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'It's Up To Us:' Parents, Teachers Face Uncertainty About Virtual Learning

Many Northeast Ohio students will spend their school days this fall in front of a screen. Parents and teachers are trying to figure out how to make online learning as effective as possible. [fizkes / Shutterstock]
Many Northeast Ohio students will spend their school days this fall in front of a screen. Parents and teachers are trying to figure out how to make online learning as effective as possible. [fizkes / Shutterstock]

Homeroom: A Return to Learning

This story is part of ideastream's special series examining the challenges and perils of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 25 percent of Ohio students will begin the school year with online learning because of COVID-19 concerns, including many here in Northeast Ohio.

Parents and teachers alike are uncertain about the effectiveness of teaching students through virtual classes. Parents who can afford it are taking matters into their own hands by hiring tutors or education majors from local universities to teach small groups of kids, sometimes referred to as “learning pods”

David Rothstein has three daughters in the Solon City School District, one of many districts in Cuyahoga County holding virtual instruction for the first part of the school year. Rothstein and his wife considered starting a “pod” with their daughters and their friends, but have concerns about the health and financial risks involved.

“The cost numbers range all over the place,” Rothstein said. “If you’ve lost income because of COVID… that’s a tough thing to do. And I mean, we’re still paying property taxes and school costs. It’s not like you’re getting money back and then taking that money and using it for these kinds of options.”

The Rothstein family is in the process of turning their living room into a makeshift classroom, he said. Both he and his wife work from home, and are worried about supervising their kids on top of that, he said.

“I’m going to have to adjust my work schedule, and I’ll be working more nights so that if they need me for 20 minutes during the day, that I can factor that into the equation,” he said.

The Shaker Heights School District is also starting off the school year with remote classes for the first nine weeks. Parent Jeremy Negre, plans to take turns supervising his three children throughout the school day with his wife.

Negrey works for a healthcare technology company, developing virtual training for adults. Some of the strategies he learned for work could carry over into managing at-home learning for his kids, he said, such as keeping lessons and activities short and engaging.

“Teachers are going to have much better luck, parents are going to have much better luck in keeping things short and sweet,” Negrey said.

Marc Kirby, who teaches ninth grade American history at Normandy High School in Parma, is adapting his lessons and lectures for an online setting, as Parma schools are starting the year fully remote.

Kirby is trying to figure out creative ways to engage his students in class discussions – a key part of his social studies curriculum, he said.

“For freshmen in high school, I know it’s already difficult, face-to-face, to put yourself out there and give your opinions about things, and to do it in a digital setting, it’s probably even more awkward and scary,” Kirby said.

All Parma teachers will meet with students in video calls each day, he said. Kirby plans to use that time to have class discussions, rather than give live lectures.

Other teachers may have different plans, he said.

“The actual roll-out of the lessons – it’s up to us,” Kirby said. “I think teachers are going to gravitate towards their strengths and what they’re comfortable doing, and you’re going to get a potpourri of different styles.”

While individual school districts may provide teachers with guidance to follow, academic research on virtual learning strategies for children is sparse, said Philip Oreopoulos, an educational policy researcher at the University of Toronto. Oreopoulos co-authored a review of nearly 200 studies on virtual learning and educational strategies last year, but most studies have focused on college students, he said.

That’s because K-12 schools have not needed to incorporate digital learning on a large scale until now, he said.

Research does suggest that students enrolled in online-only courses tended to get poorer grades compared to students who took all their classes in-person or had a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, Oreopoulos said.

“That’s likely due because of the passive nature of online courses,” he said. “Part of the big problem with online [is] there’s no immediate feedback. There’s no opportunity to engage like you would normally do if you were in a classroom.”

Oreopoulos recommends teachers focus on engaging their students through interactive methods, like Kirby is doing with his students in Parma. One potential way to do this, Oreopoulos said, is through computer-assisted learning programs. These programs have online modules that allow students to go at their own pace, he said, and some studies have shown they can help students perform better.

In Kirby’s experience, computer-assisted learning programs can be effective, but tend to work better for students who are already naturally motivated, he said.

Staying up-to-date with assignments may be particularly challenging for low-income families who may not have sufficient technology resources, or a parent who can stay home to keep kids on task, Oreopoulos said.

Studies show frequent, low-tech communication between teachers and parents can help mitigate this, he said.

“There are text-message programs that have been set up to make it easier for teachers to let parents know if students are missing class, or if they were not able to hand in an assignment, or did not do well on an assignment,” Oreopoulos said.

Providing that information to parents led to improvements in test scores, he said.

Back in Solon, Rothstein is hoping teachers will continue to use text and email reminders to keep parents in the loop about their children’s assignments, he said. 

Both Rothstein and Kirby said parents and teachers will have to work together to make remote learning go as smooth as possible.

The local educators and researchers agree that with a lack of guidance specific for teachers, parents and students, there will be quite a bit of trial and error as they navigate the beginning of the school year together, but apart, in their virtual classrooms.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.