Answering Your Questions About Starting The School Year Online

Stan Bunger
July 23, 2020 - 1:39 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

    Today we're focusing on education and online learning with Carol Ann Gittens, Dean of the school of education at St. Mary’s College. 

    This last six months, probably, for anybody in education has been on a level that nobody's ever been around before. We've said that about so many things, but education has just been turned upside down. 

    Absolutely. It's definitely been something that we've never encountered before. Most of the time when something happens, you wanna go and say, "alright, how'd we do it last time?" And there's just no handbook that says, "the last time we taught in a pandemic..." So it's really difficult for teachers around the Bay Area to figure out how to get going in the fall. But there are plans, there are definitely lots of conversations happening so I'm happy to answer questions and share what we are thinking.

    Let's talk a little about the process of training teachers. You have a school of education there at St. Mary's, we have some other teacher credential programs here in the Bay Area. How much of what a newly minted teacher is walking away with these days, when they get their credential, would prepare them for what we're doing now?

    Well I think that's a great question. And it's very much the case still, as it always has been, that one of the things that all new teachers are brought into is how to take what we are wanting our students to learn and turning that into very engaging activities in the classroom that are gonna help the student develop their thinking, their communication, their problem solving, their collaboration with one another. And that has always been the case, but now we're needing to think about how to help use technologies that, where before you would have used them in the classroom in face-to-face instruction, now you have to teach through the technology. You have to use the technology to build those connections, to build relationships, to engage the students. So what we're doing is an extension of what we've always been doing in the classroom and our education programs, and really pushing the boundaries of thinking now, okay how might you do that when you can't be face-to-face, when you can't see the students and how they're responding, how do you do that in an online environment? And so we're really focusing on those kinds of questions in our training programs now.

    And how much do you find - because I know that obviously not every teacher is right out of teacher college - that older teachers, more experienced teachers find this off-putting, challenging, insurmountable perhaps, to change their ways, to adopt new technology when they may have unfamiliarity with it?

    Another great question. So one of the things that teachers and all educators in the K-12 setting do on a regular basis is professional development. And so one of the things that is the case is, you know, we all vary in our level of comfort with technology. I'm sure your listeners have had to make huge adaptations in their daily lives as well. And we vary in our ease, our desire, our knowledge, what we've tried. So for those teachers who've been out of their education programs, they're in the schools, the schools themselves, the districts are providing those trainings, those opportunities. There's so many resources available for educators through YouTube videos and self-help videos. The companies that are providing the software like Google Classrooms or Zoom or Flipgrid - just to name a few - have so many ways that they can teach one another. And the idea of being in professional learning communities, this has very much always been the case that educators have come together and worked in community with one another, whether it be at their sites or even with colleagues across the state. And so those kinds of opportunities have helped. 

    Now, does that mean that every teacher has got the same engagement, is using the same tools, strategies? Not necessarily. But the core commitment to making sure that we're staying in relationship with our students, that they're staying motivated and participating in their learning, that is still a core principle. So there's probably a great range, but I know as we launch in the fall there's been a lot of opportunity over the summer to work with one another both in the field and in the education programs to make sure that we're going to hit the ground running.

    Okay, well the clock is ticking.

    Yeah, absolutely.

    Alright. Our listeners have sent in questions by email to Let me start with this one: my daughter is 13 years old and lives in a split household. She has been and will be engaged in distant learning fully or hybrid from one residence. What are the disadvantages and advantages that are in the best interest of the child, for her to be allowed to participate in remote schooling from either residence, alternating weeks?

    So this gets to the home situation for a lot of families, right? Kids don't all go home to the same place and have the same desk and all of that.

    Absolutely and it's a really, really great question because it brings up something that's very important that teachers and school leaders are thinking about, and that is that we can't go into the school year with any assumptions around whether or not children, students are going to have a safe, secure place that they can study with a desk and a computer.

    The idea that is on the forefront of all educators' minds is that we do need to make sure that we are mindful of the variability of the home situation for many children. Educators know they need to engage families, guardians, parents as partners in the learning experience. So part of the ability to do that is to make sure that there are resources for parents to be comfortable with the technologies. Another way to do that is to make sure that there is a lot of flexibility in the learning experience as schools are going to have to be engaging students. And there is still going to be an obligation to participate, for attendance, for regular opportunity to engage with the teachers. But we also are very much keeping in mind that that is going to be putting a huge expectation on our families, our working families, families who are wanting desperately for their students to be successful. And so parents and teachers and site experts and administrators are in partnership more than they've ever been in the past. So that is something that I know that many, many teachers across the Bay Area are focused on right now; how to make sure that those communications, those high touch experiences with families are continued, knowing that there are going to be lots of variations in how children are experiencing their home learning environment.

    Do you worry about teacher burnout? I mean when you've gone from an environment where now you're going to have to manage maybe 150 contacts for a middle school or high school teacher where you're going to have to do that every day, which could include emails and text messages and phone calls with parents?

    I think that we are always worried about teacher burnout. It's a topic that we take up with candidates who are coming to our program. How do you maintain a balance, how do you make sure that you are caring for yourself as you are caring for your students? And part of the importance of caring for the social and emotional learning of our students is also to be focused on how we are maintaining our presence with our young students, our middle students, teenage students and taking that time for self-care. So I think that that's an issue, it's definitely something that's at the forefront of attention. And one of the things that teachers are very good at is making sure that they're caring for each other and for their students. So the burden is higher now but nonetheless, the reason why we go into teaching is because we care deeply about our children that we are working with. We see them as our own family, and this is something that we're going to have to get through together.

    My kid is in high school but I found for him to pay attention and do all his work in the spring, I had to micromanage him at moments. This was hard while I worked from home. Unfortunately, my employer is exempt from the federal law requiring time off. Any suggestions on how to approach my employer, keep my job and support my kid in learning?

    Oh my goodness. Well as a parent of a teenager myself, I completely relate to that concern. One of the things that is going to be important when teachers are approaching the learning environment in the fall is to establish relationships with the students. We have teachers with whole new classes of students this year; they need to build the relationship. This was different back in March. When we converted to distance learning back in March, the teachers and the students already had a relationship with one another and the transition was one where that did not need to be built from the ground up. This year, when we launch in the fall, relationship is going to be important. I know the question was about the employer, but one of the things that that parent should understand and hopefully will appreciate is that the teacher is going to be working to try and engage the students. This includes things like having the students have their video on and have their picture and their face seen, if possible. This means having communication going home. 

    Now, how that translates into the workplace? I have sincere empathy for all of your listeners that are going to be needing to work who may have employers who don't have the opportunity or the flexibility or the means to allow for support during the workday when the students are in school. I don't necessarily have advice for how to handle that with the employer, but I definitely encourage those listeners to make sure that they are communicating with the teachers, with the schools about what they are experiencing and how they seek mutually beneficial strategies to motivate. It is going to be a giant mountain of a challenge for us to focus on motivation and engagement, but that is something that if nothing else, all of the teachers going into the fall know is the number one goal, to get those relationships built and build those connections so that students stay engaged.

    That kinda leads into the next question: I'm a second grade teacher and I can't imagine starting school with the opportunity to create those important bonds with my students taken away. Do you have some suggestions for how to do that online?

    Yeah, so that's the other extreme when the kiddos are really young. So one of the opportunities here is to try and connect with as much of the real, lived experience that the kids have. And so many of the children are going to be in their homes; they might have a special object that is really meaningful to them. A way to create connection could be to share that special object, it might be a favorite toy, a favorite activity, a favorite thing that they do. And just to engage with the teacher and each other, because it's not just the relationships with the teacher but it's also the relationships with the other children. We rely on school so much for enrichment and the social opportunity to be with peers and with fellow children, and those kinds of kid-to-kid relationships that grow when you are face to face.

    Many of the techniques you might use in the classroom, they won't translate directly. But some of the same strategies of sharing and telling stories and having an opportunity to engage with one another is going to be the same technique. And knowing that attention spans are hugely a factor - not every child is going to be able to spend a long time face to face via Zoom or some kind of Google Classroom experience, so knowing how to break that up and also provide some opportunities to do some work but then also share what you've experienced. The second graders, those are going to be kids who are going to love the opportunity to hear stories, to talk with each other, to have books read to them and also just to be able to show how they're experiencing their home learning. That, I know, is going to make a huge difference as we wait out the opportunity to get back face-to-face.

    This next question, I'm betting, comes from a teacher: I've read a lot in the past about concepts like cohorts and looping. Can you explain how those might be useful now?

    The concept of looping gets back to what I was saying before; at the end of last year when we converted to online or distance learning, the relationships between the teachers and the students had already been established. Looping is a concept where you're continuing into the next school year with one or maybe some of the same teachers or other educational professionals in the school setting; there are many education professionals in a school setting that work with children and engage with them on a day to day basis. So the idea of trying to have some continuity to who the child is going to be connecting with on the first day, and having some familiarity. Those concepts could be explored, I know some districts are exploring them. Whether or not that is something that every district is able to do is going to be a very site-specific decision, but I know it's a conversation that's happening.

    Cohorts relate to trying to contain some of the same groups of students that were together as learners in the previous year and maintaining them in the same groupings so that they are coming into a classroom with some familiar peers in their learning space. 

    I'm probably not alone in saying I've had enough Zoom meetings, and I don't know how it'll work for my child to be sitting with 30 others in a Zoom meeting. Isn't there a better way?

    I'm smiling because many of us who spend all day in Zoom know how fatiguing it can be. So one of the things that is part of the planning for the year is not only the kind of web conferencing software like Zoom, where we can connect with each other, but also some of the other ways that we can engage students that won't require them to be on screen. And those might have to do with using videos depending on age appropriateness, learning through simulations and other kinds of activities that can be done in a more asynchronous way, meaning that they're not face-to-face. So it's a balance, it's really a balance between the opportunity to see the face of your teacher, to learn directly from them, to have engagement with your peers and to have ways to break that up so that you're not spending all that time and certainly all day or prolonged time on the computer but are also able to have learning experiences outside of that space. That's going to require us as educators to work with our students around time management, setting priorities, being able to make plans. And that again is a very age-dependent type of skill. So that's going to look very different in a 3rd grade classroom than it does in a 6th grade classroom than it does in an 11th grade classroom. And those teachers are prepared to think with their students about how to make that time most valuable.

    You're bringing up another question that I just want to raise, which is the idea of having access to the technologies. And I just want to give a shoutout to all of the districts around the Bay Area who are extremely mindful that not every family has access to technologies, and the strategies being used across many districts to provide hotspots so that they can have access, to provide Chromebooks or technologies, to create spaces where students can come to learn. So I just want to make sure I'm acknowledging that that is something on the forefront of educators' minds as well.

    This last question comes from someone who lives in an apartment complex in Campbell. The writer says: there are children who simply stopped attending classes when schools closed, doesn't believe it's a financial or technology issue and wants to know are children being evaluated to make sure they're actually prepared for the next grade level this fall?

    So that's raising the biggest question and that has to do with how we're going to be approaching the idea of assessing students and grading students as we go into this year. Many schools switched to a pass/no pass option at the end of last year but are now considering how to open this year with an approach that would go back to a more traditional process. Now, readiness for the grade level is always a concern. Part of the beginning of each school year is to see where you students are at and make sure that each child is getting the learning at the level that they need. Those kinds of activities are going to have to look a little different in the new technologies that we're going to be using. But also, how are we making sure that they're learning, how are we making sure that they're making good progress in their learning? The teachers now are also, in addition to using the technologies for teaching, they're also learning how to use technologies for assessing or evaluating students' performance.

    And you raised the other question of just participating, just coming to school, logging on and being a part of school. All of the districts have care teams and other professionals who are already thinking about how do we make sure that we are monitoring that children are participating, and if they're not, how are we reaching out and finding out what's happening? Is there something we can do to help make sure your child is able to connect? How do we help support your child? How do we help support you as parents? So the anticipation for not only how do we make sure children are there and participating but also actually learning is part of the planning. The idea that there's going to be some training for teachers and some new conversations, that is very much a part of all the planning right now. What does this look like? And this is why the spaces and the technologies are so good for this like Google Classrooms where students can turn in their work. And if students aren't turning in their work the teacher is going to be very likely to reach out and figure out how to get the family to find out what's happening and support the family so that their children can be a part of the school.

    This interview has been edited for clarity.