What Have Educators Learned After a Year of Virtual Schooling?

The novel coronavirus and COVID-19 global pandemic brought normal life to a screeching halt in March 2020 with lockdowns, shutdowns, and stay-at-home orders. Across the nation, schools in every district had a week or two at most to pivot to online technology for remote instruction of their students. It was an experience like no other for every school, every student, and every family. It begs the question of what educators have learned from all the virtual schooling that went on in the 2020-2021 school year.

Uncertainty Means Virtual Schooling May Still be Needed

Families had to figure out how to manage their own work life while at the same time managing online learning for their children, especially the younger ones. Students of all ages struggled with the technology, the absence of their usual social networks, and the anxiety of not knowing where all this was heading. Teachers also struggled with the technology, worried about the learners who weren’t signing on or engaging, wondering how a return to something more normal could happen safely. 

Female hispanic school math teacher virtual teaching by zoom conference call.

Just when things began looking brighter with the rollout of vaccines, along comes a more transmissible delta variant of the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes. Not only does it spread faster among those who remain unvaccinated, it’s even breaking through and infecting some who are fully vaccinated. There is also the problem of not having an emergency-approved vaccine for children under the age of twelve. With all this uncertainty, schools face the difficult decision of whether and how much virtual schooling will still need to happen in the 2021-2022 school year. This makes it even more important to look at what educators learned from a year of pandemic-driven virtual schooling.

Emergency Remote Instruction vs Intentional Virtual Schooling

The sudden shift to remote instruction in nearly every public school during the spring semester of 2020 was a rocky one in many if not most cases, to say the least. It’s important to remember how the shift was a response or a reaction to the huge public health emergency of a global pandemic that felt like it came out of nowhere. There was no time for proper training of American teachers in how to do online school. The whole effort was quickly cobbled together and all anyone could do was hope for the best. Unsurprisingly, the quality of education delivered during the last part of the 2020-2021 school year varied widely, but overall was clearly on the low end of the spectrum for many learners. Perhaps the most important big-picture lesson everyone learned the hard way is that virtual schooling done right requires a plan for serious teacher training and robust preparation.

Agile Virtual Schooling: Flexibility Required

Everyone wanted to think we’ve turned the corner on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, but the dreaded delta variant is forcing people to rethink their enthusiastic optimism to go back to their pre-pandemic normal. What schools are going to do in the 2021-2022 school year remains very much up in the air and is going to vary widely by state, district, and even individual schools. Given the dangers of the delta variant of the virus, some schools will undoubtedly decide to go remote again, at least partially in a hybrid model if not fully remote. Some schools with the resources and of a smaller size may once again be able to safely manage in-person, classroom-based learning with frequent testing, masking, and social distancing. 

In the face of uncertainty, schools and teachers need to be flexible and agile. They must be able to nimbly pivot from one model to another in response to changing conditions. This means knowing how to convert classroom lessons into online lessons or designing lessons that can work well in both environments. It means knowing the needs, challenges, and limitations of students learning online from home. It means tuning in to the individual learning needs of each student even more than usual.

Learner-Centered Education and Instruction

Personalized learning is something that makes a lot of logical sense, but still flies in the face of the way education traditionally happens in many schools. Students are expected to fit into the model of instruction at a school. If they don’t, they won’t end up doing well, however that’s defined in any given school. Eventually, when educators realized this wasn’t serving all students well, especially students who learn differently or struggle with a variety of learning challenges, alternatives were created. Often referred to as an IEP or individualized education program, but because it falls under the wider umbrella of “special education,” there is still some stigma attached to a student who needs an IEP. Others would argue that every student deserves a tailored learning program that works to their strengths while also helping improve weaker areas. One-size-fits-all approaches rarely work as well as people want them to.

The Serious Problem of the Broadband Gap

The pandemic has served to highlight all kinds of inequities in society, especially in healthcare and education. Some students thrived in remote learning while others floundered. One huge issue the pandemic brought into high relief was access to robust internet technologies via high-speed broadband connections. This affected students’ ability to access and engage their online education, people’s ability to work from home, or their ability to access healthcare services and other social and human services happening virtually. In the digital age of the twenty-first century, it’s a problem that can and must be solved. 

Virtual Schooling Requires Extra Support for Many Students

The students who tend to thrive in online learning are those who are naturally organized and motivated to move through material at their own pace. When students are forced to engage in virtual learning because of something like a pandemic, it quickly becomes apparent how many students need extra oversight when it comes to managing their time and completing assignments. They may need extra check-ins and one-on-one support to keep them heading in the right direction. 

Creativity is Key for Teachers

Whether it’s virtual schooling or in-person instruction with social distancing, student collaboration feels much harder to accomplish. Many educators, however, have come up with all sorts of ways to work with restrictions and still find ways to collaborate rather than just giving up and saying it’s impossible. Enough was learned during the 2020-2021 school year that teachers only have to do a bit of digging online to find the new, creative ideas they need to facilitate students speaking up and working together. 

The same goes for tried-and-true teaching methods such as project-based learning. Keep in mind that once you realize you’re not bound by what’s in or brought to a school, then the internet suddenly becomes an amazing pool of resources and people to connect with in order to make virtual schooling every bit as enriching and effective as traditional in-person classroom instruction.

Giving Learners Agency Whenever Possible

Many teachers might be surprised by the good choices their students will make when given some control over how they engage their learning. Here’s how one teacher handled one aspect of instruction during virtual schooling:

“When I introduce an assignment, I allow students to choose a breakout room. They can stay in the main room if they want to work through the assignment step by step with guidance from me. They can join an ‘open group’ room where they work together with mics and cameras on. They can join a ‘quiet group’ room where they work together through typing in the chat. Or they can choose a solo room to work independently. As long as students are completing the work, they have the freedom to choose” (source).

Doing something like that in a traditional classroom would be very complex or impossible to figure out. What the teacher learned was how a virtual classroom can be leveraged into an opportunity for students to have some control over how they learn and engage.

Be Kind to Teachers

Teachers across the country and around the world were faced with an impossible situation during the last school year, but many persevered and did their absolute best to look after their students and keep them learning. For some it was all too much and they either retired or left the profession. Moving forward in the face of uncertainty, teachers deserve respect and kindness as they try to deliver quality instruction in difficult circumstances even while we gently hold them accountable to do so.

Achieve Virtual: Your Indiana Virtual Schooling Experts

Achieve Virtual Education Academy, headquartered in MSD Wayne Township, has been Indiana’s pioneering online high school program for learners throughout the state for more than a decade. With years of experience delivering high quality education in the online environment, Achieve Virtual offers the opportunity for families to have their children learning from the safety of home with real Indiana teachers guiding them through their academic journey with all the support they need to succeed. 

In the coming 2021-2022 school year, Achieve Virtual is expanding its offering beyond online high school to include online middle school for grades 7–8 as well as online elementary school for grades K–6. If you noticed the learners in your family did well during remote learning last year, we invite you to consider enrolling them in Achieve Virtual for the coming school year. Explore our website for much information about virtual schooling, and if you have any questions about how it works or if it’s right for the learners in your family, always feel free to give us a call at 317-988-7144. We’re here to help!

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