Lack Of Internet, Technology, Meals: Teachers Detail Pitfalls Of Remote Teaching During Coronavirus Crisis

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Mary Margaret Olohan Social Issues Reporter
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  • Schools across the United States are suspending classes due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead teaching students remotely.
  • Teachers warn that remote teaching can be effective under certain circumstances, but factors like age or accessibility to internet, technology, and meals may be drawbacks.
  • “Remote teaching can work, but even under optimal conditions it requires considerable preparation and technology, which hasn’t been an option during this crisis,” one teacher said.

Educators forced to switch to remote teaching because of the coronavirus crisis say such distance learning can be effective, but they face a number of hurdles that could hinder students’s schooling.

Thirty-eight states have shut down schools due to the pandemic as of Wednesday evening, and many of the affected schools are resorting to remote teaching, also known as distance learning.

Remote teaching requires significant preparation that wasn’t afforded in the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, teachers told the Daily Caller News Foundation, and students’ constraints, such as limited access to adequate technology, a lack of meals and unstable home lives can hamper education. (RELATED: More Than 30 States Have Closed Down All Public Schools)

Finnegan Schick, a public school high school teacher in a low-income south Boston neighborhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, told the DCNF that transitioning to remote teaching “at the drop of a dime” is “pure madness.”

“It requires an immense amount of work, which is why teachers often spend years in professional development perfecting their remote lessons and virtual instruction,” said Schick, who teaches English as a second language (ESL).

Schick’s school is not asking teachers to teach via digital classrooms, though individual teachers are free to do so if they wish. This is largely “because we lack the money and equipment to give each student a laptop to study from home,” Schick said.

His school staff put together “take home” packets for two weeks of closure on March 13, which were then posted on the school website.

“Long story short: Yes, remote teaching can work, but even under optimal conditions it requires considerable preparation and technology, which hasn’t been an option during this crisis,” he said.

St. Rita’s Catholic School teacher Katie Buhai, who teaches second grade in a low-income New Orleans neighborhood, warned that it may be difficult to remotely teach young children who cannot yet read.

“I think it’ll be very challenging for second graders because, up until third grade, you’re teaching kids how to read,” Buhai, whose school has moved to distance learning, told the DCNF. “Once they hit third grade, that’s when they’re supposed to be able to read to learn. But right now, they can’t read.”

“So all of the different things that I’ll be giving them to be taught alone at home or those workbooks or online things, they can’t do that by themselves because they can’t read yet,” she continued. 

Working parents may not be able to assist young children during this time, Buhai said.

“We’re adapting our schedule to make it easier for them where they can do their learning at any time of day, so whenever their parents might be home or whenever an older sibling might be able to help.”

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 2: Teacher Arlene Lebowitz assists a student in her third-grade class during summer school July 2, 2003 in Chicago, Illinois. A record number of students are expected at summer school due to a strong showing for a new voluntary program for mid-tier students and strict application of non-ITBS (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) test promotion standards. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Teacher Arlene Lebowitz assists a student in her third-grade class. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Christine Cochran, who teaches first grade at Brookside Elementary in Milford, Massachusetts, said her principal and superintendent asked her to keep in touch with parents and students over email, through a school website and by contacting the students on a one-to-one basis.

“So we’ve been sending them resources that they can use online,” she told the DCNF. “We have two programs that we use in school that they’re able to use at home.”

“One is a math program and one is a reading program,” Cochran continued. “So I can watch what they do from home, and we are asked to kind of monitor what they’re doing at home, both 30 minutes of each subject a day.”

Christine can also check her students’ progress on these programs and privately message students or parents to offer them passwords and usernames in case they have forgotten them or if they need encouragement, she said.

But some students don’t have access to the technology or the internet required to participate in online learning, including some at her school, Cochran noted. She added that certain teachers are taking initiative to provide options for those students.

“I was in school today and some of the teachers were grabbing extra Chromebooks and Kindles and we’re going to reach out to those families so that they may be able to pick them up after school,” she said, noting that though she is unsure if parents will pick up the devices, at least the teachers have them in their possession.

Another obstacle students face as schools close due to the coronavirus pandemic is uncertainty about when they may get their next meal. Many students who customarily receive free meals at school now face an undecided stretch of time where they will need breakfast and lunch.

Schools across the country are taking the initiative to offer meals to students — and sometimes others.

One of the elementary schools in Cochran’s district set up a program Monday for breakfast from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. “where you just drive up, grab your lunch, breakfast, and go.” Cochran said the program has been “really, really well responded to.”

“They’ve also asked teachers and citizens of our town to drop off non-perishable and other types of foods so that they can also make boxes for other families and perhaps elderly sick people that may not be able to go to the grocery store,” she said.

Buhai said her school also provides free lunch and breakfast to every single student every day during the normal school year. “We’re going to continue to do that during this time,” she said.

Every weekday between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m., students can come and get fruit and cereal for breakfast and a compartment tray of packaged food for lunch, Buhai said. The teacher noted that St. Rita’s is also extending the service to any neighborhood children who may be in need of food during this period and that any child under the age of 18 will be able to come and get meals for the foreseeable future.

“It’s going to be packaged, though, so nobody will be able to get out of the car to get it,” Buhai said. “And the child will have to be there in the car in order to get the food.”

Though the parents of her students work during the day, Buhai believes the community will still rally to make sure the children are fed.

“I think it would be a very big hardship on our families to go without food,” she said. “I’m hoping that parents can rely on each other. There’s a big community in our school where I think they might be able to carpool or, you know, help each other out.”

CHICAGO - MARCH 20: Nettelhorst Elementary School students eat their lunches March 20, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) stopped by the school to visit the new pilot lunch program called, "Cool Foods," part of the Healthy Schools Campaign. Nettelhorst is one of three Chicago public schools participating in the new lunch program offering salad bars as a new federal law, effective June 30, 2006, states that all schools must establish wellness policies. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Nettelhorst Elementary School students eat their lunches. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Students in low-income areas also face the hardship of turbulent and sometimes dangerous home lives.

Schick told the DCNF that he can say “anecdotally” that he knows that teachers and school leaders across the city of Boston are “very concerned about students whose home lives are unsafe or otherwise already difficult.”

“The coronavirus closures has not only taken away the few places where these students could feel safe and receive a free meal, but it has also put financial and psychological pressure on families who were already under significant duress,” he said.

Buhai said she has personally been to the hospital with students who have been abused or neglected. “I’ve seen all of that before,” she told the DCNF.

“It does frighten me that students are going to be having to deal with these situations at home and not be able to come back to a safe place at school or have a teacher to tell things to or to notice when something might mean something is wrong with them,” Buhai continued.

The New Orleans-based teacher said she called all of her students’ parents Monday, talked to them, and promised to be a resource for the remainder of this time. She also told them that if their children needed help with assignments or materials they could call her at any time during regular school hours.

“So from 8 to 3:30, I’m going to be available to them,” she said. “I’m posting things on ClassDojo, which is a free application for all teachers that my parents are already connected to. And I got to talk to several of my students on the phone and just assure them that they’re okay, and that I was thinking about them and praying for them and it was very sweet to hear them on the other line.”

Despite some of the downsides to remote teaching and closures, there may yet be some good coming out of this for students, Montgomery County Maryland public school teacher Michael Calvert told the DCNF.

Modern day technology and simply being at home still allow children to experiences lots of opportunities for learning, Calvert said. In fact, he says, taking time off from school may be good for children.

“I don’t think that curriculum bureaucrats know it all. And I think this is a great opportunity almost for revolution in the way kids work and learn,” he said.

Since 2003, Calvert has taught sixth grade science at Herbert Hoover Middle School, which Calvert says is one of the top schools in the state located in an affluent area of Maryland. “I just don’t feel like top-down systems are always best for students and they should have some input in what they’re doing.”

Calvert suggested that during school closures, students will have the opportunity to get outside, improve physical and mental health, experiment with at home science experiments like building balloon rockets, making roller coasters, kitchen chemistry like cooking, and more.

But what these students do with their time depends on how they are supervised and held accountable for what they do in terms of learning, Calvert added.

“I think there might be a bonus from this,” he said. “We’ll see.”

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