There was more kindness, but less learning, in virtual classrooms

SPARTA. Parents recall the ups and downs of the past year, and assess the innovation that got their children through Covid-19 and school

| 17 Aug 2021 | 01:04

A Sparta High School parent said her daughter “did very well. She had a wonderful teacher who helped the children out when work (wasn’t submitted) to her.”

But a parent of two elementary school students in Sparta said: “When my kids were virtual, they became very good at appearing to be working, but the teachers warned they were not doing well.” And the parent of a middle school student wrote that her child “did not feel engaged during most of his virtual zoom classes. He said he didn’t learn any science all year.”

More than 140 parents of children in grades one through 12, with nearly half in hybrid learning, shared their experiences of the past year in a Straus News community survey. How well the year went academically varied from child to child. But some patterns emerged. Parents overwhelmingly put the blame not on their children’s schools or teachers but on the constraints imposed by the pandemic itself.

“The teachers did a great job this year,” said Joshua Moser, the father of a Warwick Valley, N.Y. middle schooler. “But the students weren’t able to learn as well.”

Many parents talked about their children’s lack of focus, structure, and accountability. But others noticed little change in the education of their children or the value of the school day.

Parents often found themselves spread thin between monitoring their child’s remote education and their own remote job.

One of the biggest challenges was getting their children to log on to their virtual classes on-time. When they logged in late, teachers were compelled to re-teach the material the students missed. This accommodation was a pandemic-inspired kindness, but did cause following the curriculum to fall behind.

In our community survey, 53 percent of parents said their children did not live up to their academic potential, and 35 percent believe their children made minimal progress.

Lowered expectations

Many parents commented on the limited individual attention their kids received. With virtual classes, teachers couldn’t peek over their shoulders to see if they were correct, or even on task.

Many teachers did use breakout rooms– small groups of students with isolated video and audio from the main video chat – but would still have to hop between them, making it difficult to devote much time to any one student.

While some students performed well, only 37 percent exceeded their parents’ expectations, according to the survey. Others relied on second and third chances.

These opportunities were offered in a compassionate effort to counter the chaos of the outside world, but made it very difficult to truly track academic progress. That may be why more than 50 percent of the survey respondents do not believe their children are “on track” in their education.

Students seemed to pick up on the lowered academic expectations, parents said. Without the structure of reporting to a physical school building, some students found it difficult to take the school day seriously.

Claudia Caramiello, the mother of two students at Wallkill Valley Regional High School in Hamburg, N.J., said the lack of routine made the year was challenging. “There is no motivation to get up, brush your teeth, fix your hair,” she said “You can do everything in your bed in sweatpants. The students do not have a great learning environment.”

‘Teachers never logged off’

On the whole, parents said, virtual learning did not engage students in the way in-person instruction does. Many students breezed through both their classwork and homework, usually (but not always) withstanding the temptation to cheat. As one parent put it, the students were doing the work but not understanding it.

Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, N.J., stuck with in-person instruction throughout the year and received glowing survey responses that their children’s education “exceeded expectations,” and that the turmoil of the pandemic did not impair their experience in any way.

While not all schools were so fortunate as to be able to offer in-person learning for their students throughout the year, parents consistently applauded their children’s teachers and administrators.

“Teachers evaluated their strengths and did their best to translate them virtually,” said Michael Hernandez, father of a student at Glen Meadow Middle School in Vernon, N.J.

“They had no bones about working or answering questions after the school day was over,” he said. “Teachers never logged off and acted as a great support system for the kids.”

Now, he said, students have gotten quite tech savvy, and are now real pros at Google Classroom.

“There was a big learning curve from March 2020 in the Vernon school district,” said Hernandez. “But Vernon was really on the advent on technology – which tells you a lot about Vernon’s curriculum.”

Getting creative

Schools had to get creative with their curriculum. And some of the modifications they made were impressively innovative and successful.

For instance, Warwick Valley Middle School art teacher Nicole Sisco would focus her camera on the projects directly, so students could see her movements while making art from a different perspective. Because of this, students were able to copy and learn effortlessly.

Some classes – physical education, for instance — did not translate as well. There was little motivation for students to actually get up and do the exercises, particularly when they could be oh-so comfortable in their pajamas.

Several districts started summer programs to provide additional academic support and enhanced enrichment opportunities. The Monroe-Woodbury school district in Monroe, N.Y., ran a four-week program that focuses on skills rather than on sequential content. This way, students can miss a week of instruction and still easily return to the program.

Nearly 1,100 students registered for Monroe-Woodbury’s Summer Bridges Program, according to Dr. Eric Hassler, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

“I don’t consider the 2020-21 school year as one where students lost learning,” Hassler wrote in an email. “Rather, Covid-19 has presented challenges that may have hindered learning, and the purpose of Summer Bridges is to provide opportunities for our students to continue learning through the summer.”

“I think his teachers did an excellent job and my son did as well or better than I expected. I am so proud of our teachers and my kids.
- Parent of Sparta Middle School 6th grader