The truth about K-12 remote learning at home: Kids may fall behind academically by next school year

Teen working on school work from home. Credit: Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

Weeks after K-12 students left brick-and-mortar schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic, kids may not be learning at home what they need to know to advance to the next grade level, the Florida Phoenix has found.

In some cases, parents have been struggling to help their students with difficult assignments. And educators are still tackling remote-learning technology and trying to teach a full slate of classes that may not be doable, according to interviews with families and educators.

Some school officials have been providing “review work” rather than teaching new material, suggesting that students are already falling behind in the curriculum this academic year.

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Empty desks at school. Photo credit: Pixabay.

In fact, the NWEA, a research nonprofit in Portland, Ore., projects in a new study that “current school closures due to the COVID-19 global pandemic could result in substantially lower achievement levels for students.”

The “preliminary estimates suggest impacts may be larger in mathematics than in reading,” the study says, “and that students may return in fall 2020 with less than 50 percent of typical learning gains, and in some grades, nearly a full year behind what we would expect in this subject under normal conditions.”

“These forecasts parallel many education leaders’ fears: Missing school for a prolonged period will likely have major impacts on student achievement come fall,” Beth Tarasawa, the executive vice president of research at NWEA, said in a written statement.

NWEA researchers are cautious about their projections, saying that “school systems across the country are implementing various online curricul[a], instruction, and progress-monitoring resources to offset the disruption and maintain learning gains.”

At the same time, the study shows: “The aspects of trauma and the current economic conditions of joblessness, and the increase in the number of families facing food insecurity and homelessness, could make academic projections even bleaker for populations most historically marginalized.”

Very different from ‘normal’ schooling

When students will get back to school in Florida is uncertain — Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to make a decision.

Will it mean kids will have to go to summer school or get extra tutoring to catch up? That’s not certain either.

The entire state’s educational workforce has been startled by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to school closings and a new remote learning environment for most students at K-12 public schools.

And Florida’s private schools are in the same boat.

“Crisis schooling is very different from ‘normal’ schooling,” Jason Flom, director of Cornerstone Learning Community, a private school in Tallahassee, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix.

“We will not be able to distill our program and curriculum into a tidy little model that parents and teachers can deliver together in partnership,” Flom said.

Students at Cornerstone are expected to complete required assignments, with the option of completing additional material.

“Now, moving into our second week, students and teachers are beginning to hit their groove. Teachers tier assignments under two categories — ‘must dos’ and ‘may dos.’ All students are expected to do the ‘must dos.’ … ’May dos’ provide extensions, enrichments, and additional opportunities for students and families who want them,” Flom said.

School districts across Florida have come up with individualized plans and programs to continue the school year with remote learning. A wide variety of online instructional platforms and tools being used in different districts include Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Canvas, Duval HomeRoom and ClassLink, among others.

‘At a halt in their learning’

In the Duval County Public Schools, teachers have been using a variety of programs including Duval HomeRoom and Microsoft Teams for distance learning since March 23.

Ariel Allen is a second-grade teacher at Central Riverside Elementary, a public school in Duval, and her students have started online classes.

In a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix, Allen described a typical school week using distance learning platforms.

Allen said she teaches through the Teams program Monday through Friday, with live teaching sessions each morning.

“My students go through their regular schedule day. I teach morning work live, then they complete reading and writing.”

Playground opening at Florida elementary school in Volusia County, Florida. Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images.

Allen continued: “We do science, which is still following the curriculum. I post assignments … and videos for the students. They have recess, lunch, and attend their daily resources (art, music or physical education). Math is at the end of the day; I record short videos less than 10 minutes with mini-lessons that follow the curriculum.”

However, using the distance learning tools does come with problems, Allen noted.

“There have been hiccups with the program…Some documents aren’t able to open,” Allen said. “Parents have been very flexible with the kinks.”

Allen also said that not all students have the proper electronic equipment for online learning, but school officials are working on giving laptops to students in need.

“It puts students at a halt in their learning,” Allen said. “It puts a pause on us moving on because not everyone is able to participate.”

Science is still being taught at her school but with limitations, she said. “We don’t do too many experiments in second grade.”

And for P.E. at her school, Allen argues that coaches have no way “to check if students are doing the exercises.”

‘Don’t freak out’

In the state capital, Leon County Schools resumed classes on March 30. Students hadn’t started their online classes yet; instead, they were given “review packets” for each grade level to complete.

Leon officials said during a press briefing last month that they were allowing time for teachers to learn how to use online programs.

Leon School Superintendent Rocky Hanna said that the review packets were phase one of his district’s distance-learning plan. The packets contained review assignments based on what students have learned so far this school year, with short tests and quizzes.

Hanna said he’s gotten feedback about math from parents, telling him “how difficult some of these problems are” for them to help their kids with assignments.

“What we’ve done is created a series of video tutorials…those tutorials will be uploaded on our ‘learn at home’ page and also on the Leon County Schools YouTube page,” Hanna said. “Don’t freak out if we can’t get these things accomplished, we will work through it.”

Distance learning was set to launch for students in the district on Monday according to administrators. But some schools in that district started practicing the online programs, with teachers and students logging in to interact with one another.

Testing. Photo by Getty Images

Maria Hollis is a parent of a second-grader at Hawks Rise Elementary. She told the Phoenix that the material in the review reminds her of a standardized test and finds it hard to help her son with some of the material.

“Honestly, it looks like a test,” Hollis said. “We don’t have examples [for assignments], which makes it harder,” she added.

“They did give you some additional resources,” Hollis explained, meaning links to helpful online tools for different subjects. The Phoenix obtained a copy of her sons’ packet for 4th graders in Leon County. It included subjects such as math, reading, science, and history.

“Most of the teachers are having to do it for the first time so they’re still learning stuff. They are spending about 20 minutes trying to figure out the functions, and how to interact [during teaching sessions],” Hollis said.

There is no uniform approach

With students used to a more hands-on approach with face-to-face instruction and interaction, many questions linger about how learning will be taught remotely at home.

“I think the rollout is different, county to county. … There is no uniform approach,” Linda Kearschner, president of the Florida PTA, said in a phone interview with the Phoenix. “This challenge is something that is new to all of us.”

Classes such as physical education and science are usually more involved. Students in P.E. participate in exercises and outdoor activities, while science courses traditionally include lab work for students to engage in experiments and other scientific projects.

Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram leads a rally at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Credit: FEA

“We expect every subject area to adapt,” Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

Music classes won’t be the same either, if they will even be taught. “It’s harder in different settings; it’s harder for a band class to do an assessment. That’s going to be very difficult to do,” Ingram said.

But online physical education courses have already been adopted at Florida schools, Ingram said.

“Physical education can be done online because they have what’s called a ‘parent sign-off.’ If there is a mile run requirement, the parent has to sign in and do an electronic signature,” he said.

In Polk County Public Schools, in central Florida, the district said in a video news release that “teachers may use their own digital and paper-based lessons.”

The district is leaving it up to teachers to develop their own distance learning plans and provided an “Instructional Continuity Plan” featuring examples of how certain subjects will be delivered to students.

For example, K-5 students receive 45-minutes of instruction in mathematics through a digital platform called ClassLink in which their teacher must log on to “monitor student usage and performance.”

The Florida Education Association has recommended that teachers implement what’s called “capstone” learning for students to present what they’ve learned over the entire school year.

“What we have advocated for is for our teachers to promote a capstone project,” Ingram said.

“Meaning all of the learning that you had all year. … This is the last nine weeks of school. Anything that you’ve learned, try to make sure that you review.”

“This is not the law, we are not the superintendents, this is just recommended. … Do final assessments of what has already been learned; use these next four or five weeks for a serious review of those things,” Ingram said.