Labeled “the heart of the social fabric in America,” educational institutions are important communities as hubs of education and socialization. As COVID-19 began its spread across the United States, schools and universities were among the first institutions to shut their doors and suspend normal activity. Since then, schools at different levels of education have attempted to make the switch to distance learning in their preparations for indefinite closure. The unexpected nature of these nationwide closures has left a majority of teachers and students unprepared and unequipped to make the shift to distance learning. Worldwide, over 1.5 billion students, or 87% of enrolled learners, have been affected by these changes and had their learning disrupted due to COVID-19. This disruption of the status quo has turned family members and care providers into teachers and has called for innovation from teachers and students. Throughout the shift to distance learning, primary schools, high schools, and colleges have been struggling, especially in addressing the needs of the students that may not have the resources to participate in distance learning. The shift to distance has brought about issues of equity and access and will raise discussion over the viability of traditional education methods.
Primary and secondary schools across the United States have seen teachers and students taking on innovative approaches to remote teaching. Teachers are working hard to instill a sense of normalcy to their students, from elementary school teachers virtually reading aloud to their students, to high school band teachers holding virtual concerts. Additionally, some school districts are having elementary school teachers live-record themselves and publicly broadcast their lessons for their students. Local PBS stations are providing five hours a day of different lessons for elementary school students. A majority of primary and secondary school teachers use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous learning, with morning check-ins where teachers discuss assignments for the day. With this approach, teachers make themselves available for office hours to give students one-on-one assistance with assignments. Professors from universities and colleges are also adapting their teaching to virtual classrooms. As seen with Fordham’s own Dr. Mark Naison, many professors are working hard to keep their students engaged with the material and bring the best experience possible to their students.
However, teachers continue to note the issue of keeping students’ attention and the matter of being able to provide them with the actual help they need. While distance learning and virtual meetings are the only option right now, many educators worry about the possibility of a “corona slide.” Educators liken this to the “summer slide,” where students experience learning loss over the course of summer vacation. Teachers are worried a corona slide will exacerbate the normal problems associated with summer learning loss. Universities and colleges are facing a different set of challenges with distance learning. Termed as “zoom bombing,” professors and students using Zoom as a remote learning tool have experienced hackers in their virtual classrooms and have been subjected to racial slurs, hate speech and pornography. As a result of professors not having formal teaching or preparation for distance learning, virtual classrooms have been hacked and exposed to threatening messages in spaces that are supposed to be safe learning environments. While universities and Zoom have acted fast to address the security issues, hacking is still possible and contributes to the difficulties of distance learning.
Arguably the most significant issue educators and school administrators are facing is addressing potential inequalities among students in regard to access to digital resources and ability to participate in distance learning. Almost 20% of students in the United States do not have access to the internet at home. While only 6% of students don’t have access to a computer at home, too often, students who do have access have to share that computer with parents and siblings. Additionally, inequalities will emerge between students that have parents that are technologically savvy who can assist them with work and those who do not. To prevent these inequalities from happening, some school districts are cancelling school for the remainder of the school year and not offering students the opportunity of distance learning because they cannot ensure all of their students will have access to computers and the internet. Other school districts distributed school-owned laptops to families in need and are offering public WiFi hotspots for students to complete homework and participate in online classes. With over 30 million students participating in the National School Lunch Program, school districts also face the issue of not being able to provide students with federally funded school meals.. To combat this issue, school districts are having pick-up and/or drop-off programs to supply their students with meals. Some districts are even delivering meals and schoolwork via school buses to neighborhoods.
Previously, the use of technology and online resources for teaching was resisted by some educators. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, technology’s growing role in education is impossible to resist. If, after addressing the socio-economic issues that have come with the sudden shift, the transition to distance learning is successful, certain educators suggest that some of these changes in education could be permanent. Success stories involving distance learning lend the opportunity to collectively think about teaching methods and call into question if face-to-face instruction is necessary. Additionally, some educators argue the shift to distance learning was inevitable, and COVID-19 simply accelerated the shift. The chaotic transition to distance learning has forced participation in remote learning methods from teachers and students who had yet to experience technology-based education. Those in favor of online education argue that, after the pandemic, educators and administrators should evaluate online teaching methods and consider implementing more permanent online learning opportunities.
However, a large group of teachers opposed to online and distance learning are saying that the shift to online education during COVID-19 should be an example of the shortcomings and failures of remote learning. These teachers argue that technology will never be as engaging, or provide the same enriching experience, as in-person lectures and teaching. Additionally, the practice of mass online learning cannot be considered after COVID-19 until all of the socioeconomic issues associated with it are addressed. The shift would also call for massive efforts for teachers and instructors to be properly trained for distance learning. Many teachers are even saying that they do not believe online instruction to be effective, and they will have to focus on make-up lessons once schools resume face-to-face instruction. College students are also struggling, noting that it is harder to communicate with professors now that they cannot meet one-on-one during office hours. Additionally, many college students are unable to complete credits because they cannot access labs and equipment. Once traditional educational instruction resumes, debate is likely to ensue over the differences between distance and face-to-face learning. These debates will have the potential to disrupt traditional teaching methods and call for educational reform. However, while the shift to distance learning has been difficult and revealed the shortcomings of remote learning, teachers and students have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be reunited to provide a sense of normalcy during COVID-19, even if it is only virtually.