On March 13, as my student teacher was taking attendance and checking work email, I saw her freeze. She showed me the message and then I froze, too. First, we got our students’ attention, and then we gave them the news: they would be going home to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.
With elbow bumps and any last-minute books and journals I could think to send, we watched them walk out of the classroom.
By March 19, we knew there was a possibility schools might be out until fall. Now, more than a week into school closure, I’ve learned two things: we need to make technology available to every child, and we need to be more consistent in how we communicate with parents.
At first, to establish some kind of online classroom, I communicated in various ways with every one of my 32 students’ families. I used Google Classroom, texted and called, and even started a Facebook page. As the reality of the yawning technology gaps among my students sank in, I wondered how I was going to help when I couldn’t be where the kids are.
How much could I ask of them remotely? How much would families be willing to do? How much could they handle in these uncertain times? And how would I keep the learning community I had nurtured since the first day of school alive?
My classroom has computers but students were not allowed to take them home. That mattered, as most of my students would be without one at home. As we worked to make the transition to distance learning, I realized the programs and online activities we run every day in class are not available to most of my students. Beyond the sad thought that I hadn’t recognized this discrepancy in resources on a good day, I know the consequence of it is far more devastating now.
The parents were all very interested in getting their students online at Google Classroom and using our reading programs. But that would require electronic devices from which they could upload PDFs or Word documents and reliable Wi-Fi, which not all have.
Twenty-first century students deserve online access whenever they need it. But what to do now?
To mitigate this, I have been teaching through videos I created on YouTube, giving two-minute conference calls several times a week per child and even posting videos to Facebook. I do not consider these electronic avenues secure, nor are they places I feel comfortable with as an educator. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and my learning community is on life support.
Yet it is alive.
Checking my email today, I received a much happier message. Our school district, San Diego Unified, is considering making the laptops already in our classrooms available to students for distance learning. Now we’re talking … but we have too long ignored another obstacle to distance learning: communicating effectively with parents.
A recent story in the Los Angeles Times shared the ways educators are finding out what parents need beyond hardware. One particular need came home to me on a recent check-in call with a parent of several school-age children who said, “It seems like every teacher has their own way of doing this. It’s a bit like running an obstacle course here!” As a parent with two kids home myself, I got it.
Each conversation has made me understand what parents have been telling us in surveys for years: They need a more streamlined way to contact teachers, see posted grades, ask questions and participate in their child’s assignments.
It has become obvious that — without realizing it — schools haven’t instituted a proper way to communicate in the digital age. We’ve exhibited what we would never allow in our students’ conduct — inconsistency.
As Kisha Borden of the San Diego Education Association said in our superintendent’s recent press release, “Partnership and engagement between educators, parents and students will be the key to the success of this transition period.” I think it will be key long after this crisis ends, too.
And it looks like I’m not alone. In just days, I’ll be joined by many of my colleagues in online training sessions, the first of which is called communication tools for collaboration. I can’t wait to share with my parents some good news in all this chaos; that we’ve got something — consistent and accessible on available technology — for them all.
Thomas Courtney teaches fifth grade at Chollas-Mead Elementary school in San Diego Unified.
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