A student uses a laptop to study at school in Tampa, Florida, USA on February 6, 2019. Photo: Artsy Shot Photography/Shutterstock.com
Distance learning is going to be a reality for the foreseeable future thanks to the growing concern of the spread of the coronavirus.
Schools in Florida are taking (and have taken) steps to make sure they are practicing safe social distancing, even if it means force-cancelling graduation ceremonies and in-person classes, field trips, sports and other events. In-class teaching is also getting the social-distancing treatment. Students will have to finish the rest of their school year at home as schools have now been closed for the time being. School reopenings in the fall are also not a sure thing at this time.
Students will now have to log-in through a laptop or personal computer to gain access to their lessons at home. Attendance-taking will have its flexibility (such as in Pasco and neighboring Hillsborough County, where the teachers will take into account the weekly work that students accomplish) but will now be handled virtually as opposed to in-person like it would have been in a classroom setting.
Parents are having problems keeping up with their child’s roll-call requirement because of not being able to access their computers, citing unforeseen circumstances and things that are out of their control – such as interrupted or absent internet service and not enough technological devices for everyone in the house. Families may not have more than one computer available at home, much less be able to afford another, causing siblings to have to share devices in order to access their teacher’s lectures and their own homework assignments online.
Teachers are also being affected and are experiencing challenges of their own. They are in the process of adjusting from teaching in the classroom to teaching online, which isn’t as easy as it sounds as far as accessibility for students. Since March 30, schools have been trying to reach all students as much as possible so the students may keep up with their lessons for the day. This is also something teachers are helping out with.
While most teachers use Google Classroom for online learning, some use other learning platforms. These online platforms aren’t always an effective method of teaching certain subjects, according to some teachers. Phillip Knight teaches financial algebra at Gainesville High School. The transition from the classroom to an online platform is one he thinks he can do without. He is not very familiar with new technology and teaching online is a challenge for the teacher.
“I’m pretty proficient in class, but I’m 57 and this is definitely new to me,” said Knight. Knight prefers to focus on real-world financial literacy, personal finance and business subjects. “Right now we are looking at mutual funds, and I would rather be in a classroom to teach this.”
On the flip side of this issue is Emma Dreyer. Dreyer has been teaching math at Stephen Foster Elementary School for 11 years for first-, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students.
“I’m used to teaching in the classroom and not in the virtual world,” she said. “So far, it is going well. I set up Google Classroom and students are completing assignments online.
The Florida Department of Education did not tell districts how to document attendance necessarily. That was left up to the school districts. Department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said taking attendance might be essential in case an outside entity ever asks for documentation of activities, such as how grant money was spent.
To relieve the stress on students and their parents of having to sign in to confirm attendance everyday, different districts have implemented their own ways of documenting daily attendance. In Pinellas County, performance from the student speaks more volumes than having a check mark next to a student’s name. As long as their work is completed every week, it is sufficient to satisfy the attendance requirement.
For Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis, this also satisfies him. He argued that signing in every morning is not as critical as participating when possible and completing the coursework. “For me, that’s enough and sufficient to count them for that week,” said Davis.
Other counties in Florida are taking a more “fluid”, or flexible approach to attendance taking. “Home-based learning is inherently less structured and allows for more independent learning,” said Sonya Duke-Bolden, a spokeswoman for the Duval County schools. The Duval County schools have many students without online access who are working on packets rather than on computers. Duke-Bolden also said that, “…while teachers are available between 8 a.m.–2:50 p.m. to engage with students and provide guided lessons, there is no expectation that students are sitting in front of a computer non-stop for seven hours.”
Pinellas County, on the other hand, is being more strict after starting off with a more relaxed approach. The overall expectation is that students will be just as dedicated to their schoolwork at home as they would be in class at school. County spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said the schools plan to become more insistent that children sign on regularly for classes. “Students typically will spend between five and seven hours on their schoolwork each day, just as they would in a regular school setting,” Mascareñas said.
The COVID-19 virus isolation methods being used by schools has shown there is a lack of access to online resources to the students. This digital divide makes it apparent that students do not have access to school computers nor to high-speed internet. As Florida school closures are expected to remain in place until May 4 and maybe even beyond that date, closing this digital divide is important now more than ever. Alachua County Public Schools, for example, have struggled to get educational materials to students so they may be able to learn at home while schools are closed.
Local schools in Alachua County have already distributed 4,000 laptops and other devices to students, but there is a concern that much more computers and laptops will be needed to accommodate all students and teachers. Even after receiving a laptop, thousands of student’s families may not be able to afford a high-speed internet connection. Another issue might be the fact that a student might live in an area where service is unavailable.
Students with disabilities and their parents and teachers are also facing challenges during this online learning transition. Tens of thousands of special-needs students across Tampa Bay are missing out on services and accommodations due to the virus. Schools are trying to help as much as possible, but certain things cannot be worked on remotely from home.
Some children have not made a smooth transition in coping with their disabilities, parents and guardians say. Some kids have violent meltdowns because they cannot process the change from in-class lectures and assignments to their online counterparts, frustrating them entirely. Parents are concerned this will keep their kids from moving to the next grade. Others are putting off school work just to get through the day without a confrontation with their child.
Special-needs teachers in Pasco County have been instructed by Trinity Oaks teacher Staci Guten to have patience with these students. The instructors have also been encouraged to work together with the student and their parents to support each other for each student’s specific situation. Guten has made sure she keeps in touch with all 15 of her students to address their needs. Currently, there are about 12,500 special-needs students across the district.
There are people that are hopeful this will all end soon, but not without certain consequences. The recovery from the coronavirus will take time, and only time will tell how long the pandemic will last.
Chris began his writing as a hobby while attending Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. Today he and his wife live in the Orlando area with their three children and dog.