child video calling teacher

What we lose when coronavirus cancels in-person instruction

While teachers have made the most of the transition to distance learning, it still struggles to live up to classroom scholarship.

My earliest memories of school are tactile: The hard, smooth shells of a macaroni necklace. The slime of finger paint. The sting of a skinned knee at recess.

The physical space of a school, with its bright primary colors, loud noises, and new faces, was an experience both terrifying and thrilling. A first foray into a world without parents, it taught me crucial lessons like socialization and self-discipline that would’ve fallen flat in any other environment.

Fast forward to today, when the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the closure of more than 124,000 public and private schools for an estimated 55 million students, according to Education Week. Students of all ages who rely on in-person schooling for structure, for an escape, or for meals have had the rug pulled out from beneath them.

Efforts by educators to quickly pivot to a virtual learning environment have been commendable given the circumstances, but what is lost when in-person instruction disappears is also becoming vividly clear. With many districts now canceling classes through the end of the academic year, and others still weighing if, when, and how to reopen, we take a closer look at how teachers have made the most of the tough transition to distance learning—and ways in which even the best virtual education struggles to compete with classroom scholarship.

The struggle of transitioning from in-person to digital instruction

March through May is traditionally considered the golden hour for elementary educators—a time of year when they’ve grown to know their students well and the classroom feels its most cohesive.

“When you’re in a classroom, it’s like you’re a family,” says Judith Krause, Ed.D., a core faculty member in the Early Childhood Education program at Pacific Oaks College. “When you’re winding down the year, you’re having strong connections. Everyone knows everyone. They know the kids’ learning styles.”

The sudden coronavirus-prompted switch to e-learning has upended the sparkle of this bewitching time. Instead of settling into a comfortable rhythm, the dynamic between teachers and students has been more of an exercise in creative improvisation.

“Teaching reading over the computer is not optimal,” says Carrie Johnson, senior adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks and a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles County’s Mountain View School District. “Every child has to have a specific book at their exact reading level, and you have to work at the exact skills that individual child is working on at that moment,” she says.

Johnson has made the best of a difficult situation, creating take-home packs for each student that include books specific to their reading level, art supplies, and other goodies. She’s conducted science experiments on Zoom from her vegetable garden, and has thrice-weekly online reading groups scheduled with four students at a time. Despite these strokes of ingenuity, Johnson acknowledges it’s not the same.

“I think the children, the parents, and the teachers are heartbroken to lose that time in the classroom, because you’re really seeing exponential growth this time of year,” she says.

“It’s been a slow start,” says Julie Kammerer, referring to her district’s jump to the virtual classroom. Kammerer is an adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks and an early childhood and special education teacher in Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school district in the U.S.

“What we’ve done is set aside times (for Zoom calls) and given families the link, inviting them to join a specific learning plan, whether it be a circle time or an art activity,” Kammerer says. “For families who aren’t so tech savvy or don’t have a laptop, we’ve also done YouTube videos, where our teachers have done a lesson, read stories, used puppets—we’re using all our bags of tricks.”

The cadence of these Zoom calls and YouTube lessons vary depending on the teacher, she says, because the teachers know their families and students best. The goal is to offer education in a flexible format, as a large number of LAUSD families come from a lower socioeconomic background in which parents might be essential workers outside of the home and the schedule of day-to-day life may be in flux. In addition, Kammerer and her colleagues have developed an LAUSD/Early Childhood Special Education Padlet with COVID-19 updates, resources, and themed lists of weekly activities to help guide learning at home.

The need to return to in-person instruction

All such efforts, however, are really just a stopgap measure until in-person instruction can begin again. Studies show that children in low socioeconomic communities regress in reading and math over the course of a normal summer break more than those who are not. The objective thus becomes making sure this stretch doesn’t become an extended summer, pivoting focus toward maintaining skills established earlier in the year rather than building upon them.

Simply put, no video conference or on-demand lesson can simulate the magic of the classroom—especially for young students. “Honestly, kindergarten children just need to be in a physical class with a kindergarten teacher,” Johnson says. “They need that one-on-one, hands-on, exciting, learning, loving environment. That’s where you get kids to thrive.”

Anticipating potential backsliding, Kammerer’s department is already planning to implement some added support for special education students once in-person school resumes. What that support looks like will vary based on need, from a behavior plan to occupational therapy or speech therapy.

“Kids are resilient, and they grow and learn so quickly that in just a few months they can make leaps and bounds,” Kammerer says. “But it can work both ways—some kids might regress. So we also have to take that into consideration.”

Dr. Krause points to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic—how abruptly school districts were forced to implement distance learning. For the time being, she recommends educators focus less on academics and more on helping shepherd children through this traumatic time. It will be easier to make up the academics when they’re back in the physical classroom, she says. In the meantime, the focus should be on finding ways to ensure children feel safe and connected.

Looking toward the future, however, Dr. Krause is not naive. This summer she will be instructing a practicum in which enrollees will be student teaching virtually, and she notes such experiences might need to become a regular part of teacher training.

“I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘If something like this happened again, how could (virtual education) look?’” Krause says. “It might not be a pandemic but a hurricane or an earthquake. We’re going to learn from this.”

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