As summer draws to a close, children and teens across America are stuck between a rock and a hard place— they're either required to attend in-person classes with suboptimal safety measures or settle in for another semester of online learning.
Already, colleges such as the University of North Carolina and SUNY Oneonta have had to shut down their in-person classes at least temporarily in the wake of a torrent of new COVID cases. Elementary and high schools across Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have also seen closures since they re-opened mid-August.
It looks like more and more schools are going to have to consider at least partially exchanging their classrooms for computer screens.
This summer I had the pleasure of teaching creative writing to my elementary and high school students over Zoom. It was rather unorthodox as classes go because all of the students wanted to be taking their classes. Still, though, problems arose throughout the summer-- some of them unique to Zoom classrooms, and some common student grievances that were exacerbated by the setting.
1. Attention is short
Even for fun things that fuel our passions, our attention spans are woefully short.
And the attention spans of children and teens are even harder to hold. My students love writing all sorts of stories, yet I would notice a glazed-over stare here and there as the time wore on. Teachers for the upcoming COVID semester will need to be mindful that online classes cannot be as easily controlled as those in person, and that the schedules of last year will not work at this time.
2. Pacing is key
If you've ever been in a classroom, you know that pacing can be the difference between passing and failing, and between an interesting class and a boring one. If the teacher moves too fast, you lose those who need more time to understand the material. But if you move too slowly, you risk losing the interest of the rest of the class. Over Zoom, however, pacing becomes much more noticeable than it is in person. There's an active little square on the student's screen where a teacher babbles away without really responding to the external stimuli of other students' looks of confusion or clarity.
For this reason, it becomes rather difficult to strike a balance in pacing when you teach online classes and have a large student body.
3. Not all internet service is equal
The fact of the matter is that many students across America-- in cities, suburbs, and rural towns alike-- do not have access to a reliable internet connection, and sometimes, any connection at all. And while videos of elementary school students taking their classes in a wifi-equipped restaurant parking lot might be coming across your Instagram feed, it is apparent that that is unsustainable. So teachers need to have a backup plan. And they need to think of one quick. Students should not lose out on their right to an education because their caretakers cannot afford a reliable internet connection.
4. Not all family situations are equal
The fact of the matter is that many children will fall behind in their learning because of the environment in which they have to learn. Some parents work all day; some parents work essential jobs and have to leave their children home alone all day in order to make ends meet; some homes packed with many children, all of whom need a quiet space and a computer in order to learn; some children are homeless and do not have a consistent space in which they can learn. There are myriad difficulties through which many students are living during this pandemic. It is important to recognize this and brainstorm solutions so that our students do not emerge from this pandemic with less of an education than their privileged counterparts.
5. Keep it personal
Children flourish with personal attention, and that is no different during online school. Teachers need to find ways to check in with each of their students on a frequent basis and actually talk to them about how they are doing and constructively address if they're falling behind in any subject matter or are feeling overwhelmed. Teachers and school administrations need to connect their students with online tutoring services or provide supplemental videos to ease the process. (CrashCourse has a great selection of subjects and lessons, and who doesn't stan the Green brothers?) Another great tool teachers can implement is setting up a class channel on Slack, where students and teachers can communicate in a more relaxed way than one-on-one video check-in calls.
This semester will undoubtedly be a challenging one on many fronts, to both teachers and students alike. And by no means do I know all of the solutions to the problems in store. But as our teachers and school administrators plan for the coming months, it is crucial to consider what obstacles they will encounter, and how best to address them.