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Regardless of Age, Virtual Learning Has Proven a Challenge

Younger and older students alike face challenges with virtual school, said Andrea Smith, an early childhood education professor in Western Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Development.

by Kayla Miller, mlive.com / November 9, 2020

(TNS) — Kindergarteners can’t read what’s on the computer screen and high school students are at risk of depression from isolation and loneliness.

Younger and older students alike face challenges with virtual school, said Andrea Smith, an early childhood education professor in Western Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Development.

“Is it harder to bike 100 miles or run 50 miles?” Smith asked. “When you’re going that far, it doesn’t matter. It’s different but it’s hard.”

It’s been eight months since students were sent home from school after the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan. Many are still learning from home in a virtual setting away from their classmates and teachers.

Some parents are working from home and trying to help their children with online learning, while others are back in the office, often with older children left to care for their younger siblings while trying to do their own schoolwork.

“It sucks,” said Naté Vanfleet, a mother of two in Paw Paw near Kalamazoo.

Related: A day in the life of a Michigan family living the remote learning reality

Vanfleet’s sons, 12 and 13, work on online lessons that do not require real-time interaction for about three hours every day in separate rooms of their home so as not to bother each other. Vanfleet, a part-time worker at a Kalamazoo restaurant, said she tries to float between rooms to help but she’s not a trained teacher.

Despite the risk of COVID-19, Vanfleet is moving her older son, who has autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, back into the classroom. Without the support of in-person learning, virtual school is “very, very difficult” for him, she said.

There’s a perception that virtual school is easier for older students, said Elizabeth Birr Moje, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education. Younger students don’t have reading proficiency or long attention spans, but older students can easily disengage from class, she said.

“The reality is that everyone is struggling under different struggles,” Moje said.

Parents are more likely to leave their older students alone when doing school work because they’re more independent.

“That’s why parents feel like their younger children are struggling more,” Moje said. “What they’re not seeing is the older students — it’s true they can get up on time, they know how to use an alarm clock, they can be in front of their computer, they can follow through on their homework and put things into their planner — they can do all that but that doesn’t mean that they’re learning."

Teachers have to be creative using audio and video for younger students who can’t yet read, because virtual learning, especially with lessons that are not live, are meant to be read, Moje said.

Educators see other troubling trends since schools began the year, Moje said. Older students are likely to keep their cameras off and only engage via the chatroom rather than speaking directly with their teacher or classmates, she said.

“You can really imagine that our older children will get left unattended, and it’s absolutely understandable because parents are trying to work, they’re trying to manage and help their younger children,” Moje said. “They are just so thankful when their older kids can fend for themselves. That’s a dangerous place to be.”

All students are missing out on human connection, said Joshua Gottlieb, a Kalamazoo high school physics teacher. His children, a first grader and a fifth grader, are learning virtually at home, and the respect he has for his colleagues teaching elementary students has “gone through the roof,” he said.

“Mrs. Brautigam, a first grade teacher at Winchell Elementary — just talk about a rock star," Gottlieb said about his child’s teacher. “She is fantastic and the kids are excited. She has all kinds of interactive brain breaks. My daughter is dancing and she is so engaged.”

Sometimes it’s harder to hold the attention of older students who don’t want to be in school, Gottlieb said. His daughter’s teacher awards good participation with virtual lunches with the teacher, he said.

“If my students had to have lunch with me, it would be called lunch detention and they would not be happy,” Gottlieb said.

Young children do have shorter attention spans, Smith said.

“You don’t have to have scientific evidence to back that up. If you spend any time with a 5 year old, you realize they have a shorter attention span,” Smith said.

But elementary teachers are accustomed to younger children and are working hard to keep them engaged.

“That’s how kids learn. They create their own knowledge by interacting with people and their environment,” Smith said.

Elementary teachers are tasked with a nearly impossible job of being engaging and entertaining to keep young students focused on the computer for hours at a time, Lena Kauffman, a parent of three in Ann Arbor, said.

“You need to be Sesame Street,” she said.

Kauffman’s elementary student is enrolled in private Catholic school so he could attend in-person classes. The fourth grader would require nearly all of his mom’s attention throughout the day and she wouldn’t be able to help her older daughters or complete her own work tasks, she said.

“I think there’s a huge developmental difference that happens in middle school,” Kauffman said of her sixth-grade daughter, who is successful at virtual school. “She can complete her assignments, she can speak up if she doesn’t understand something. That’s a huge difference between that age and elementary age.”

But Kauffman’s oldest child, a ninth grader, has her own challenges with virtual school. Kauffman frequently helps her daughter with the emotional and mental stress of virtual tests and feeling lonely away from her friends, she said.

The Kauffmans put their son in private school because they don’t believe Ann Arbor schools will return to in-person learning soon enough.

“There’s always the promise of going back but never the reality,” Kauffman said. “If my son was home with me, I would be spending all my time with my son and I would have zero time for my girls.”

Older students face greater emotional and mental risks, Kauffman said. She worries about her teenage daughter sitting alone in her bedroom working on a computer all day, she said.

“I worry the longer this goes on, she’d be at risk for various emotional, depression, mental health issues,” Kauffman said.

Older students without parents to monitor their engagement can also easily make the choice to skip virtual classes and poor academic performance has greater consequences the closer students are to graduation, Kauffman said.

“I wouldn’t say that there’s an age where this is easy,” Kauffman said. “I would say there are some children for whom this is easy and some children for whom this is hard.”

Younger children learning virtually are also missing out on a lot of the interactions they need to build social skills, like waiting their turn and getting along with others, WMU’s Smith said.

Negative effects on students' mental health is “absolutely” a concern for younger kids, too, Smith said. Illnesses, like depression, will look different in younger students, but the pandemic and social isolation can still affect them, too.

In younger students, parents should watch out for sudden and more frequent tantrums or children who are having trouble sleeping, Smith said.

The bottom line is that all families are facing struggles in the education of their children through the pandemic, she said.

“Families are families, they never set out to be schools,” Smith said.

(c)2020 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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