With the end of the summer break comes the beginning of a new academic year. Since the lockdowns across the nation in March due to COVID-19, it is a general agreement that our lives have changed in many ways. The U.S. unfortunately still holds the top spot for the number of infections and deaths in the world. Under such conditions, most school districts in the U.S. began their academic year through virtual online learning.
How 2020-2021 Academic Year Began
Most of us parents and students got the taste of virtual learning in the beginning of school shutdowns in March. With the new academic year, there seemed to be various changes to the delivery and style of learning amid the pandemic. Some districts in some states chose a hybrid style with alternating days of in-school learning and virtual online learning. Some selected to bring all students back in school from the very beginning. Others, including major districts in California and other states, chose to go completely virtual. In Central Texas, while most districts began 100% online, most now have allowed students back who select to return to the classrooms in phases, with the virtual learning option available concurrently.
When compared to Japan, the contrasting differences on how U.S. schools handled the pandemic are striking. For the most part, the decision on reopening schools and how it is done have been influenced greatly by politics. With the election year reaching its peak, every aspect in society including education and the pandemic have regrettably been used as a political tool.
Students Most Affected by School Closures and Virtual Learning
Politics aside, the shift to virtual, distance learning has greatly affected certain students more than others. Students with special needs are said to have suffered from the new learning mode, as they are not able to receive the support or services they need. Virtual learning requires a completely new set of skills such as being able to access the virtual classes using a computer or following an irregular schedule with constant change. In addition, depending on the level of support a student needs, virtual learning poses a number of challenges for parents and students.
The importance of the schools has also been noted by their role to feed many children of lower socioeconomic groups. The social inequalities of the U.S. are one of the greatest societal issues that has really added to the challenges of dealing with a pandemic. With children, schools are not only a place for education, but for some, also a place where they can have breakfast and lunch. It is a shocking, sad fact, but the truth nonetheless. Districts offered curbside meal pick-ups during school closures, but it makes one reevaluate the value of schools and how undervalued they are in this country.
Virtual learning poses other challenges such as equity in accessing education. While most districts provided laptops, Chromebook, or tablets to students to access the virtual lessons, a stable internet connection or a home environment conducive to virtual learning may not be available to all. In one social media post, I read a case that, out of 22 students, only 4 were consistently logging in to the synchronous lessons. This is thankfully not the case in my child’s class, where every child has been logging in consistently. However, it shows us the gap. It proves how inequality affects our children. The call for reopening schools is, therefore, getting increasingly louder, though the pandemic is far from contained.
Virtual Learning Now
In our school district, many changes have been made to the virtual learning mode since the 2019-2020 year. When schools closed in March, our neighborhood school was completely asynchronous - with videos, instructions, and assignments available online without live (synchronous) instruction. Most of the Eleve students in the U.S. had a more comprehensive instruction with both asynchronous and synchronous learning from the beginning of school closures. This year, most districts seem to offer a combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning, in the hopes to mitigate the learning gap among students.
In my child’s school, the first three weeks were 100% virtual, with two hours of synchronous learning (whole class and small group) and flexible asynchronous learning. The school day began at 8:30 and ended around 2:15 most days. After the three weeks, the option between staying virtual or going back to in-person became available. Some students were allowed back for in-person learning - approximately 30% of the entire school.
Effective Learning Comes from Effective Rules
We learned who my child’s teacher was a few days before the first day of school. It turns out, she was the perfect teacher to have to learn how to attend synchronous lessons. From the very first day, she laid out the rules.
Keep facing the camera and look at the teacher
Sit properly in the chair without touching things (toys, pencils, etc.) that can distract yourself or others
Keep your mic muted unless it is your turn to share
It was amazing to see these 6, 7-year old students become able to sit through their lessons, learn how to mute and unmute, and participate in an orderly manner in a short period of time. It is often said that younger children have a harder time learning in a virtual environment due to their shorter attention span and developmental level, but this proves how learning the proper posture and attitude makes it possible for a child to learn. The children were also reminded that, though they are at home, school time is not play time and therefore they must attend to it as such. It is important for any person to know how to “switch” between work and play mode, and that is exactly what these first-graders were being taught.
My child’s school has 4 first grade classes. In order to make transitions smooth, they followed the same curriculum this year, where every class was learning the same thing at the same time. Asynchronous videos were done by different teachers by subject, which allowed for the kids to become familiar with all 4 teachers. At the end of the first three weeks, my child was unfortunately reassigned to another teacher as the teacher became the in-person teacher (2 teachers remained online while 2 became in-person). The new teacher has been great as well, but perhaps not as clear on the rules, which has made for some confusion and distraction during synchronous learning. This year has and will continue to be filled with changes, and we must remind ourselves to work together with teachers and schools to make the best during these trying times.
COVID-19 School Rules
My child remains a virtual learner, while approximately 40% of the students are now back in-person at the time of this writing. Schools have been prepared for the return of students with big stickers enforcing social distancing rules, hand sanitizing stations throughout the campus, plexiglass partitions on students’ desks, and other changes to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks are mandatory for all.
In the Los Angeles area, schools are still closed. We can only hope that school officials put the health of teachers, students, and staff a priority as we continue to navigate through this pandemic and make decisions based on scientific evidence while learning from successful cases and past mistakes.