still much to be worked out at our school and at other schools around the country, but our district has some advantages. Students already bring their own devices—or the school provides them—and the vast majority of families have Internet at home. We are also lucky that our students are invested in their grades and in their own education more generally: We have the luxury of expecting them to show up online. Some are already checking the Google docs we’ve posted, their avatars hovering over content not due until tomorrow.

My fellow humanities teachers and I are also fortunate that our subject matter lends itself to reading, writing, and discussing—all of which can be done in an online learning environment. Texts that the students left at school—or hadn’t received yet—can be scanned in and uploaded.

But not all subjects lend themselves to two dimensions. There are open questions about how students will receive special education services, for example, and how to teach hands-on disciplines such as gym or art. Teachers in my school have started brainstorming with colleagues: Maybe they’ll ask students to upload an image of an activity—but no live feeds, to maintain some semblance of privacy. Some are posting videos they made of themselves explaining how the new online class system works or talking students through a model text.

Perhaps the circumstances will drive smarter technology integration in our district over time. Most of us have had long-standing questions about the more obscure corners of our LMS; there were tiny buttons we had never touched, but now we have to. As someone wryly posted on Twitter, it took a disaster like coronavirus for New York City schools to hire more nurses. Maybe long-term remote teaching will force us all to invest in things like “screencastify,” by many accounts a useful tool for providing student feedback. We may even find making videos of ourselves or curating online discussions productive for students—and keep doing it.

But nearby, at my own children's K-8 school where half of the students receive free- and reduced-priced lunch, the upside feels more tenuous and the questions are cause for concern. Many students don’t have computers or Internet at home, a stark reality for many schools around the nation. Parents worry about how they will work if children need supervision or how hungry children will get meals. So far, their school, and the larger district, are xeroxing hardcopy packets; my son’s fifth-grade teacher told them to bring home their textbook every day, in the event they can’t return. They still live in uncertainty, not knowing when school will close, and facing a different, more urgent set of circumstances in the event they do.

From Edutopia, Resources for Teachers

Shifting to Digital: As more schools close, teachers are increasingly tasked with developing online-only lessons and homework assignments. Digital learning protocols for students can help provide structure to learning outside the classroom, while practice run-throughs can help equip students, parents, and teachers for online learning before the shift. Creative solutions to new challenges like how to run physical education might be necessary.

Leadership Amid Challenging Times: As panic rises, school administrators and teacher leaders can check out advice from medical professionals and other school leaders on when to send a student home or weigh decisions like when to close a school. To help combat misinformation and bias—particularly anti-Asian bias—educators can create opportunities to embed relevant, accurate information about the virus into the curriculum.

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