I think all of us are facing some kind of decision fatigue these days, with an uncertain future making everything even harder. Now it’s time for another decision – a big one. Do you send your children to school or try some variant at home? To help you make this choice, I’ve interviewed a few teachers to get their professional opinions on the pros and cons of the two choices public schools are offering in our area regarding in-person learning and remote learning. But try to remember, whatever you choose, you’re doing the right thing for your family.
1. What would your in-person school day look like? What would your virtual school day look like?
Justine Carr (Kindergarten Lead Teacher, 13 years experience)
Our district has announced we will be online for the first semester. We have been provided a sample schedule for the day which looks to be the length of a typical school day. It is unclear how much will be live and how much will be “work time” for the kids. Regardless, I believe it will be very difficult for families to manage.
Anonymous Teacher #1 (Middle School Teacher, 13 years experience)
In person: A typical in-person school day would involve 8 periods of switching classes. My 50-minute classes start with a mini-lesson where the whole group comes to the front of the room followed by a long session of independent reading where I meet with small groups and individual kids for more personalized instruction. We then end the class period with partner discussions. I am not yet sure what it would look like this year, as my district has not yet released specific plans for class size and social distancing.
Virtual: To the best of my knowledge (which is still limited at this point), students will follow the basic timeline of their 8 classes but from home. They will be strongly encouraged to attend their first period class live and then will conduct the rest of their classes via recorded video and self-paced assignments. I’ll schedule live zoom small groups and individual conferences as needed, making sure to meet with each student at least once a week.
Anonymous Teacher #2 (7 years experience)
At this point, we have been given little to no information from our school district, so I’m not entirely sure. I do know we will be expected to spray/wipe down/dry all desks and chairs between classes (we have a 7 period day)… which leaves me wondering when I’ll have time to go to the restroom! I have no idea about numbers, so I’m not sure if/how we will socially distance. Even when we go back, we are expected (as far as I know now) to do remote learning as well. So that sounds pretty tough. My virtual school day would likely be off and on all day until 11pm, simply because I have a child at home who will also be learning virtually and will need my help throughout the day (and to eat, get outside and exercise, have brain breaks, etc). This means that I will do what I can during the day, but I will likely be working late into the night after bedtime, as I did most nights during spring distance learning.
2. What are the biggest obstacles you face when teaching in-person? Virtually?
In person: maintaining safety protocols (especially with 5 year olds), extra cleaning (no additional building service workers will be hired), students will not be able to share materials and many more will be needed, dealing with the inevitability of students, teachers, families who get sick, providing emotional support for kindergartners who typically can have a difficult time transitioning when we can’t be close and while wearing a mask, dealing with the additional social emotional issues of the students
Virtual: Countless! Connecting with students, reassuring families, communicating with and leading families through virtual learning when I have no relationship with them and they are not familiar with the routines/protocols/resources of the school (many K families are new to the school), being able to properly identify the skills and needs of my students, providing individualized instruction to best meet the needs of my students, making the virtual learning engaging and fun, too much screen time for students and teachers, being disconnected from the school resources and support, technological issues, helping the kids feel comfortable and willing to contribute, building relationships among the students, building class community, missing out on so many important socialization experiences, providing appropriate social emotional support for students (and families), etc.
In person: The biggest obstacles I’ll face this year are keeping students engaged while limiting movement and use of manipulatives and materials in the classroom. There will be more online reading and computer use even in the classroom. I also expect mask wearing and social distancing to be difficult to enforce.
Virtual: In the spring, I had only about 60% participation, so I’m expecting just reaching all students may be an issue again this fall. Once we have all students on board, I expect there will be some issues with connectivity, which may slow classes down occasionally, and I think it will be challenging for many students to stay focused and motivated for the length of time it will take them to complete their work each day. They also will have to learn the various technology platforms, apps, etc. that will be used, which will take up class time and will involve their own unique learning curves for both teachers and students.
In person – safety. 100%. I just don’t feel that it’s safe and prudent to go back at this time, with Covid not under control at all in our state and particularly in the Dallas area. It seems very irresponsible, and makes it seem like the spring shutdown was truly for nothing. I understand that many families depend on schools for a place for their children to go during the day, for meals, etc… but this seems like a government funding issue, not a school issue. If we can bail out large corporations, why can’t we give Americans a hand when they truly need it (for childcare, food, etc during this time)? Virtually my biggest obstacle is time, and the fact that I have my own family to take care of while both parents are working from home. There just aren’t enough hours in the day… virtual learning takes a lot of time as a teacher – especially when trying to respond to emails, troubleshoot, and give meaningful grading/feedback on assignments for 130-150 students, as many middle school and high school teachers have. This is outside of the time it takes to create great learning experiences, collaborate with my teams, curate folders and assignments so that they are easy to understand remotely, create instructional videos, etc.
3. What are some positives of both in-person and virtual learning?
In person: The ability to form relationships with students and families, build a classroom community, properly assess and identify the individual strengths and needs of students, meet the individual learning needs of students, provide an engaging learning experience, be surrounded by a collaborative and supportive staff community, and address the health and emotional needs of students.
Virtual: Build computer skills from a young age, maintain health and safety of students, staff, and families.
In person: School isn’t just about learning curriculum but also about learning how to behave and succeed in the world. This social interaction is, I would argue, the most important part for the kids. Also, if I see a student struggle I can reteach in a different way. Additionally, many students need additional instruction which the teacher can recognize or offer various types of support to help him or her succeed.
Virtual: Of course, health and safety is the number one benefit of virtual learning. Also, I believe that our world is moving in a more virtual direction in all aspects of life, so remote learning will teach students valuable skills about digital citizenship, technology use, and online etiquette. Students will also benefit from the ability to work at their own pace or whenever it fits in their schedules and will have the ability to message their teachers whenever needed and expect quick responses. Plus, I’ve discovered a lot of creative ways to increase social interaction and group work using zoom and other online platforms.
The positive of in-person learning is that you really just can’t beat face-to-face learning and interactions. We did our very best with Zoom calls, video submissions/comments/feedback, etc… but it’s obviously not the same. I would love to go back (and send my child back too), I just don’t think this is the right time, not just yet. The positive to virtual learning is that it’s safe in our current situation. It is also temporary – this is not a permanent situation; knowing things will not always be this way helps me to be able to handle the stresses of virtual learning better.
4. What can parents do to help ease the transition back to in-person school?
Practice safety measures such as proper and frequent hand washing, wearing masks, hands away from face, covering coughs and sneezes, etc. Keep students home who are showing any signs of illness or who have been exposed to illness.
Have your child practice wearing a mask for a long period of time – while watching TV, playing video games, etc. Also, talk to them about how we wear masks to protect others, especially those who may have conditions we can’t see. Help them to use empathy and talk through scenarios about how others may be feeling. Talk to them as well about how they’re feeling and do your best to frame what’s happening in a positive light. Kids soak up our emotions and will reflect them, so if they can sense your anxiety, they’ll feel it too.
I think children should practice wearing masks/shields for extended periods during the day. Children also need to practice putting on and removing their mask/shield independently. I would also recommend getting some type of lanyard that can be attached to the ear loops of masks, so that they can be removed for eating/drinking/comfort (when safe), so they will not get lost. I think having a talk about expectations is probably also a good idea. When we do go back, things will likely not be “back to normal” for awhile (as much as that is everyone’s wish, mine included!). Students will have to keep their distance from their friends and their teachers, they might not be eating in the lunchroom for awhile, they might not get to do specials as usual, etc. I think that talking about all these things while trying to still be positive (you get to see your friends in-person, no more Zoom calls!) will be helpful. I also think it’s helpful to focus on the fa
5. What can parents do to help ease their children into and support a virtual learning experience?
Create a set workspace and include supplies and materials that can be easily accessed. Talk to the child about proper etiquette during virtual lessons. Create a schedule that can be read and followed by the child to build independence and a sense of structure. Provide as many screen breaks as possible and plan for physical activity. Parents will likely have many strong feelings and concerns about virtual learning. It will be important that they watch what they say and share about it while around their children. We all have many concerns about it but do not want our children to absorb any unnecessary negative thoughts or anxiety about it. If they can avoid that they will be more likely to be positively engaged in virtual learning and have more success.
Set up a consistent workspace and do your best to enforce a routine. I would recommend following their daily school schedule. They don’t have to work on math for the whole 50 minutes but if math comes first on the schedule, do math first every day. Also, allow for lots of breaks. In a classroom, students may move around the room 2-3 times during a 50 minute period. So it should be expected that they need that stretch break at home as well. With at least a 5 minute break between classes and a relaxing lunch break. Also, reach out to your child’s teacher with any concerns. We want the kids to succeed, and the best way to do that is to work together.
I think that it’s still important to focus on the positives and remind them (and yourself) that this is temporary until things are more under control. I think (especially with older children/teens) it’s important to remind them to advocate for themselves (and for you to advocate for your younger children). Teachers are pretty swamped during distance learning, but they love and care for your children and want to help them in any way they can. This is much harder remotely, and the more your children communicate with their teacher, the better. The more students stay engaged with and in touch with their teachers, the better. Encourage them to ask questions, to tell their teacher when they don’t understand something and need extra help, to ask why they got questions wrong if they’re not sure, etc. Keeping this line of communication open is vital for distance learning to be effective, which I truly think it can be.
6. Do you have any other insights you’d like to share about the subjects of in-person and virtual teaching?
One of my many concerns of virtual learning involves the planning/prep time that will be required to transition lessons to the virtual format. In the spring, our county provided us with lesson plans and resources but they were often not up with the high standards of our school and classroom and we would need to remake them. That was when we were tackling one subject a day, whereas in the fall, there will be all subjects. Unfortunately there seem to be no good options until it is safe for us to be together in person again.
There are no perfect solutions to our situation right now, but teachers will do the absolute best they can to make either learning option work for their students. I think whatever way we teach and whatever way our students learn, we’ll adapt, have patience, and show we care. I think kids are ready to get back into the routine of school and to know that they are not alone and are part of a group. Both in-person and virtual classes can achieve that in their own ways.
I truly believe we are all doing the best we can, no matter our preference for in-person or virtual learning. Teachers are working SO hard (and did so during the spring shut down, as well) and are making lots of tough choices, so let’s support them (many of whom have families of their own). Parents are working SO hard (and did so during the spring shut down, as well) and are making lots of tough choices, so let’s support them, too. If we go back to school virtually, it will be hard on everyone. Be kind and gracious – everyone is doing the best they can. When we go back to school in-person, it will also be hard. There will be nervousness and even fear from many teachers, parents, and students… so let’s support them and keep them safe. We are all in this together. This will be a challenging year, but I believe we are up for it.
Carrie Thomas is a mother of 3 (Hailey 2, Caleb 4, and Jackson 7) and has been a CECPTA blue and yellow group member for almost 2 years. She moved to Carrollton from New Jersey in the winter of 2018 when her husband accepted a job at UTD. She is a middle school English teacher in Carrollton and loves spending time with her family, reading dystopian YA novels, and unwinding with a glass of wine and one of the well-written Netflix shows.