Teaching hard-to-reach students
Despite the abundance of online platforms, tools, and educational material available, teachers still face numerous hurdles in maintaining their students’ learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. The missing peer socialization, a disrupted student-teacher relationship, and various social and economic factors can all affect a student’s ability to learn. Lacking an environment conducive to concentration or without the support from a parent or guardian, the best-intentioned programs have a slim chance at replacing face-to-face learning.
We spoke with teachers of disadvantaged and non-traditional students in California (US) and Cornwall (UK) about how the COVID-19 pandemic is raising new concerns for them and their students.
East Bay Area, California, US
The San Francisco Bay Area in California was one of the first areas in the US to issue stay-at-home orders as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on March 19. Jill Mariucci*, a seventh-grade teacher and literacy coach at a public middle school (ages 12-15) in the East Bay said her school had two weeks of “free float”: teachers were not allowed to officially assign any work because of the large proportion of students with IEPs (Individual Education Programs: legally-mandated, individualized special education blueprints) in her school. She estimates 12-15% of students in each class have a legal definition of disability or mandated need for special education.
“The missing peer socialization, a disrupted student-teacher relationship, and various social and economic factors can all affect a student’s ability to learn.”
“During the first week of hiatus, no one knew what was going on, then we realized we had to band together to help teaching colleagues who are not so tech-oriented,” Mariucci said. Some teachers offered voluntary class meetings on Zoom for students who wanted to connect, but without coursework or grades.
The school first focused on distributing Chromebooks and providing free high-speed internet to families in need, attempting to iron out one form of inequity – and continued to distribute pre-packaged meals every day. “The poverty in our district is stunning: we have students who live in tents, in hotels, in campers with gas generators,” Mariucci said.
During spring break, the first week of April, a special working group of teachers was offered extra pay to create and transfer lessons into online formats like Google Classroom, and to run practice sessions in Zoom with their colleagues, who learned how to handle the software smoothly, how to adjust to teaching 30 individual faces on a screen, and how to mute unruly students.
“The special education teachers are still wrangling with the issue of how to serve students with learning disabilities. It’s unclear how these kids will manage distance learning.”
The school decided to teach by subject matter, similar to the school day. Each teacher is required to offer 180 minutes weekly of online availability: some are holding open Q&A sessions on Zoom; one teacher is posting assignments on Google Classroom and using her session to explain and take questions; another is breaking up his time into demonstration, independent work, and open questions via Zoom. After the first week of online school, the teachers plan to assess what works.
The special education teachers are still wrangling with the issue of how to serve students with learning disabilities. It’s unclear how these kids will manage distance learning. Due to the IEPs, their usual school days are choreographed with various special education teachers supporting different subjects and situations throughout the day.
Among other unanswered questions: how much can be asked of teachers? Some have small children at home, some have sick or quarantined family members. And what about the disadvantaged families in the school district? Many of the students’ parents rely on minimum wage jobs with no safety net, and may not be able to work.
St Austell, Cornwall, UK
Rosie Shaw is an adult education specialist in the southwestern peninsula of the UK with 80 students who range in age from 16 to 85. She teaches English, math, and ICT in nine classes through the Cornwall Adult Education Service. Her oldest students are from a generation now learning IT user skills; however, most of her students are unemployed people retraining from physical jobs to office jobs and school leavers returning to gain general learning qualifications.
Although the UK was late to issue stay-at-home orders, Shaw said her teaching routine was already affected March 13, when one of her community classrooms at the local fire station was commandeered by the emergency services. Still, her courses continued at four other community centers.
“The teacher reports that her teaching days have grown several hours longer due to the more individualized effort.”
Once the lockdown orders were announced March 23, Shaw and her two learning support assistants began trying to reach all their students by phone – many of which belong to high-risk groups due to previous illness or age. “I feel responsible for them – I want to be sure they’re ok, and have something to do,” she said. Running lessons via Skype was the first idea, but not all of her students dial in and engage with online meetings.
Now on spring break, Shaw is spending the two weeks adapting the resources at hand so that her students can use the materials on their own and follow up individually with email or by phone. She reports that her teaching days have grown several hours longer due to the more individualized effort.
The UK has already cancelled the GCSE and A-level national exams, and Shaw says it’s unclear how and if other qualifying exams (Functional Skills tests) will take place – and public funding for the adult courses depends on getting students through the exams. Her major concern is that students will lose their motivation if they aren’t certain what they’re working towards.
“The teachers’ extraordinary commitment cannot on its own create an effective learning environment for all students.”
Once school resumes after spring break in the UK and the US, the two teachers will find out if their extra planning efforts bear fruit, and whether they are able to effectively support their harder-to-reach students. It’s likely to be a rough ride, especially with no end to the isolation measures in sight. In situations where teachers are spearheading social intervention, they need coordinated support from other sectors (e.g., social services, employment, health care). Their extraordinary commitment to teaching cannot on its own create an effective learning environment for all students.
* Name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.