More than two months after Washington state closed all public and private schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers and students who spoke to the Sammamish Independent agree that remote learning has led to less learning.
On March 17, students and teachers left Washington schools with no plan for how to finish the school year. Weeks later, when schools began to resume classes via online learning opportunities, a typical school day became a hodgepodge of video conferences, emails, online communications and electronic assignments.
For teachers, the loss they have experienced can be measured directly by how much time they spend on instruction.
“I had 315 minutes per week of academic time with each class [before COVID-19],” Jason Wessels, a biology teacher at Eastlake High School, said.
Now, those hours have been reduced to 200 minutes of learning per class each week, according to the Learning Resources page on the Lake Washington School District website.
For students, online learning also presents challenges, especially when the format does not work for all learning styles.
“I feel like with distance learning, it’s a lot of self-learning, a lot of figuring out things yourself,” Sri Sundaresan, 15, a freshman at Eastlake, said. “It is effective for certain kids, but others may really struggle.”
With teachers no longer physically walking through classrooms and identifying students who may be struggling with the content, few intervention options exist. Currently, teachers cannot require students to attend video conferences, due to concerns over equity and Internet access.
“I may never get face time with students for the rest of the year,” Wessels, the teacher, said.
For certain subjects, the challenge can be insurmountable. Alicia Egashira, a Spanish teacher at Eastlake, believes the lack of face-to-face interaction really limits the ability to acquire new language skills.
“World Language has specifically been impacted because teachers are not allowed to require students to attend office hours, so we have not been able to assess or work on verbal communication or pronunciation the way we normally would in a classroom,” Egashira said.
In addition, teachers cannot monitor whether students are taking shortcuts by using online translation services, according to Egashira.
For performance music classes, distance learning becomes especially problematic. Eric Peterson, a band teacher at Evergreen Middle School, said that much of what teachers do in a band, choir or orchestra is to create something greater than the sum of individual parts.
“Of course, that’s 100 percent gone,” Peterson said.
He believes that students are only getting 60 to 70 percent of the music learning they typically get in a live classroom.
Teachers have also observed problems with student motivation. They know which students have been out of touch since schools closed, and they have sent multiple emails and made phone calls to those students’ homes to no avail.
“Many students are motivated by wanting to please their teachers, and by grades,” Susan Jackson, a Quest humanities teacher at Evergreen Middle School, said. “Without either, where is the motivation? Why should they do it?”
Staying in touch is a challenge for some students who lack Internet access and do not have a computer. These students exist even in Sammamish, according to Wessels, the Eastlake teacher.
“We have students that are needing to go out and earn money for their house,” he said. “There are parents that aren’t working now and can’t afford to put food on the table. So, there are students out there that need to have a focus other than school because they’re in an emergency situation.”
Wessels estimates that three out of his 120 students consistently do not complete their work. Similarly, Peterson, the Evergreen band teacher, said his school has a no-contact rate of 4 percent.
Nevertheless, some students have found a silver lining to distance learning.
“Remote learning has given us flexibility to complete assignments with more freedom in terms of time,” Tanvi Kale, 14, an Eastlake freshman, said.
Kale said she has used that time to explore new hobbies, such as gardening.
Rohan Kurup, 15, another Eastlake freshman, agreed.
“Before quarantine, any time a major project or test came up I would stress a lot about it,” he said. “I had so many extracurriculars on top of schoolwork that it was really hard for me to make time for myself. Now, it feels like I have all the time in the world.”
Some teachers have also discovered hidden benefits.
“My colleagues, other teachers, all of a sudden are checking in with their students emotionally, something they’ve never done before, and that’s creating such a vital community that I don’t think Eastlake had as much before,” Wessels said.
Whatever the future may hold, perhaps this period of remote learning and quarantine can teach something more than schoolwork. It could reveal new ways to realize a fulfilling life and better connect teachers and students with each other, even remotely.