Learning curve: How schools worldwide are tackling coronavirus challenge

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How do you create community when you can’t be together? Schools are closed for hundreds of millions of students, but educators, parents, and children are still learning – including how to keep a sense of connection.

Courtesy of Stacey Van de Mark
First grader Ayla Van de Mark and her third-grade brother, Duke, tune into a class on Tuesday offered by their school in Woodinville, Washington, north of Seattle. The Northshore School District, with more than 23,500 students, switched to online learning on Monday.

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As authorities worldwide attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus by shuttering schools and universities, more than 420 million K-12 and college students on five continents have found themselves at home full time, their learning punted onto virtual forums.

For educators from Shanghai to New York, this means figuring out not only how to deliver content, but also how to maintain a sense of community. Priorities include creating online materials, ensuring low-income students can be fed, and supporting college students. While obstacles remain, the innovation and resilience of faculty, parents, and students suggest communities are connecting – and forging a path through this crisis.

SAR High School in New York has been online since March 3. The staff is trying to branch out: chemistry demonstrations in a teacher’s kitchen, Broadway show-tune singalongs.

Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, the principal, teaches an online Talmud class to ninth graders. “I said to my class the other day ... I’m going to say something that’s very ironic: I feel so much closer with my students, even though I am more isolated from them than I’ve ever been. And they went: Yes!”

“When you’re experiencing something challenging together,” he says, “that bond just feels like it’s been strengthened, not weakened, by the distance.”

Cats, puppies, and stuffed animals prance across Tracy Westberg’s screen.

A sixth grade social studies teacher north of Seattle, Ms. Westberg is conducting a virtual session on Tuesday, the day after her Washington state school district’s switch to all-online education due to the coronavirus. Ms. Westberg had planned a session about world religions, only to watch her students erupt into silliness and gleeful chaos, as they seized the chance to share their most cherished home items with classmates during a show and tell break.

It’s been one of the unexpected joys of a massive online education experiment. 

“OK, time out!” Ms. Westberg says, clicking “mute” to regain control of the group of about 60. After a pause, her students continue to astonish her. As she launches an overview of Buddhism, her students post queries in a shared virtual chat. Other students jump in to answer.

“I’m super excited,” Ms. Westberg says after closing the session Tuesday. The sidebar chatting among students would not have happened in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

As authorities worldwide attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus by shuttering schools and universities, more than 420 million K-12 and college students on five continents have found themselves suddenly at home full-time, their learning punted onto virtual forums. So far in the United States, nine states – Oregon, Ohio, Louisiana, Michigan, Maryland, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – and the District of Columbia have shuttered public schools starting next week.

For educators from Shanghai to New York, this means figuring out not only how to deliver content, but also how to maintain a sense of community that is typically generated in person. Priorities include creating online materials, ensuring low-income K-12 students don’t lose access to meals, and making sure that college students are not abandoned on campus. While obstacles remain, the innovation and resilience of faculty, parents, and students suggests communities are connecting – and forging a path through this crisis.

“The digitalization element is just a game changer,” says Tracey Burns, a futurist and OECD education analyst. “We’re seeing that we have opportunities to share knowledge across countries and get kids online that we didn’t have just five years ago.”

For those who’ve closed first, some success

The move online has the potential to fragment communities for which schools are the glue, especially where computers and Wi-Fi access are not readily available. But educators who have a head start on virtual education – and some parents and students – are seeing indications that the opposite can be true.  

“We are learning new tools that will empower so much of the work we do,” says Audee Gregor, principal of Leota Middle School, whose 930 students transitioned in just a few days from classroom to cloud-based learning, along with the rest of the Northshore School District. Online platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom are helping to prevent social isolation, Ms. Gregor says, and are also creating new potential for collaboration. 

In China, where Zoom, WeChat, and DingTalk are the tools of choice, school leaders discovered teachers needed to collaborate on how to use technology to keep students engaged. Showing papers in front of a laptop camera didn’t work so well; being more creative with screencasts did.  

Nathan Frandino/Reuters
Lisa Wymore, a professor in the theater, dance, and performance studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, leads warm-ups for an online course in Berkeley, March 12, 2020.

Six weeks into its new virtual reality, the 600 students at high-performing Shanghai Qibao Dwight High School in China have been participating in daily live Zoom lessons. They’re on track to take International Baccalaureate and IGCSE exams at the end of the semester.

“These kids haven’t left the house in 50 days, yet they’re joining in, staying in the game,” says Qibao Dwight American principal Brantley Turner. “It breaks my heart, the power of the community coming together. They’re respectful, never blaming, rising to meet the challenge.”

In Italy, which is under complete lockdown, Rania Hammad is enjoying having her fourth- and sixth-grade daughters at home in Rome, though she admits the overall situation sometimes feels “absurd and weird.” Online classes have gotten more engaging as teachers fine-tuned their approach and made them more interactive. “It’s actually fun and they are learning,” Ms. Hammad says. “They are enjoying it.”  

Thousands of miles away, Rabbi Jonathan Kroll, co-principal of private SAR High School in New York City, has noticed something similar. His school has been online-only since March 3, and beyond academics, the staff is trying to branch out with new ideas: chemistry demonstrations in a teacher’s kitchen, Broadway show-tune singalongs.

Rabbi Kroll also teaches an online Talmud class to ninth-graders via Zoom. “I said to my class the other day ... I’m going to say something that’s very ironic: I feel so much closer with my students, even though I am more isolated from them than I’ve ever been. And they went: Yes!”

“When you’re experiencing something challenging together,” he says, “that bond just feels like it’s been strengthened, not weakened, by the distance.”

Gian Luigi D'Alberto/LaPresse/AP
Examiners sit in an empty classroom as they listen to students defending their theses online, at the Politecnico University in Milan, Italy, March 5, 2020.

Getting low-income families online

Back in Bothell, Washington, Ms. Westberg’s Northshore School District, with more than 23,500 students, has been online since Monday. More than 500 teachers and staff there were at high risk, with some in self-quarantine, leaving inadequate manpower to safely run the schools, officials explained.

First, administrators had to ensure all families had access to digital tools. Fortunately, the area is home to many families who work in high-tech, and last week companies and parents offered up computers and hotspot devices for those without. As of Wednesday, more than 4,000 families made requests, and when demand outstripped supply, T-Mobile stepped in with equipment donations.

Online education provider Outschool has also offered teachers and staff free training on remote instruction tools. Up next, the company is looking into free online classes for select communities who can’t afford to pay.

Certainly, communities such as Northshore are in a better position to switch to online learning, according to UNICEF spokesperson Christopher Tidey. “If you’re in a country that doesn’t have that level of technological infrastructure, then remote learning through the internet is not possible [but] maybe the radio makes sense,” he says, noting that conflict zones have additional challenges.

Home learning strategies 

Meanwhile, in a parent webinar earlier this week, Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid greeted families virtually. “It’s fabulous to have you online this morning,” Ms. Reid says cheerfully. “In every possible way, community is maintained as long as we maintain our connections.” 

District officials counseled parents on how to set up effective home learning environments. Pointers included refraining from parking kids in front of a screen all day. This is especially important, some educators say, for elementary kids used to more cooperative learning. Families should also set clear expectations and arrange family study sessions where siblings help each other. 

Officials are also helping manage day care for families whose parents work outside the home. Five locations have been allocated for community partners to provide child care, including online learning access, meals, and play time, with the Northshore School District’s foundation providing scholarships to families who can’t afford it.

Of course, that still leaves parents with the task of juggling multiple offspring with different assignments, in crowded quarters. “I can’t have [high school sophomore] Hank submitting clarinet assignments while [sixth grader] Lily is trying to Zoom with her class live,” says Anne Davidson, a sixth and seventh grade math teacher and mother of three Northshore students in high, middle, and elementary schools. 

Parents of young students face the biggest new demands from the switch to home learning. “These first two days have been critical for me to assist them,” says Stacey Van de Mark, of helping her first- and third-grade children navigate online platforms and pull up new assignments. All three work at the kitchen counter and table, while her 3-year-old son plays nearby. “They had no hands-on time with teachers to learn this, and I have never used it either,” she adds. “There is a learning curve for parents for sure.”

China Daily/Reuters
Trainers wearing face masks teach maternal and child nursing skills through a live-streaming session at a vocational school in Ganzhou, China, March 5, 2020.

Teachers are also adjusting, as they feel their way through families’ needs. At Southlands International School in Rome, first grade teacher Gemma Jordan has discovered that some working families must rely on babysitters, who can’t oversee kids’ online learning. Not overwhelming families is key, she says. “I’m trying to provide a mixture of hands-on learning and written work.”

College students also have a learning curve, with dozens of universities from Budapest to Ohio asking students to continue offsite and online. “It’s a little chaotic, but for the most part it’s been OK,” says Bridgette Robertson, a University of Washington biology student who will graduate at the end of this quarter. Most professors are using Zoom to broadcast lectures at normal class hours, online exams will be “open book and open notes,” and final presentations will be delivered by video conference or slide decks, Ms. Robertson explains.

Offline needs

Where schools provide important services to families in need, some U.S. districts are trying to put off closing as long as they can.

Across New York City, where nearly three-quarters of students are considered at or below poverty indicators, the department of education serves up about 900,000 meals a day. Officials are prepared to close the gap if schools shutter, serving “grab-and-go breakfast and lunch for any student who wants it,” writes press secretary Miranda Barbot.

Well aware of the potential hardship, Mayor Bill de Blasio said closures would be a “last resort,” even though a change.org petition to close schools has collected more than 220,000 signatures as of Friday morning.

Meanwhile, as more than 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. close or transition to online learning, many are grappling with the impact on students whose circumstances pose challenges.

“How does one go home if there’s no home to go to … or no money to buy plane tickets?” college academic adviser David Perry posed on a Twitter feed earlier in the week. It went viral. 

Amherst College, for one, announced students at its Massachusetts campus must be out by Monday, only to modify its approach to “expected to have left campus” by Wednesday. Some communities have started online petitions criticizing decision-makers for closing down so quickly without contingency plans. Meanwhile, some officials are trying to soften the blow, whether it’s offering up to $200 to Harvard students to ship or store items, or continuing to pay work-study wages, per U.S. Department of Education guidance.

Students and alumni are also stepping up to help each other. A “Mutual Aid” Facebook page connects students at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, with volunteers who can help with financial aid, housing, or transportation. As of Friday midday, a student hardship fund page had raised nearly $42,000, and other colleges, including Wellesley, also in Massachusetts, had started student relief giving campaigns.

Keenly aware of the importance of keeping teacher morale high, Ms. Turner in Shanghai and fellow principals launched a real-world gift caravan for teachers on International Women’s Day on March 8, delivering to their homes items such as speakers, headphones, electric gadgets, and school-issued iPads. “The teachers are the community glue,” says Ms. Turner. “This is where you see robots don’t replace teachers.”

Rabbi Kroll in New York says similar shows of support rippled through his community. “We have a group of parents who went into the school, collected books, computers, iPads, religious items, prayer books, and have spent a couple of days driving around to hundreds of homes, dropping things off.”

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Science, Language & Arts International School teacher Huan Ren records herself reading “The Three Little Pigs” in Mandarin in New York City, March 11, 2020. The private school is preparing virtual resources in case it closes over coronavirus concerns.

For others, a time to plan

Meanwhile, some U.S. schools are plotting contingency plans, while ultimately hoping that closures aren’t necessary.

That’s the case at the private Science, Language & Arts International School, a French and Mandarin immersion school in New York. “We have many families on financial aid who have very little means, who would not … be able to afford child care, or to not go to work. We also have an international community, many of whom are far away from their family support systems,” says Jennifer Wilkin, the school’s founding director.

Even so, the school’s faculty is preparing this week for the possibility of online learning.

In a sun-soaked Brooklyn classroom, Huan Ren reads aloud “The Three Little Pigs” in Mandarin. The pre-K teacher balloons her cheeks to mime the big bad wolf blowing down the straw house. She is reading before a smart phone, recording in an empty room.

It’s part of an effort to build a virtual library for families. The recordings by native-speaking staff would help students keep up with lessons and stay connected to teachers. “Even facing the camera, it still feels like … they are there listening to me,” says Ms. Ren.

“All we can do is plan,” says Ms. Wilkin. “If we don’t have to close, then we have a whole bunch of great video resources for our parents.”

Asia London Palomba and Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed to this report. 

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