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Buffalo, N.Y., Teachers Learning Lessons on Remote Teaching

With home instruction continuing for the remainder of the school year and a fall reopening still in question, the education system finds itself pondering the next phase: building a better online model.

by Jay Rey, The Buffalo News / May 11, 2020
Shutterstock/fizkes

(TNS) — In the early days of remote learning – two months ago – it was enough for school districts to keep students sharp and reviewing content while stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But now, with home instruction continuing for the remainder of the school year and a fall reopening still in question, the education system finds itself pondering the next phase: building a better online model.

“Let’s learn from this experience,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week when announcing plans to “reimagine” schools for reopening.

“We did a lot of remote learning. Frankly, we weren’t prepared to do it,” Cuomo said. “We didn’t have advanced warning, but we did what we had to do and the teachers and the education system did a great job, but there’s more we can do.”

Educators believe remote instruction has evolved since mid-March, when schools were first shut down across the state.

“In the beginning, it was a scramble,” said Michelle Licht, an elementary school teacher in the Williamsville Central School District.

There was a learning curve for teachers, she said, and early on many relied on their smartphones as they pulled together the materials and equipment needed to teach from home.

“It has definitely been a slow process to make sure everybody was up and running,” said Licht, the president of the teachers union in Williamsville. “But I think we’ve all improved our practices on a daily basis since then.”

A crossroads came around the time of spring break, said Peter Stuhlmiller, a high school teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district. The school district realized it could be in this for the long haul and offered training on classroom technology that some teachers had never used, he said.

“I think the instruction is better organized now and sequentially patched together in a way that makes sense,” said Stuhlmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association. “It’s not ad hoc, grab whatever we can to keep kids reviewing current content.”

But remote learning still varies widely depending on the school or the teacher or the grade. Educators describe some fundamental issues that schools are going to have to address moving forward, raising questions about how well this can work in the long term.

“If it has to happen it has to happen,” Stuhlmiller said. “But the real quality that public education brings to kids is going to be diminished significantly if this becomes the new norm.”

“I just don’t think the K through 12 system is ready for that complete turnover,” said Paul Casseri, superintendent of the Lewiston-Porter Central School District. “But it’s part of our conversation moving forward, I can tell you that. We obviously have to try to continue to upgrade our preparation for something like this.”

“It’s gotten better as we’ve gotten more teachers comfortable with the learning platforms, however, it’s no replacement for having kids in front of you in the classroom,” said Stephen Bovino, superintendent in Ken-Ton. “If we have to go longer, we will continue to redefine what we do and make it better.”

But how exactly?

Immersed in this new world of remote instruction for the past several weeks, educators described the bad, the good and the lessons learned.

Homework turned in at 3 a.m.

“One of the issues that we’re having is there’s a percentage of kids that don’t engage,” Bovino said. “We’ve sent letters, made phone calls, in some cases we’ve done wellness checks.”

“That was early Lesson No. 1,” said Kriner Cash, superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools. “We’re going to have to figure out pretty quickly how to connect, attract and even get kids to come online – and stay online.”

Licht said student engagement in Williamsville has gotten better as teachers rolled out different types of instruction and methods to connect with kids.

But Stuhlmiller, a social studies teacher at Kenmore West High School, noted student participation in videoconferencing has waned. He has noticed, for example, that some students have taken jobs at local grocery stores and picked up shifts throughout the day.

“I’m getting some homework assignments from some kids at 3 in the morning, 11:30 at night,” Stuhlmiller said. “They’re working a number of shifts, they come home and sleep – and then they start their homework.”

Internet access is key

Ensuring students access to computers and internet service is still one of the biggest challenges in getting online learning up and running – and moving forward.

Buffalo Public Schools distributed nearly 20,000 laptops and devices to students now learning at home, while making 2,200 mobile hot spots available to households around the city. By comparison, 80% of households across Erie and Niagara counties are online. That includes pockets on the East and West sides, where census data from last year shows between 37% and 71% of households have internet service.

“Whether online instruction will continue to work is really dependent on access,” said Sam Abramovich, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. “If that can be achieved – and it’s going to be expensive in terms of money and resources – then there’s no reason why we can’t continue to build on this.”

Online fatigue

When schools shut down, Buffalo Seminary was way ahead of the game. The small, private girls school on Bidwell Parkway transitioned to a full-day of virtual classes on Zoom, the online remote conferencing service.

But after spring break, the school made some changes, which included shortening the length of classes, in some cases, and building in 10-minute breaks between classes.

“We didn’t want to have Zoom burnout for anybody – faculty or the students,” said Erin St. John Kelly, director of communications. “We wanted this to be as productive a time as possible and frying everyone on Zoom didn’t seem the greatest way to do that.”

The school also realized the importance of socializing and staying connected.

Now, instead of holding classes on Wednesdays, that day is reserved for student body, advisory and club meetings through Zoom.

Parents are key

“Another obstacle is the different levels of support that our students have at home,” Licht said.

“We have some students whose parents are both working out of the house right now and they can’t support the student on a daily basis,” Licht said. “They can’t troubleshoot technology issues. They can’t answer a question when they need to. They can’t help them find a link to use for an assignment.”

One of the issues moving forward with remote learning is it’s based on assumptions that moms and dads will still be home to provide the support that kids need, Stuhlmiller said.

“And those are big assumptions,” he said.

Teaching the teachers

Abramovich credits teachers for making the dramatic switch to online in only a matter of days, but said there’s still huge room for improvement.

More formal professional development is going to be needed for teachers, many of whom are using new digital platforms for the first time, he said.

“I would agree this is not a replacement for the classroom, but neither is the classroom the only thing to aspire to for our educational system,” said Abramovich, whose expertise is in the use of technology in education.

“There is a wealth of innovation and learning opportunities for everyone to embrace – not at the expense of what works, but to support what works and replace what doesn’t,” he said.

Blended learning

Despite some of the obstacles, remote learning also has opened eyes to the possibilities.

Those videoconferences? Administrators see them as a more efficient way to hold meetings across the district.

What about snow days?

“My own children will be furious at me for saying this, but snow days, for example, might truly be something of a past relic, right?" Abramovich said. “Everyone has to stay home on a snow day? OK, let’s go back to our online learning.”

And while there are plenty of concerns about kids struggling and falling behind, Cash also has heard stories of kids thriving during this period of home instruction given a little guidance.

Once schools reopen, he’s open to exploring some type of blended model – a combination of classes online and at school – for kids who can handle it.

“That’s a lesson learned,” Cash said. “I’m getting stories from parents whose kids are saying, ‘I’m done. I want more.’ And I want that to continue. If they want to go and go fast and go faster – let’s let them go.”

©2020 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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