Teaching in the Time of COVID-19: What Have We E-Learned?

Life in America, and around the world, has changed dramatically in the face of COVID-19, and nowhere is that change more stark than in our institutions of learning. As communities entered into lockdowns and quarantines, educators were suddenly thrown into the position of adapting classroom plans (many of which had been written months in advance or were equipment-dependent) for an uncertain transition into e-learning. As the school year rolls to an end around the country, we gathered first-hand accounts from teachers on the frontlines, who shared the positives and negatives they’ve experienced. In short, what we have learned about e-learning?

Editor’s note: Some names have been changed to honor requests for anonymity. Those entries will be noted with an asterisk.

Dawn Jukes, Elementary Teacher, Indianapolis

Jukes has been teaching kindergarten and elementary school students from a wide variety of backgrounds for 23 years. She taught for the Indianapolis Public School system for 20 of those years.

Jukes: I teach for inner-city Indianapolis and two of my students don’t have WiFi at home, so they haven’t been able to do online e-learning. Out of 23 students, 10 have computers and the ones who don’t, try to do e-learning on phones and tablets. We have made packets twice as a second option. About 80 percent of our students picked up their packets the second time. I do Zoom two to three times a week and I usually have three to six students (out of 23) on it. I even do one evening, because a lot of my parents are still working. I’ve had parents tell me they work till six and have one tablet for three kids to do their e-learning on once she gets home. I send out weekly texts for free food pick-up options. I’ve had a couple parents express to me they’re very thankful. Phalen Leadership Academies (that I’m a part of) even delivers food on Mondays to our families who are in need.

I think my kids who get on my Zoom love seeing each other and having something different to do (I try to find different activities we can do together, or we learn about cities or countries I’ve visited, and talk about what is going on.) PLA also put together an e-learning website for students to use. It has 30 math and 30 ELA lessons per grade. I know some of my students definitely use it. I just wish all of them could.

Mary Ann Abramson, JAG (Jobs for America’s Graduates) Instructor

JAG is a nationwide high school (and in some cases, middle school) program, available in over 30 states. JAG “consists of a comprehensive set of services designed to keep young people in school through graduation and improves their success rates in education and career.” The program emphasizes project-based learning, collaboration, and internships, all of which were dramatically affected by the nationwide pandemic. Mary Ann Abramson is a JAG instructor at the high school level.

Abramson: This has definitely been a learning experience for me. My class model relies heavily on student interaction and input, so not having that at all felt like I was teaching blind. I couldn’t tell how the assignments were going, how much time it was taking students to complete them, or redirect when my instructions may have been misunderstood.

I think the three things that helped me the most through this e-learning pandemic time period are collaboration, self-care, and grace. This experience of trying to conduct school during a pandemic was new for absolutely everyone. Collaborating to share lesson plans, web sites, and stories of what has worked, and not, was helpful. It was truly humbling to see how teachers from across the nation were finding ways to share information and resources. Including students in the process was helpful as well, allowing me to structure assignments that truly met the needs of the students where they were as far as resources and emotional health.

This transitions nicely into my next piece of advice, the importance of self-care. Self-care is such a buzz word, but I found it to be a real lifeline for me and my family. Experiencing this, I made assignments for my students designed around finding a new activity, or revisiting an old one, that they could implement when they were feeling overwhelmed or increasingly upset about the way their school year ended. The feedback from students was very positive, and allowed for a good discussion at our weekly Zoom meeting.

The last one, grace, is something we all need to extend to one another, and ourselves, throughout this whole ordeal. Like I said before, this is new for all of us. Teachers, students, parents, even administrators… we’re all trying to do our best. We’ll come out of this better by working together, taking care of ourselves and granting one another a measure of grace along the way.

Dr. Lori Henson, Instructor, Indiana State University

Dr. Lori Henson is a seasoned journalist and an Instructor of Communication/Journalism. She’s taught in multiple formats, including online instruction, for three colleges over the past 17 years. She’s been with ISU since 2012.

Henson: 1. You can’t prepare for a moment like this.

I teach journalism at Indiana State University. I’m pretty comfortable with online education. My materials are online in a typical semester, and at Indiana State University, we use a course management system that students use to access materials and communicate about course assignments. All this familiarity made me think the transition to online teaching would be relatively seamless, even under the difficult circumstances. What I didn’t expect was how difficult it would be to reimagine how to teach journalism when the central idea of going places and talking to people isn’t possible. I had to work around those limitations by finding online and media content that would be useful and accessible for students and meet the course objectives. All of this done on a tight timeline.

2. Students are not alright.

One of my students is now the primary caregiver for her grandmother who was moved out of her nursing home as a precaution. Another student lost both her grandparents to COVID-19. An untold number of my students are paying their way through college as essential workers at grocery stores, factories, restaurants, warehouses, as delivery drivers, and even healthcare and childcare workers. Many have to fight for time using WiFi at public locations. Adjusting to online course work adds to their stress. When I realized what they would be facing, I determined it was not time to ask them to adapt to new apps, software, or even scheduled streaming meetings. It was not time to add to their workload, or even to their total news consumption about the pandemic. It’s simply not practical or kind.

3. The pandemic is offering an education of its own.

I cannot count the number of heroic acts of kindness, generosity, and public service our students and faculty and staff have initiated in this terrible time. Some of our university’s social work students and faculty are leading a mutual aid group in our community, to get resources to those at risk. Our students and faculty are marshaling their talents and labor toward serving others, researching solutions to all kinds of problems the pandemic presents, and keeping our world moving. Students and educators — in various ways, and with mixed results — are learning to cope, to build community, and to care for their mental and physical health in new ways.

4. We are resilient.

As an academic advisor, I have talked to dozens of students about plans for the months ahead. Almost without exception, students tell me they are bored, getting by, and looking forward to getting back to their classes and social lives. Faculty, thrown by the quick transition to online teaching, are looking forward to time to prepare for fall classes, whatever form they take. We are adapting. We are moving forward. And I believe we all have a new and grateful attitude about how much we mean to each other. We won’t take any of it for granted.

Wayne Stantz*, Community College Instructor

Wayne Stantz* and his wife Anne* both teach for a large community college system in the U.S. They have several decades of combined experience teaching both in the classroom and in several distance formats.

Stantz*: Whether it is college or K-12, class time still needs to be class time — plan your time accordingly and stick to it. It’s very common sense to say we need to follow time management, but in practice, we tend to let it go. Students (and people working) need to schedule time for study and keep that schedule. Our classes moved to a “virtual” environment, where we refer to online as the online distance model, and the virtual model is simulated classes taught through Zoom. Class sessions are held at the originally scheduled times, and these sessions simulate interaction for students with their peers and teachers. It’s important for students to keep to the originally scheduled class sessions, as even though they may not have a face-to-face class, they do have a schedule with time set aside for study and interaction with faculty.

This goes along with the idea that if a student is going to maintain that schedule and come to the virtual class, then engagement is also important. It is great to show up and sit in a Zoom meeting and watch, but if the camera and microphone are never turned on, as far as the teacher is concerned, the student might as well not be there. Teachers also need the student response to what they are saying and showing to guide the lesson. We respond to physical and verbal cues from our students to understand areas of inquiry or misinformation- if we don’t get those cues, we will assume everything we are discussing makes sense and move on to the next element. We may miss important learning moments because we don’t “see” the potential need for more clarity.

What I am saying is it is very easy for students to “ghost” — log into a class, keep the mic/video off, and then go do other things. I compare this to the student who comes to class but doesn’t engage, just sits in the room and looks at their phone/computer/sleeps. I laugh to myself when I hear teachers say, “Well, I never have that happen — I engage all my students.” No, you either bully your students to engage, or you don’t look around your room too often. In every room, there is the potential for students to fall through cracks. I’m not saying it always happens, but the potential is always there. Teachers wonder how do we engage all our students all the time, and now that technology makes it easy to “ghost,” that question is doubly hard.

Since the virtual meeting software records sessions, re-watching recordings of missed sessions has been a boon to students, and as a teacher, I look forward to shifts in teaching models when we return to the classroom. I would love for my “normal” classes to be recorded and be available to students who weren’t in class. The potentials for technology usage and different learning environments to co-exist are being proven in real time, instead of being argued about in curriculum and budget meetings, but I fear we will try to return to the old ways without consideration for the methods we are developing.

I’ve learned to be more flexible with deadlines, and that is saying a lot because I was already flexible with deadlines. Already I took the position of “I don’t know the outside life and issues of my students,” so I while holding them to a standard of expectation, I still gave them some ability to work around that. Now, with some of them being in the health or service industry, not only have their schedules gone out the window, when and how they engage with learning has, too. Numbers and attendance follows the online model more than the F2F (face-to-face) idea. Yet, even that has to be flexible — my F2F students weren’t expecting to take an online course — so the blended version of one (part online, part virtual F2F) is attempting to meet them and the situation head on.

In class, I have extroverts and introverts. The extroverts have to learn a bit of control because they can actually overwhelm the technology (the pacing of “phone” conversation is different than F2F).  The introverts actually do well in the course — less direct peer intimidation. This doesn’t mean levels of fear of public speaking or engagement are gone, but the structure is different — there is a removal of the physical space and trappings. This allows them to have control of the environment they are in, to have control of their safety zones. And in that they might draw more comfort and not be overwhelmed by some of the environmental issues of a classroom full of people.

Assignments have to be different — online structured instead of classroom structured. I’m not saying that class activities can’t occur, but when half of your class may be unable to attend because of work, of family sickness, of technology issues, then the idea of having a 20-minute class activity that all participate in goes out the window — student led learning is now the model.

Giant packets of copied materials don’t work — they overwhelm and ultimately the teacher has to ask what did the student learn, and on a practical level, how am I going to get all that work back. I feel bad for my child going through this fake level of learning. He isn’t. He is doing his best to finish each generic assignment. The educational year is lost. I feel bad for the lost potential and wasted time. I suppose there were good intentions in the learning packets, but I’m not sure I see them as much as I see a rushed response to meet expectations.

The lesson I think I’ve learned is that we (America) could have done better. We squandered time and resources, hoarded money and floated false notions of liberty and freedom out of fear of change and selfishness. Teachers and students can’t do our best because there is such broad economic disparity between who has access to support and technology. This limits the ability to take advantage of what can be done. There is obviously poor leadership on all levels — not out of good intentions — I would never mind mistakes out of good intentions.

Helpful strategies for students?

Treat class time (virtual or otherwise) as a scheduled event. Time management is important, and so is learning. Be in your “class” when you signed up for it and treat it as if it is still going on.

Your teacher should still be there to lend support and explain the lesson — just because they sent home a packet, doesn’t mean they are off the hook. Send an email, talk online, but let them know that your learning is important to you and you need help

The hardest lesson for me was that not every assignment is worth breaking yourself for. Some things just don’t need that much stress over. Weigh the expectation and the goal — in the face of 40 equally poorly written assignments, letting go of depth isn’t letting go of learning. (That’s aimed at my child’s current school experience.)

Communication is important- outside of class, your teachers want to know what is going on so they can help you. Keep them up to date. Let them know where you have questions. There aren’t dumb questions.

READ EVERYTHING. Explore the world. Read the news (not just your favorite sources). Know what is going on and why. Ask questions.

Matt Brady, High School Science Teacher and founder of TheScienceOf.org, North Carolina

Matt Brady is a high school science teacher in North Carolina. He’s also the founder of the popular website www.thescienceof.org, which uses pop culture to teach larger scientific principles, and a co-founder of pop culture news site www.newsarama.com. Brady wrote The Science of Rick and Morty: The Unofficial Guide to Earth’s Stupidest Show in 2019.

Brady: I’ve learned again how deep inequality runs. I’ve “lost” students to work as their only, or both parents, have been laid off or live in fear of being laid off, and press their teenager to get a job because “we just don’t know.” And when in the days before we stopped physical school, asking students to participate in a survey about who had a device and WiFi at home wasn’t as thorough as it could have been, and students didn’t understand what it meant. A phone is not a device on which you can do schoolwork. A laptop is. But kids don’t want other kids necessarily to know that they don’t have one. Same with WiFi. You can’t watch hour-long videos for each of your classes on Cricket minutes, or pay-as-you-go plans. And that’s just technology and doesn’t touch food. Or shelter, or a place to go where you won’t get hit whenever someone drinks. As far as inequality goes, we’ve been yelling this for years and years, and this shined a white-hot light on it. Whether we do anything about it is always the question, but having worked in public education for a decade-plus, I fear I already know the answer. Probably just lots of words that make the people saying them feel better about themselves, but very little or no action.

There were, at least for my district, no plans ready for this, and I figure that was the same for many others. That’s…understandable given the tightness of budgets and how “war-rooming” would be a luxury, spending money to talk to consultants and pay staff to speculate about scenarios and how to respond. But if we can level this criticism at the administration, we can level it at every smaller organization that is an essential need: we knew this was coming. There was no plan. There was deferring to authorities, either local or state, who also had no plan. We were all Indiana Jones going after that truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark — we were all just making it up as we went along, and like Indy, we did okay. But…this is going to happen again. We’ll be remembered by history for how we made do on this one. We’ll be judged by history on how well we’ve prepared for the next wave of COVID, the next pandemic, or whatever emergency situation arises that requires long-term off-site learning.

This has reaffirmed that a lot of kids — despite the manic-ness of teenagers on TikTok and others — are not okay with this. Those of us who’ve chosen to stay in daily contact with our students are putting our training in “cries for help” to use and have quickly become experts at the “language” someone uses when they’re in trouble. The words not being said as well as the words being said. The order of the words. A shy student who’s desperately chatty. An e-mail from a student saying, “I quit.” Schools have amazing supports built-in for students, and it guts me that we’ve had to use them pretty much non-stop through all of this.

Related to this, I do have a lot of kids who are putting in the work who will probably admit that the work — the regular expectations of my class, of their math class, and others — have been their lifeline, their crutch to keeping something of a “normal” feel to their days and weeks. Some had issues, some had to bow out to work, and yes, some did ghost us, but overall, they kept at it. They kept learning. The future will be okay, ultimately.

Some kids like this, and respond better to online, at-home learning than in-room, in-school learning. I’ve seen some of my quieter kids, and some with challenging situations, utterly blossom and do some of the best work of their time in my class. For some, the distractions and social pressures of being in school were the issues. I’ve been humbled by how well some of my kids are doing.

Kids need to see that their teachers are vulnerable and that we’re in this together. This was not the time for teachers who get off on being dicks to their students to continue that, just online. I made a point to pull my class together as a community. I wrote a Corona Diary entry every day which was half stuff they needed to do, and have me journaling about the time, how I’m doing, and how I hoped they were doing. We had a class playlist so we can remember this time. I told them about how much Mother’s Day sucked for me since my Mom had passed away in December. I told them that I had up days and down days, and sometimes, all I wanted to do was just lie on my couch with the TV on, not paying attention to it. I held my due dates as flexible and offered them do-overs if their heads weren’t in the game when they had to do the assignment. I told them we’d all see each other again someday soon and laugh and remember this, and tell our stories to each other. And I was looking forward to it.

I learned that the public needed stability in all of this, and early on, some of that stability was provided by stories of “hero teachers” going above and beyond…the three percent or so of teachers who’d been pushed online. Those made people feel good for a while and we all laughed and smiled at teachers visiting students and writing on storm doors, and making cute videos and puppet shows, but then the public got tired of those stories and moved on, which was fine, because more and more of us were seeing those stories and feeling like we sucked if we weren’t doing those things if we didn’t have Pinterest-ready backdrops, lessons, and boards good to go. If our whole class wasn’t on Zoom at the same time or however the super-teachers were being shown to be super-teachers. A lot of us were doing the best we could, and it was nowhere near the story we were being told about “all the teachers.” As teachers, often portrayed as the bad guys and the problem, unless we’re taking a bullet for a student, this moment in the sun was…discomforting. And by the way, there have been some “struggling teacher” stories, but those aren’t as feel-good and don’t make people happy, so they’re kind of buried.

A lot of my kids thanked me for that. For being human with them and to them.

I learned that this was not online teaching. These were not online courses. This was disaster response.

Featured image: Shutterstock