Learning the Hard Way

The abrupt shift to remote instruction was painful, and it played out differently in every household. What did the spring of 2020 teach us?
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On March 13, life as we knew it—at least for those of us with school-age kids—came to a grinding halt. Within a span of 13 hours, schools in Arlington, Falls Church City and Fairfax County announced that they would be closed through spring break in response to Covid-19. Ten days later, Gov. Ralph Northam made the decision to close Virginia schools for the rest of the school year.

And just like that, our reality was tipped sideways. With little guidance from those in charge and even fewer answers to comfort our kids, we braced for a world of homeschooling and lost sports seasons, of missed performances and virtual graduations. Amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic, families also had to grapple with upended routines and the educational fallout of quarantine.

The staff and teachers at our schools, meanwhile, were tasked with inventing the remote learning process almost overnight—including determining which interactions between teachers and students would be live (“synchronous”) versus prerecorded or assignment-based (“asynchronous”).

“We were building the plane as we were flying it,” says Bridget Loft, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for Arlington Public Schools (APS). “Some families had the means to dive headlong into distance learning, and some didn’t. We tried to shoot for the middle. We also tried to be very mindful of equity, which included having a device at home and knowing how to use it, ensuring wireless connectivity and working through any language barriers that might exist.”

Private schools, for the most part, didn’t miss a beat; many were able to ensure that their students had the necessary resources to learn new content and attend live classes online. But public schools found themselves in the awkward position of having to truncate the third quarter and largely suspend the teaching of new concepts for the remainder of the year.

In Arlington, public schools adopted an asynchronous model, limiting fourth-quarter assignments to concepts that had already been taught. There would be no fourth-quarter grades; instead, kids had the option of completing enrichment work to raise their year-end grades by one letter grade. The criteria for raising grades were largely left to individual teachers to determine.

Falls Church City and Fairfax County public schools attempted a hybrid model—a combination of live and asynchronous instruction—and implemented similar policies with regard to fourth-quarter grading. But the holes in the enrichment-only approach soon became apparent. Students already earning A’s had little or no incentive to continue participating in schoolwork. Students who had specialized education needs—or didn’t have the space, technology or parental guidance at home—struggled to take advantage of the opportunity to improve their grades.

Technology was a flash point. Knowing that APS issues personal devices to all students starting in third grade—iPads for elementary and middle students; laptops for high-schoolers—some Arlington parents were baffled as to why every student didn’t have access to a personal device, and why schools couldn’t invest in hot spots to ensure connectivity.

Categories: Education
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