Less than a year ago students attended the traditional face-to-face classes, socialized with friends, participated in clubs, and played sports. Then the pandemic struck, and everything changed. Students, teachers, and parents changed their way of life in just a few short days. Teachers had to change all of their course materials to meet the needs of an online platform; students had to understand how to attend class online, and parents had to turn their homes into school rooms. The pandemic is far from over, so virtual learning continues to be the best method for educating our children; however, schools have adopted various versions of the online platform.
Although virtual learning is working for many, especially older students, our younger children and working parents are struggling. Since children now must be at home for school, they need supervision. Parents must either stay home and not work or make other arrangements, so their children are supervised. Many parents who cannot work from home had to relinquish their jobs. And, if the pandemic persists for several more months as predicted, families will continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Women in particular have suffered the consequences of the pandemic the most because of the need to care for children. Traditionally, women are expected to relinquish their jobs to stay home and take care of sick family members and children who are learning from home. Women in the workplace already have little flexibility to meet the needs of motherhood, and often work in hourly positions, family businesses, or domestic work. The demands of virtual learning have only exacerbated the situation. Because many families now no longer have two incomes, the government must step-in to help them get through this desperate phase. Parents need support and creative solutions where children can be safely educated, and mothers can safely return to work.
Some schools are providing assistance, but they are limited to the guidelines created by the Center for Disease Control and state mandates. Safety guidelines require everyone to wear a mask in public, maintain at least six feet of distance, and sanitize hands and work areas regularly. These guidelines are difficult for schools to abide because of limited space, limited funds, and the sheer number of students. Yet, some schools are offering in-person instruction on a modified schedule.
Schools with communities demanding face to face learning created a hybrid model (also known as blended learning) where some learning takes place at home and some at school. The most common hybrid model is where students are divided into smaller groups and will attend face to face on some days and online on other days. One group would attend face to face on Monday and Tuesday and a second group would attend face to face on Thursday and Friday. Both groups would continue with virtual learning on the other days. Wednesdays are reserved for disinfecting the schools. The hybrid model allows the much-needed face to face time. However, although students encounter only a small number of people when they attend class, teachers are exposed to everyone. This exposure has caused many teachers to leave the profession out of fear of catching the virus or bringing it home to their families. Additionally, this model does not help parents since they still must provide childcare since children are home a few days each week.
Parents who are able to work from home must find ways to support their children’s learning while working to meet the demands of their job. Creating a routine at home where both parents and students have a place and time to work is essential to a successful virtual learning experience. Businesses have tried to be flexible and understanding when it comes to the demands of parenting during work hours. Yet, parents are essentially working two jobs and must set the learning expectations for their children while meeting the demands from their workplace. Communication between parents, teachers, students and businesses needs to take place regularly so that all stakeholders show their commitment to the learning process.
Teachers have had a few months of teaching online, and although it is a new concept for most, each day is better than the last. Teachers are beginning to develop a routine of how to best engage students, and students are adjusting to this new way of learning. The school systems are providing teachers more opportunities for training on how best practices in online learning. However, many districts are struggling to find ways to provide students with access.
The underrepresented populations have suffered the most from the switch to online learning. Many of these students do not have access to Wi-Fi connections and/or devices, so they are not receiving the same education as other students. When possible, schools have provided hotspots in local libraries or at the school, and they have furnished devices so that all students have equal access. Yet, these hurdles are difficult for districts that do not have the funding.
As long as teachers continue to set expectations for learning, participation, and communication, virtual learning will only improve. It is imperative that school leaders understand the struggles that many families are facing, so they should be empathetic and flexible. However, in order for virtual learning to succeed, parents, students, citizens, and the government must be committed to this style of learning.
With the support of all stakeholders, the pandemic will not defeat our children’s learning. To combat some of the challenges with virtual learning, many parents have created pods. These pods are formed by gathering small groups of students who meet face-to-face and are led by one teacher. While many pods meet face to face and have a designated adult helping students with their online learning, other pods are like mini schools, where there is a licensed teacher instructing all levels and ages of students within the group.
it is up to all stakeholders to care about student learning. We cannot allow this generation of students to be lost to the struggles associated with the pandemic because we will all face the consequences for years to come. We don’t know when the pandemic will end, but we do know our children cannot be lost; their learning must continue in a safe environment. So, for now, the safe environment is at home with a computer and a very dedicated teacher on the other side.
Moanaro Imchen, Mokokchung.