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A New Landscape for Learning

Jumping through hoops: The K–12 school shift to learning (and living) remotely

When COVID-19 struck causing schools across the country to shut their doors this spring, Charmaine Giles ’10, the principal of a charter elementary school in Camden, N.J., tried to replicate the rhythms of the school day for her young students as much as possible. 

But instead of greeting them at the school gate and giving hugs, she interacted with students virtually from her South Philadelphia apartment, a two-story loft converted into living space out of an old bookbinding factory. The abrupt transition to remote teaching after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic meant educators had to think and act quickly.

“We left on March 12. I said, ‘See you tomorrow,’ and never came back,” Giles says.

“I had to get teacher volunteers to get all of the workbooks to our families. It took us a really long time to get computers in hand.” 

Giles delivered computers to students’ homes, while practicing physical distancing procedures, and helped with food distribution coordinated by the city of Camden, where 97% of Giles’s students live below the poverty line.

“Other places may have had the luxury of thinking about how their students were going to learn,” Giles says. 

“That’s not what I was thinking about in March. I was thinking: ‘Oh, my God, people are going to get laid off and they’re not going to be able to eat. We give our kids two meals and an afternoon snack every day, and some of my families have five kids. What’s going to happen?’”

Swarthmore alumni who teach in K–12 schools say the coronavirus pandemic and the sudden switch to online learning exacerbated existing inequalities and compounded many of their students’ struggles. Significant numbers of students stopped participating, stopped learning. Some were unreachable, their known phone numbers not working.

But along with the chaos, and the stress of this new way of connecting with their classes, teachers began to get to know their students in deeper ways. 

They were buoyed by the resilience of older students who had taken on jobs or child care obligations or had inadequate access to technology and still showed up. They described the whimsical charm of seeing elementary students show up for video lessons in their PJs. 

“To see some of my young people trying so incredibly hard to remain connected and to do this work, that was inspiring, but it was also frustrating that so many of my students had to jump through hoops,” says Marina Isakowitz ’09, an 11th-grade mathematics teacher at the Workshop School in Philadelphia.

Isakowitz  was experiencing a balancing act, too, as she pivoted to virtual teaching while taking care of her young daughter. 

“I found it almost impossible to juggle the online teaching and support that I tried to do for my students and take care of a rambunctious 2-year-old,” she says. “That gave me a lot of sympathy my students who were trying to connect and engage with the work online.”

Swarthmore’s education program trains teachers to understand where their students and schools sit within larger structures of society, says Lisa Smulyan ’76, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor of Educational Studies. But the frustrations of online teaching left many of them feeling lost.

“Everybody is saying, ‘This isn’t why I got into teaching,’” Smulyan says. “Especially in the first three or four weeks of the pandemic, what I heard was that they couldn’t even begin to think about teaching the content because they had to respond to the kids’ individual needs. One would say, ‘I can ask them to try to do this work, but they’re bouncing a baby on one knee and have a parent trying to decide whether to go to work and there’s not enough food in the house.’ They were really stressed by the needs of their students and their own inability to respond to those needs, both as a person and a teacher.”

Many of Chela Delgado ’03’s students were forced to take on child care for younger siblings or to work after a parent was laid off. The seismic shift caused some schools to adopt flexible grading systems so as not to penalize students for inequities in technology or in time and space to learn.

“There was a real push to give all kids A’s, excuse everything,” says Delgado, who teaches humanities to 11th- and 12th-graders in Oakland, Calif. “I had been really conflicted about that because I think the normalcy of school helped ground a lot of students. 

“A lot of my seniors said doing assignments was the only thing that was helping them feel normal, like they had some structure to their lives, and helping them not to think about this pandemic. I work at a small school, so I’m lucky enough that any kid who’s in any kind of crisis, we were excusing assignments and paring down their work to essentially, ‘You should do these three things and don’t worry about anything else.’”

In Philadelphia’s Olney Elementary School, Quetzal Ramirez ’16, a fifth-grade language arts teacher, says about 30 of 50 students consistently did the assigned work. 

“I felt like I was constantly on their case, which felt weird especially because grading was so flexible,” Ramirez says. “In the bigger scheme of things, this doesn’t really have a lot of bearing. I have some kids who experienced death in the family; one of the kids, his mother had COVID. Do I really need to be hounding them for work?”

A fellow Olney teacher, Alondra Rosales ’17, worried about students falling behind.

 “This is months that they’re losing — to not only catch up on the content like their peers, but also catch up on the language aspect of it,” says Rosales, who teaches English to speakers of other languages. “So much of language is social.”

Heitor Santos ’17 teaches at a private international school in São Paulo, a city hit hard by the coronavirus. His students struggled with anxiety about the pandemic, he says. One of his sixth-graders had to quarantine at home after her mother contracted COVID-19.

Santos’s students are wealthy and well-resourced, which certainly made the transition to remote learning easier, but it wasn’t emotionally easy.

“It’s tough to do business as usual as the world is falling apart,” Santos says, “but it also gave me purpose during this quarantine, and I received the support I needed.”

Heidi Kern ’17, who teaches high school English and Spanish at the Franklin Learning Center in Philadelphia, recalls how frustrating it was to carefully plan a unit on Latino/a identity for a class only to have no students show up for the 10 a.m. video meeting. Some had legitimate excuses — one student had multiple family members with COVID-19 — while others confessed they couldn’t wake up on time. (The time slot was assigned by her school.) 

“To have them not connect and not join this online class felt like a big defeat,” she says. “I had spent so much time crafting the curriculum. Even with culturally relevant, engaging content that was student-centered, I still wasn’t able to reach them.”

Still, Kern says online learning was not all negative. 

“Many of these kids figured out early on that they could get away with doing nothing — and, of course, some of them took that route — but I was very pleased at the surprisingly large number of students who really were putting forth their best efforts to connect with me, to complete their lessons,” she says. “Some students turned up who I never expected, and I had a really great time talking to them and taking down some of the walls they normally see me put up in a professional setting.”

There were a few other surprising silver linings during what was a difficult time overall. 

“I realize as a 51-year-old teacher I was probably avoiding some technological things,” says Edward Sage ’91, who teaches English language arts at a high school outside Portland, Ore. 

“I could have just limped through technologically for another 10 years, and now I’m Zooming and Google Meeting.” 

That’s not to say Sage prefers teaching via Google Meet. 

“I’m literally speaking into the void all the time,” he says. “I had to learn, OK, how can I continue to use my sense of humor? How can I continue to make this personal and elicit responses from kids who have to turn off the mute button to answer a question? I was accustomed to having kids engage with one another in my presence, and I’d circulate and tutor and coach as they were doing their work together. Online, it’s more call and response.”

As the school year drew to a close in June, teachers were uncertain how long this period of remote learning would last. 

In Camden, Giles’s school was planning for different scenarios for fall, depending on what New Jersey officials decided. Throughout the spring, she said teachers were desperate to know what the fall would look like.

“I just say, ‘I don’t know, but we will figure it out,’” Giles says. 

“I will let teachers vent. However, we cannot be the other card that is stacked against students. We have to be their advocate. When they say, ‘We are tired and we don’t want to do work,’ you say, ‘OK, we’ll try again tomorrow.’ But you have to try again tomorrow. We can’t just excuse them into not learning, but we also can’t pretend like they don’t have excuses.”