Thursday, December 03, 2020


PMT: The Costs of Zoom School


I do a lot of things, but mostly I'm a teacher. That means that right now I teach a mix of people in masks in seats and others on a little screen via Zoom. And it is terrible.

I've rarely been so discouraged. Teaching and learning has everything to do with connection and discussion, and that is really hard right now. The students who do remote learning simply don't do as well. They don't learn material as well, they don't perform on exercises as well, and they don't even seem to catch basic information in class, like when and how the final will be given. I've never before gotten questions asking expressly for information that I laid out explicitly in the previous class, and now it is a regular occurrence. It is baffling to have several students ask about something I just laid out clearly. 

My students usually have a choice to either show up in person or Zoom in (some, of course, don't have a choice, because of illness or susceptibility to COVID).   For those students who have a choice, and attend in class then switch to Zoom, you can watch in real time as their performance dives. It is disheartening.

 It may be, of course, that I'm not very good at online teaching. I'm doing my best to stay engaged, vary activities, and watch the room. But if I am just bad at it, so are a lot of others-- most people I talk to say the same thing.

 As does this piece in yesterday's Washington Post.  It describes a school in DC where all 45 of the second graders-- every single one-- fell behind in reading when they went online. They are now six months behind, at a critical time. How can that ever be made up?

Honestly, second grade is more critical than law school, but the issues are the same. We just are not educating people as well as we used to.  

In all this plays into something discussed on Tuesday-- that little kids don't often get COVID. That means that unlike law school, it is relatively safe (for the kids, not the teachers) to open elementary schools. BUT... the health of the teachers should matter, too.

What can we do going forward to make sure that we don't have an entire disadvantaged generation?

I agree that this is a tough situation for both young learners and at-risk youth. There's a lot to unpack here, and I can only respond regarding older learners. I think there are a couple of important issues that decision-makers must consider:
-- Online learning is different from FTF. The courses should be designed differently (thus, the problem with the half-in/half-out model). Teachers need to approach online teaching in a new way and learners must also approach online learning differently from their FTF strategy. That's where I'm seeing the biggest problems. In my school district, we're expected to present material in the same format as a FTF class (synchronous learning sessions with very little out of classroom work). Some of our learners expect everything to be the same as well. I've taught online at the undergrad, graduate, and high school levels, and one thing I know for sure is that you have to think of online learning differently from FTF.
-- Another issue is money. Making this type of switch is going to cost MONEY! School districts do not have enough money to safely bring older students back into the classroom. I'm told that when we bring students back into the classroom, they'll be coming in for half the time. I can do a little math, and that still puts me in class with 150 different students twice per week and mixing with a certain portion of 1200 students in our hallways several times a day. I will not believe that I am protected in the classroom until I see A LOT of money sent to the schools for extra teachers, air filters, fans, masks (and not the crappy, thin ones that I could see through, that they gave us over the summer), regular testing, etc. My school district used to give us 1 box of kleenex per month pre-pandemic -- do I think I'll get protective equipment? NOPE. Do I think my school district will cave to certain parental and political pressure and put my health at risk? You bet. I'm getting consistent blow-back regarding tier 1 status as a distance-only teacher.
-- Another financial issue is equipment. When online school started, I requested a box for each of my students containing some inexpensive equipment that would allow students to work at home. I did not get boxes. Some students do not have funds for paper, but we're not able to supply kids with paper. My students are fortunate in that they all have computers, but not everyone has good connectivity. I would suggest that the first kids to come back (after the high incidence kids) should be those without good connections.

Now for the bright side -- what I'm seeing in my students is that 80-90% are doing well. It's not as good as FTF, but they're learning and they're really trying. They complete their homework completely. They do independent projects. They even joke around with me in the chat -- I now know everyone's spirit animal in my environmental science class, and typos like "porn tenderloin" instead of "pork tenderloin" make class a bit more entertaining. The kids are really being flexible and giving this weird school year their best effort. It's certainly not ideal, but I've been impressed with my students' efforts. Additionally, a few students actually prefer this type of learning and have asked if they'll be able to continue in the future.

As the rare introvert high school teacher, I actually prefer being online. But I know this isn't the best option for most students. I think (at least at the high school level), the kids will certainly show some learning gaps. Based on the resilience they're showing me in the classroom, I think most will be ok. They'll be a little behind next year or in college and then they'll catch up. I say this as a kid who went to 10 schools in 12 years (learning gaps -- been there, done that, got the t-shirt).

Hang in there! I'm sure you're doing a better job than you think you are. And as Fauci says, the cavalry is coming!
Desiree - let me know if you need some good masks. I make them to donate and would happily send you some. They are two layer cotton with a facing layer. Nurse friends have told me they are very good. Mark can get you my email.
Thanks very much Christine -- that's very thoughtful of you! Your friends who are nurses are lucky to have your help. I will definitely contact Mark for your email if we head back to FTF.
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