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New School Year to Thoroughly Test Online Learning

As schools prepare to offer virtual experiences that approximate what students find in physical classrooms, some parents and teachers fear changes may be too drastic, with too much screen time for kids.

by Scott Travis, Sun Sentinel / August 14, 2020
Cyberspace has become indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic, heightening the need for online protections. Shutterstock/atm2003

(TNS) — South Florida students are about to return to their computers for a new school year, one that educators promise will be a much better experience than the spring.

Districts are promising a virtual experience that more closely resembles what students would find in an actual school, with more structure and a lot more teaching.

Some parents and teachers fear the changes may be too drastic, requiring too much screen time for kids. Others worry the new distance learning program won’t be structured enough to keep kids from falling behind.

“I think it’s going to vary teacher by teacher,” Parkland parent Tammy Morris said. “I think some teachers step it up and do what they’re supposed to and some do the bare minimum.”

While most districts in Florida are giving parents the option to attend school in person, officials in South Florida say COVID-19 is still too widespread to safely reopen.

All schools abruptly switched to online learning in March due to the new coronavirus pandemic. But the quality was largely panned. Many teachers put up assignments, videos and links to online resources, but rarely did live teaching through videoconferencing software. Many students reported they rarely had any actual contact with teachers other than to receive their grades.

That should all change when students log on for the first day of school Wednesday in Broward and Aug. 31 in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

“One thing became very clear. If due to local conditions, we were forced to prolong the start of the school year, more of the same spring 2020 experience would not be unacceptable,” said Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade schools.

For this year, students must start and end their school day at regular times, attending classes as they would in a regular school, district officials say.

“Distance learning for all students will be more structured, expectations will be clear, and teachers and students will follow new guidelines,” Palm Beach County schools says on its website. “Although classes will be held in a distance learning model, they will continue to follow the school’s regular bell schedule. Daily routines will mirror that of a traditional in-class setting.”

While students won’t be at their actual school buildings, many teachers will. The districts are giving teachers the option to teach in their actual classroom or from their homes.

Michael Lichtenstein, a government teacher at Pompano Beach High, returned to his classroom Wednesday to start setting up.

“I’m going to try to do it as best I can like I normally do it in a brick and mortar school, with maybe adding more breaks here and there,” he said.

Lichtenstein said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that his students will have a good experience.

“I’m not going to go into Wednesday thinking all students will be logged on at 7:30 with no technical issues,” he said. “I understand it’s going to be difficult at first.”

Still, many parents are skeptical it’s gong be a good experience for all students.

Morris said one of her daughter’s teacher at Westglades Middle in Parkland was great in the classroom but poor at distance learning.

“She assigned one assignment a week and every student my daughter talked to got a 100,” Morris said.

The problem, Morris believes,, is that the teacher was overwhelmed with small children of her own at home. She worries those issues may continue, even with a more structured day.

Others worry this new format is an over-correction to the unstructured format of the spring. In Broward, teachers are being asked to have five hours of live engagement with children each day, which includes lessons and individual and group activities.

“I’m trying in my head to process how a 6-year-old is going to stay in front of a computer for five hours a day,” Broward School Board member Lori Alhadeff said.

Sara Tribaudino, at teacher at Coral Springs High, said she’s enrolling her own fourth and sixth-grader in Broward Virtual School because she doesn’t want her children in online lessons that long. Broward Virtual has less live instruction and students work at their own pace.

“I did live lessons every day in the spring. Two hours tops and everyone was exhausted,” Tribaudino said. “There has to be a healthy balance.”

School district officials there will be times during the day when kids are working on individual assignments and may not even be looking at a screen. There will also be breaks built-in.

“We do not expect to do anyone to do instruction for five hours a day,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “No adult or student could take that. It’s just not feasible.”

©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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