There was more kindness, but less learning, in virtual classrooms

WEST MILFORD. Parents recall the ups and downs of the past year, and assess the innovation that got their children through Covid-19 and school

| 23 Aug 2021 | 12:11

A parent of a Maple Road School 3rd grader said “my child’s teacher definitely went above and beyond to make sure that the students got the most possible from this crazy year. I feel that my child is on track for 4th grade next year.”

But a parent of a Marshall Hill student said “the teachers really tried but virtual learning wasn’t the same as in person. Too much distraction and not enough engagement allowed for a lesser amount learned.”

And a West Milford High School parent described her child’s education as “mediocre. She doesn’t care if she succeeds and her teachers don’t care if she succeeds. Apathy all around.”

More than 140 parents of children in grades one through 12, with nearly half in hybrid learning, shared their experiences of the past year in a Straus News community survey. How well the year went academically varied from child to child. But some patterns emerged. Parents overwhelmingly put the blame not on their children’s schools or teachers but on the constraints imposed by the pandemic itself.

“The teachers did a great job this year,” said Joshua Moser, the father of a Warwick Valley, N.Y. middle schooler. “But the students weren’t able to learn as well.”

Many parents talked about their children’s lack of focus, structure, and accountability. But others noticed little change in the education of their children or the value of the school day.

Parents often found themselves spread thin between monitoring their child’s remote education and their own remote job.

One of the biggest challenges was getting their children to log on to their virtual classes on-time. When they logged in late, teachers were compelled to re-teach the material the students missed. This accommodation was a pandemic-inspired kindness, but did cause following the curriculum to fall behind.

In our community survey, 53 percent of parents said their children did not live up to their academic potential, and 35 percent believe their children made minimal progress.

Lowered expectations

Many parents commented on the limited individual attention their kids received. With virtual classes, teachers couldn’t peek over their shoulders to see if they were correct, or even on task.

Many teachers did use breakout rooms– small groups of students with isolated video and audio from the main video chat – but would still have to hop between them, making it difficult to devote much time to any one student.

While some students performed well, only 37 percent exceeded their parents’ expectations, according to the survey. Others relied on second and third chances.

These opportunities were offered in a compassionate effort to counter the chaos of the outside world, but made it very difficult to truly track academic progress. That may be why more than 50 percent of the survey respondents do not believe their children are “on track” in their education.

Students seemed to pick up on the lowered academic expectations, parents said. Without the structure of reporting to a physical school building, some students found it difficult to take the school day seriously.

Claudia Caramiello, the mother of two students at Wallkill Valley Regional High School in Hamburg, N.J., said the lack of routine made the year was challenging. “There is no motivation to get up, brush your teeth, fix your hair,” she said “You can do everything in your bed in sweatpants. The students do not have a great learning environment.”

‘Teachers never logged off’

On the whole, parents said, virtual learning did not engage students in the way in-person instruction does. Many students breezed through both their classwork and homework, usually (but not always) withstanding the temptation to cheat. As one parent put it, the students were doing the work but not understanding it.

Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta, N.J., stuck with in-person instruction throughout the year and received glowing survey responses that their children’s education “exceeded expectations,” and that the turmoil of the pandemic did not impair their experience in any way.

While not all schools were so fortunate as to be able to offer in-person learning for their students throughout the year, parents consistently applauded their children’s teachers and administrators.

“Teachers evaluated their strengths and did their best to translate them virtually,” said Michael Hernandez, father of a student at Glen Meadow Middle School in Vernon, N.J.

“They had no bones about working or answering questions after the school day was over,” he said. “Teachers never logged off and acted as a great support system for the kids.”

Now, he said, students have gotten quite tech savvy, and are now real pros at Google Classroom.

“There was a big learning curve from March 2020 in the Vernon school district,” said Hernandez. “But Vernon was really on the advent on technology – which tells you a lot about Vernon’s curriculum.”

Getting creative

Schools had to get creative with their curriculum. And some of the modifications they made were impressively innovative and successful.

For instance, Warwick Valley Middle School art teacher Nicole Sisco would focus her camera on the projects directly, so students could see her movements while making art from a different perspective. Because of this, students were able to copy and learn effortlessly.

Some classes – physical education, for instance — did not translate as well. There was little motivation for students to actually get up and do the exercises, particularly when they could be oh-so comfortable in their pajamas.

Several districts started summer programs to provide additional academic support and enhanced enrichment opportunities. The Monroe-Woodbury school district in Monroe, N.Y., ran a four-week program that focuses on skills rather than on sequential content. This way, students can miss a week of instruction and still easily return to the program.

Nearly 1,100 students registered for Monroe-Woodbury’s Summer Bridges Program, according to Dr. Eric Hassler, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

“I don’t consider the 2020-21 school year as one where students lost learning,” Hassler wrote in an email. “Rather, Covid-19 has presented challenges that may have hindered learning, and the purpose of Summer Bridges is to provide opportunities for our students to continue learning through the summer.”

“Very difficult online especially when teachers were out due to quarantine and they were left alone without a teacher but were expected to (do) the same amount of work.”
—West Milford High School parent of a 9th grader