• Evi Arthur

In-person vs. virtual learning: How do teachers feel about returning to school in the fall?

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash.

As the start of school looms closer and closer, government leaders, teachers, and parents are discussing whether or not children should be sent back to school, with many districts announcing already announcing their back-to-school guidelines. Nearly all districts are offering parents a virtual option, as many parents are struggling to juggle work and helping their children learn from home. 

It seems the teacher population is divided on the issue as well, with some educators advocating that in-person education is the best education for their students and others insisting to administrators that, for everyone’s health and safety, online learning is the best option. In fact, teachers in some states are so worried about their health, that they’ve made finalizations to their wills for when school begins again. 

Gretchen Lippincott and Rebecca McKeon, both kindergarten teachers at Warren Elementary, discussed how virtual school can be a difficult method for their students to learn. “Online learning is not a one-size-fits-all,” says Lippincott. For the tail end of the last school year, they taught their kindergarten classes online using tools like Zoom and ClassDojo. Some students never showed up for class because their parents were essential workers who couldn’t be around to help them get online. Others experienced technical difficulties. They also experienced kids who were talkative in class not speaking at all on Zoom.

“There were a lot of kids that just wouldn’t talk that would talk in the classroom,” Lippincott says. “They would not talk at all. It just petrified them to be on Zoom.”

Another problem they found was a lack of accountability for student work. “I have to be honest, I’m not sure how much of the work my kids did and how much the parents did,” Lippincott says. “Teachers from different grade levels say the same thing. When you’re in the classroom, you can hold the kids a little more accountable and see what they do independently, so that’s hard.”

Lippincott says this problem goes past kindergarten and that friends of hers who teach middle and high schoolers who had similar issues. They had students who never showed up, students who never turned anything in, and even students who would submit blank assignments.

Both teachers also mentioned that when students were on Zoom with their parents and the student was taking too long to answer a question, the parents would answer for them. “I really stress with my parents that it’s really important that they let their child do their own work,” McKeon says. “They can sit there and make sure that they stay on task, but to really let them answer their own questions because if they answer for them, it’s going to get more difficult.”

McKeon says that the teachers were instructed by administrators not to teach any new concepts in the online format, only to review and practice what they had already taught. This policy, Lippincott believes, went for all of the elementary levels. With the short attention spans young children have, limited time for instruction, and the added distance from a classroom environment, the administration believed that it would be too difficult to teach students new things over Zoom.

“I couldn’t imagine teaching kindergarten, new concepts, virtually,” McKeon says. “We kind of all were in survival mode. But if we go virtually now, I think it’s going to look a lot different.”

McKeon believes that her students were greatly affected emotionally by the sudden switch from classroom to online learning, adding that they most likely didn’t even understand what was going on. “Kids, emotionally, have been affected by not being able to be around their peers and not being able to do their normal things,” she says.

Although Lippincott is neutral on whether or not to go back to school, McKeon believes returning to in-person class is her students’ best option. “I’m comfortable with returning to class in the fall. We still need to take precautions,” McKeon says, “but I feel like students get the most out of being in the classroom, not just academically but socially and emotionally, too. I think that it’s important that they come back.”

Although Lippincott, like most teachers, is worried about her health, as well as her students’ health, she says that that’s fairly typical in kindergarten classrooms across the country at any time. At such a young age, kindergarten students “don’t know to grab a tissue when they sneeze or not to put their fingers in their mouths,” Lippincott says, so washing hands and hand sanitizer is always a priority. But she says she’ll just have to be more rigid this year with cleaning and teaching students good hygiene practices.

On the other hand, the number of coronavirus cases is increasing across the country, and many major cities, including St. Louis, are rolling back reopening by shutting down bars and restaurants again. Some states are making masks mandatory whenever in public.

Missouri continues to see alarming rises in coronavirus cases, as noted this week by Dr. Alex Garza, the leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. It is because of this new spike that some teachers, like vocal music teacher Patrick Keller at Saeger Middle School, are firmly against returning to school in the fall.

“For the most part in the U.S., we have not shown that we’re capable of flattening the curve, wiping out this virus, or even taking it seriously,” Keller says. “If you pay attention to what the frontline health professionals are saying, or if you watch the many videos that nurses and doctors around the country have been sharing while holding back tears, I don’t know how one thinks that filling our country’s already crowded schools is going to be a good idea.”

Keller, who is also the political action director of the Francis Howell Education Association—the local chapter of the National Education Association or the teacher’s union—was one of six educators to submit a statement to the district insisting on virtual learning and proposing a “phased” return to school. The letter suggests implementing virtual learning at least through the end of the first quarter, then, depending on the community’s COVID-19 numbers, a hybrid learning approach starting in the second quarter, with masks required. They also advised that the district offer a virtual learning option for the entire 2020–2021 school year so that families can decide for themselves what is best for their children.

As for Keller’s feelings on online learning, he says that although the transition was a little rough, the experience taught him some new skills that he wouldn’t have been able to learn otherwise. “It ripped me out of my box a bit and made me change it up, which in education is a good thing,” he says. “While the distance learning experience is fresh in our minds, we could take advantage of that momentum, use what we learned in that experience, and continue to stay safe and healthy, while learning and teaching remotely.”

Keller discussed that many who are advocating for reopening have said that young people are not as affected by the virus as older people are, but that this statement doesn’t take the health of staff, including teachers, paras, bus drivers, secretaries, and school nurses, into account. “Completely overlooking the people who are responsible for educating and ensuring the safety of your child lacks empathy and common sense,” he says.

Educators were involved in some decision making. Lippincott says the teacher's union sent a survey around to parents and teachers on what they wanted to see for school reopening, which was passed along to the school board. Keller says he was on a few task forces created by the district, but that he felt they were "boxed in on what could be discussed” and thought it was weird that the task forces were not able to discuss things together, especially topics that fit in more than one category.

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