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Guest Writer: Courtney Mathews
States across the country have shut down public and private schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in parents having to manage their child’s schoolwork overnight. While the majority of teachers had to shift their instruction to meet distance learning standards. Some districts have been distance learning since the beginning of the outbreak over a month ago and other districts are just beginning their distance learning journey. A survey of teacher perspectives was conducted and results show shocking and inspiring information to stakeholders of K-12 education.
There have been challenges and accomplishments for teachers over the last six, unprecedented, weeks. Of 760 teacher participants, 93% of them are required to continue creating and providing instructional material to students through distance learning avenues. While some teachers are continuing to provide new learning opportunities, many districts are only providing “remedial” or “supplemental” educational opportunities and not issuing official grades that would affect students’ GPAs. Distance teaching has proven to be rather challenging for teachers that are typically in a brick and mortar setting. “I am frustrated because I can’t be there to respond immediately if a student is struggling or praise them. I can’t adjust materials or explain concepts ‘on the fly’ and accommodate students,” explained one teacher who works with students of various levels of learning. Not only is accommodating students’ learning a common struggle mentioned by teacher participants but nearly 66% of teachers reported that more than half of their students are not turning in any school work. A participant explained that her greatest struggle is “having students take responsibility for their work while at home.” However, she has seen the most success with “students whose parents communicate with the school regularly, even during this unprecedented period with COVID-19.”
One silver lining for teachers during this pandemic is that 88% of survey participants believe they are supported by their district’s administration team. “While I’m feeling lost and confused at this point, my administration is doing everything they can to support staff and families simultaneously. I’m proud of our school community, and the efforts everyone has been putting into supporting the population here – with the weekly food delivery and above-and-beyond attempts to communicate” explained a teacher who has both struggled with distance teaching, but also is able to shine a positive light on efforts to help normalize a very abnormal situation.
While a lot of students are struggling to complete work from home, teacher participants who work with special education students have reported many concerns of legality due to the lack of providing lawfully required educational services. When working with special education students with severe needs, participants report “it is very difficult to do online learning with them as they require hands-on activities and assistance. The only thing I can do is offer suggestions to the parents and hope they do it.” Not being able to assist students presents a legal concern for educators that must report progress toward Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) because they are not present with the student to collect authentic and credible data. Although a lot of teachers are struggling with meeting the various needs of their students, one teacher who works with students who have autism highlighted that she feels “much more open with parents and they are more open with me too.” Also, she mentioned, “we did not talk much during the school year.”
Not only are teachers responsible for their students, but 49% of teachers surveyed also have children at home that are required to complete work while distance learning. “I feel I am connected to my electronics 24/7 due to parents/students needing support. I have no schedule or separation of work/home,” explained a teacher who is trying to maintain a normal life for herself. While needing to be available to students and parents at the drop of a hat, one teacher explains “the balance of supporting my students and their parents while also balancing being a parent to 3 children who need me to help them with their school work – the struggle is painfully real!” It feels as though that teaching during a pandemic is rather demanding with nearly 60% of teachers surveyed saying their working hours have definitely increased during the school-wide shutdowns.
Sadly, over half (51.2%) of teachers reported that they feel like they are failing at providing distance learning opportunities to their students. It’s important to mention that schools not only provide academic instruction to students but a wide variety of art and music education, elective courses, and social-emotional support. Music educators are struggling and one band instructor explains, “I can’t teach band online. It is not a band without a group of students together.” Throughout the survey, one of the most brought up concerns was the lack of communication and discussion of teachers who miss seeing their students in person. An art teacher who is frustrated with the ever-changing demands from state and local policymakers excitedly mentioned that one of her best accomplishments was “transitioning 5 ceramics I classes I teach online!”
Another aspect we may not consider is the social and emotional support provided by professionals who specialize in teaching students who have experienced trauma. “Working with students who have severe behavioral and emotional disorders online is challenging. It is difficult to create motivation and buy-in through online assignments lacking that personal component. I’m seeing about 50% participation from students… I’m worried about them losing the progress they’ve made this year.”
All students affected by the school shutdowns are experiencing some sort of trauma. One teacher discusses that “most of my students are missing safety, food, and stability in this time” and “students with the most troubling home situations have seemed to disappear and it is scary and disheartening to not know how their wellbeing is.” However, 88% of teachers that are able to establish communication with parents have noted that the communication experiences have been positive but more than half of the teachers surveyed reported not being able to successfully communicate with families or students on a regular basis.
Nearly three-fourths of the teacher surveyed discussed challenges that relate to students completing work or not communicating since school has been shut down. Teachers are reporting they are under much more stress lately and unsure if their efforts have been effective. A number of participants mentioned feeling depressed and isolated. It is important to remember that this is not business as usual and students and families are under stress, trauma, and laid-off workers are facing financial hardship. Give yourself and students some grace, do your best, and continue to provide educational opportunities to students through these difficult times. We are in this together.