Emergency distance learning and consequent loss of learning; Have mass educators been properly trained to teach remotely?

Maria Garcia’s class has turned into a tug-of-war competition for attention in the 2020-21 school year.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced the kindergarten teacher at Jackson Street Elementary School to teach virtually for most of the school year. Garcia found herself dealing with action figures, pets, iPad apps, video games and other childhood delights as she tried to teach her class of over a dozen 5-year-olds on Zoom.

“It was almost impossible to keep their attention,” Garcia said.

Garcia wasn’t the only teacher who struggled to educate on the virtual platform.

The pandemic has disrupted classrooms across the country. A McKinsey A study found that K-12 students are currently, on average, five months behind in their expected levels in math and four months behind in their expected levels in reading.

MCAS scores from 2019 and 2021 – MCAS was not offered in 2020 due to the pandemic – showed a decline in nearly every grade level in Massachusetts.

MCAS scores in 2021 were lower than in 2019, although declines in performance were roughly equal across racial and ethnic groups. Courtesy of DESE.

A district-by-district list of MCAS scores can be viewed here.

Professionals attribute the drop in test scores to the statewide shift to emergency distance learning in the 2020-2021 school year.

“Decreases have been seen throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including our wealthiest suburbs,” Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said at a meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education where the scores were released. “These are declines we haven’t seen in decades.”

Students’ social-emotional development also faltered during the emergency distance learning model, students weren’t as propelled to interact with classmates virtually. Educators find peer interaction, especially in preschool classrooms like Garcia’s kindergarten classroom, invaluable.

Months after the virtual learning model began, worried parents said their children were starting to hate going online at school.

“My daughter who was happy and loved school is now sullen and hates it,” a parent from Worcester told MassLive.

“It is a mistake that young children suffer more than older children. All ages suffer,” said another parent from Worcester.

Parents are now trying to figure out who is responsible for the learning and social development losses caused during the switch to emergency distance learning.

“tinkered as best they could”

Dr. Torrey Trust, an associate professor at UMass Amherst College of Education, said she doesn’t blame teachers.

“Teachers had little or no training for online learning in their teacher preparation programs,” Trust said. “They kind of, you know, cobbled together the best they could with their resources and tried to replicate the in-person learning. And I think that’s where a lot of them got it wrong.

The education professional believes traditional in-person teaching practices are flawed, “‘I teach and you absorb information’ isn’t really how learning happens,” Trust said, adding that the typical teaching model cannot be effectively translated to a virtual platform which calls for more student engagement and self-motivation.

“In a school, it seems that the students are attentive. But I don’t know about you. I’ve been to a lot of meetings or classes where I look simple, but I don’t pay attention,” Trust said.

A learning technology professional, Dr Trust said e-learning can be effective if followed by the right level of training.

“I think there is a lot of potential [in online learning] I think that was ruined by this forced shift to emergency distance learning,” Torrey said. “Where schools and districts and teacher preparation programs have failed to prepare teachers to succeed in this type of environment.”

Garcia and other Massachusetts educators have had to learn to teach remotely with little or no guidance from their respective districts.

“We had to figure it all out on our own,” said the kindergarten teacher.

Garcia and some of his colleagues at Jackson Street Elementary School stayed up late at night to practice self-taught virtual learning techniques together.

In a survey conducted by Dr Trust and Jeromie Whalen, technology teacher at Northampton High School, more than 60% of educators said they felt overwhelmed with the online learning tools and resources available to them during the switch to emergency distance learning. Teachers trained in remote learning before the pandemic reported fewer problems with the switch.

The survey also showed that student engagement and parental communication were two of the biggest challenges for teachers.

To combat competing interests in a child’s bedroom, Dr. Trust said educators need to adjust their teaching practices so that they are more interactive and engaging.

“Online learning can be done well if it focuses on humanizing learning,” Trust said. “Bringing the social connection, capturing student interests, giving students choices, and using digital tools to create new kinds of learning experiences that may not be possible in person.”

Existing inequalities

Lack of preparation wasn’t the only reason virtual learning was ineffective. Professionals believe the pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated existing inequalities present in Massachusetts schools.

The conditions of students’ home learning spaces have made virtual learning easier for some students and more difficult for others.

“A lot of families don’t have high-speed internet access,” Garcia said, noting that students frequently drop out of Zoom sessions in class.

Some of the students in Garcia’s class also didn’t have computers, the Northampton School District provided Chromebooks to students who needed computers.

“Chromebooks aren’t very good,” Garcia said. “They would just have things that looked like charging, charging, charging and never charging.”

The students had other problems apart from technological problems.

A child who had a parent, babysitter, or older sibling helping them through the partially independent learning model was able to stay more engaged, retain more information, and learn more effectively than a child who lacked those luxuries at home, education professionals mentioned.

distance learning

Ps 29 Lilianna Lucido, Grade 2, and Dominick Lucido, Grade 4 at PS 29, are participating in virtual learning, which began Monday, March 23. (Courtesy/ Torilynn Lucido)

“The pandemic has shown this awful truth,” said Northampton High School teacher Jeromie Whalen. “We have big equity issues, even here in Massachusetts, one of the top-ranked educational states in the country.”

A Hire an assistant study conducted in August 2021, showed that Massachusetts has the highest level of education in the United States

Educators, legislators and parents are now looking for ways to compensate for learning loss.

In response to a drop in statewide test scores, the Department of Education said Massachusetts school districts would receive about $2.8 billion in state pandemic relief funds and the federal government between the 2021-2022 school year and the fall of 2024.

DESE officials said districts are free to spend the funds to meet students’ academic, social, emotional and mental health needs resulting from the pandemic.

“The results clearly illustrate the impact of the disrupted school year of distance and blended learning on student academic achievement,” Education Secretary James Peyser said in a statement. “We will continue to work with districts to support efforts to restore learning that hasn’t happened and to promote student success and educational equity.”

DESE has also published a Acceleration roadmap tool for teachers and administrators to support accelerated student learning in the 2021-2022 school year.

Dr. Trust said she was disappointed with the state’s response to learning disparity.

“There is no emphasis on building the technology skills of teachers and students in the roadmap for educators,” Trust said. “And yet, the focus is on data-driven decision-making, even though that has proven ineffective in identifying solutions.”

Dr. Trust said funding is typically spent on new technologies, after-school and summer classes, as opposed to hiring more effective educators, teacher development and increasing teacher salaries.

Given the poor preparation of educators during the shift to emergency remote learning, Trust believes that now is a better time than ever for Massachusetts to develop and invest in the educational skill set of educators.

Garcia said teaching virtual learning has shown many benefits, especially when used to help keep a student, who can’t be in class in person, on track with the rest of his class.

The kindergarten teacher said she and some of her colleagues are open to learning more about remote learning in the future.

“With money like this, and with hindsight from what we’ve learned from COVID, we can make education a little more of an agile business,” Whalen said.

The Northampton High School teacher said he would like to see districts invest in teaching technologies and distance learning that can improve classrooms in the present. He said if there was ever a situation in the future where emergency remote learning was needed again, teachers would be better equipped to teach virtually.

“The single most effective thing for improving student grades and academic achievement is the teacher and teacher quality,” Dr. Trust said.

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