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?

Kathy Essig, an executive functioning coach based in Arlington, says she is seeing the same trend. “The public schools have done a really lousy job,” she said during an interview in June. “All my private school kids received 90 to 95 percent of what they would have gotten in person. They were attending one or two fewer classes per week, but they essentially maintained a regular school day [online].

“Public schools have let all of us down,” Essig says. “I get that there are some kids who didn’t have devices, but there should have been some level of work-around. I don’t get what the thought was behind Let’s bring this to a screeching halt.”

Hindsight, says APS assistant superintendent Loft, has afforded some clarity: “If I could do it magically all over again, I would have gotten devices into everyone’s hands on March 13.”

Now Arlington schools, in partnership with county officials, are taking aggressive strides toward ensuring connectivity for all. In July, Arlington County announced it will direct $500,000 in funding to provide broadband internet access to APS students who don’t already have it. Funds received through the CARES Act will be used to purchase iPads for students in pre-K through second grade.

Loft acknowledges that distance learning is imperfect, and that some needs were unmet at the end of the school year—“like our Shriver Program students, who [were] receiving comprehensive physical therapy on a daily basis.
“Kids are going to be forever impacted by this,” she says. “We went asynchronous [in the fourth quarter of 2020] because we recognized that teachers have families, too, and we wanted to make sure they were able to balance their lives. Also, if we had live [classes] but some kids weren’t able to make it, that’s kind of stigmatizing.

“Looking forward,” she says, “we need to do a better job getting all of our teachers on the same platform. We need to systematize distance learning for teachers, which includes executive functioning and trauma-informed instruction—not just using the tool but understanding our kids’ experiences.”

As this issue went to press, the trajectory of Covid-19 was still a moving target. After weighing various options, public schools in Arlington, Falls Church City and Fairfax County in late July announced that they will begin the 2020-21 school year 100% online, with plans to phase in socially distanced classroom time once it is safe to do so.

APS superintendent Francisco Durán was the first leader of the three school systems to recommend a virtual start to the fall semester. He did so despite many families expressing a preference for at least partial on-site classroom instruction. Some parents even staged protests.

“After reviewing feedback from families and staff, we found the three most important issues were access, content and teacher support,” says Durán, who stepped into the superintendent role at APS in July after leaving his previous post as chief academic and equity officer for Fairfax County Public Schools.

APS has ramped up its teacher training accordingly, he says, is addressing problems with digital access and intends to teach new material in the fall. “We’re making very difficult decisions. Health and safety are the forefront, coupled with instruction—students need to learn. We’re also dealing with trauma, stress and isolation. The more we can return some sense of normalcy to our families, the better, but we don’t want to compromise health. It’s very difficult to follow that data. It’s changing every day.”

So far, each family’s ability to adjust and engage with distance learning has been as varied and diverse as our population. There are as many stories of disappointments, hardships and failures as there are of successes and silver linings. The following interviews were conducted at the end of the fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year.

Categories: Education