Podcast | When online learning actually works
Having remote classes in the early part of the pandemic was difficult. But for some teachers, it has been a revelation.
Consensus in education is difficult to come by, and the pandemic certainly has not changed that. But one thing that most everyone seems to agree on is this: Online learning was terrible.
As schools moved to remote education, most everything was thrown online as quickly as possible. It was a crisis and, given the public health restrictions, there weren’t any other options. And, as later research showed, there were costs. There have been so-called “learning loss” and mental health impacts, and, ultimately, the research says online school simply didn’t work for most kids, especially in the younger grades.
But that’s not the case with every child. Some students did fine, or did better, online. Even after schools reopened, many school districts and states continued to experiment with remote and hybrid learning. And some families have chosen, at least for now, to keep their kids online. A lot of that has to do with ongoing concerns around COVID-19, of course, but there are other reasons, which we explore throughout this season of This Changes Everything.
For this episode, host Sara Bernard speaks with two teachers who have found success in the remote-learning era and consider the radical, transformative impact that this period of forced remote learning could have on our education system and our communities.
Host/Producer: Sara Bernard
Editorial assistant: Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers
Consulting editor: Donna Blankinship
Executive producer/story editor: Mark Baumgarten
Audio support: Jonah Cohen
Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.
[00:00:00] Anonymous speaker: This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by WGU Washington.
[00:00:10] Sara Bernard: So a few months ago, I went to visit Carter Allen at Cascade Elementary School in Renton, Washington, where he teaches first grade. Cascade happens to be in the same school district as Risdon Middle School, which you heard about in the first episode.
It had the feeling of a regular elementary school classroom. Cheery colors and posters, a couple of sturdy plastic tables, a long counter and cabinets.
But unlike a regular classroom, half of it looked a lot more like a storage unit.
[00:00:37] Carter Allen: There's a lot of, lot of extra stuff in the world.
[00:00:41] Sara Bernard: The room was pretty stacked with boxes and padded envelopes and extra school supplies of all kinds.
[00:00:46] Carter Allen: Some of it's mine though. That's my project, sort of. These are all books that were sent to us to distribute to students who might need some more books.
You just see over here, I've got a big stack of envelopes. That is my just getting started here. There's a few people who I just want to like send a huge handful of books too. That's a bunch of math supplies, mainly popsicle sticks.
[00:01:13] Sara Bernard: So yeah, I guess teachers need storage space. And anyway, Carter is only using one tiny fraction of the room for class time. At one end where the computer is.
[00:01:22] Carter Allen: That's what I only need this amount of space. Everything else is just sort of up and up for grabs.
[00:01:37] Sara Bernard: That's because Carter teaches first grade in a newly created optional virtual program called Renton Remote. And this isn't 2020 when basically every school was an online school. This is the 2021-2022 school year when most everyone else has returned to in-person instruction.
Interesting to go to a school every day, but then your kids never come in here.
[00:02:00] Carter Allen: Yeah, they come in through my laptop and they can see a little bit, like they can see behind me. I've got this huge screen that I can kind of use like a digital whiteboard.
[00:02:11] Sara Bernard: It's a nice setup. There are two monitors, a document camera, and that huge screen Carter mentioned. It lets him project and interact with whatever images are on his laptop.
I went to his classroom to check it out in person, mostly because I tried and failed to get permission as a journalist to attend one of his classes virtually. So since I couldn't be there in real time, he walked me through what it's like.
[00:02:32] Carter Allen: So today we were working with another, a program called whiteboard.fi, and basically I've got on one monitor everybody's individual whiteboards. They, all of their they've logged onto a website that turns their tablet or their Chromebook into just a whiteboard. And I can see live all 21 of them as they edit and write on them.
[00:02:52] Sara Bernard: These are mostly six year olds, mInd you.
[00:02:54] Carter Allen: So I can do like phonics works. We can turn the word "tap" into "tape" by using that magic "e" and I can see who's following me in live time. And I don't have to like flip between screens at all. I just have to like scroll up and down a little bit.
[00:03:07] Sara Bernard: And because it's the 21-22 school year, by the way, these particular 6 year olds have kind of a leg up in online school.
[00:03:14] Carter Allen: They know the applications that they're using. They know what to click on. They know how to help each other. They know how to ask, to share their screen. They know how to do breakout rooms and navigate all of the different ins and outs of Zoom. And so I'm, you know, I inherited first graders from a year of kindergartners who've never been in a classroom, and they all, they're very savvy. They know what to do.
[00:03:36] Sara Bernard: Yeah. Believe it or not, these first graders do know their way around a computer. They're having more Zoom meetings than I do in a given week. And that is something that until 2020 was not happening.
[00:03:47] Carter Allen: That is something that you just, I wouldn't have seen many, many years ago, partly because of the lack of availability. But I think partly also because of the opinions or assumptions that like, we don't need to give kindergartner's laptops. And now a year ago it was like, oh my gosh, we have to give all of them laptops for better or for worse. Like that's the new paradigm.
[00:04:14] Sara Bernard: I'm Sara Bernard. And this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. So, for a lot of people, online learning was terrible. After the pandemic showed up and schools moved to remote education, most everything was thrown online as quickly as possible, in a crisis, when we didn't have other options. And a lot of the research to come out of it so far as you probably know has been negative. But here's the thing; that's just not the case with every kid. Some kids did fine or did better online for a range of reasons.
And some families have chosen at least for now to keep their kids online. A lot of that has to do with ongoing concerns around COVID-19 of course. But lots of school districts in Washington and across the country are still experimenting with virtual learning. Even after most students have returned to school in person.
In fact, permanent virtual school programs are now being set up in 38 states, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press. And according to a Rand Corporation study, two in ten school districts nationwide are already adopting or are likely to adopt virtual school as part of their district's offerings, even after the pandemic is over.
It's true that online learning in some capacity has been around for a while, but online learning as a robust, prevalent, permanent option for every student, that's a new idea and it might be here to stay. Stay with us.
So, Carter is in a pretty unique position. I actually met him because teachers run in the family.
[00:05:56] Carter Allen: My name is Carter Allen. I'm a new first grade teacher in the Renton School District. And this is my dad.
[00:06:02] Sara Bernard: His dad is Chris Allen, who you met in the first episode?
One thing I'm curious about, you're both teachers. I mean, are there a lot of teachers in your extended family or is this, I don't know, Carter, were you influenced by your dad?
Yeah, there are actually. My mom's mother was a fourth grade teacher and then a principal and then her sister taught elementary school as well.
Mom's dad is also, was also an educator for a while and taught. I don't know if you have other educators in your family actually.
[00:06:36] Chris Allen: I didn't really have much, many educators in my family, but I will say that, that my father-in-law stopped teaching in the '70s when he thought students were becoming too rude. And whenever I think about that, I just say, "You have no idea. You have no idea."
[00:06:57] Sara Bernard: So Chris Allen is in his 31st year teaching, Carter, on the other hand, is in his first. He was in the middle of his master's program when the pandemic hit.
[00:07:06] Carter Allen: So I decided I would try and get my master's degree in education and a quarter into getting my master's program is when we were all sent home indefinitely.
Well, first for six weeks and then indefinitely. And so after that school became virtual and the master's program became virtual and student teaching became virtual and it all suddenly became, everything was, it all changed?
[00:07:31] Sara Bernard: So virtual wasn't the plan at the beginning of Carter's master's program. But that's what it became and it really wasn't any different for him and the teachers he was student teaching with than it was for basically any teacher during this time.
[00:07:43] Carter Allen: We did wanna remind the kids, like, "Hey, just so you are aware, none of us adults in the room have gone through this either." Like maybe once a week, we said, "Hey, this hasn't ever happened before."
Like, not in any of our lifetimes, have we gone through this situation specifically to the degree we're going through it now?
[00:08:04] Sara Bernard: But of course, the past couple of years being the foundation for his career and teaching, it makes sense that Carter's first full-time job would be a virtual one.
[00:08:12] Carter Allen: I was thinking, you know what, this would be the one to take. Like, if I get it, it's the one that like, I am going to feel comfortable in. I'm going to feel like I've got some experience, because it's, one, first graders, who I student taught with and, two, it's online, which I student taught doing. And three, I love using technology.
[00:08:38] Sara Bernard: So anyway, Carter got a job, but man, what a job. Kudos to all the first grade teachers who taught their classes online for a year and a half, first of all. But also teaching an all-virtual first grade class as your first full-time teaching job, that just sounds like a lot.
[00:08:53] Carter Allen: So, the challenges are that I'm a brand new first grade teacher and I'm teaching 21 students remotely, and every day, I'm trying to figure out how do I teach them? And then the hardest part is how do I prove that I've taught them. Now, if they're listening to me, awesome. That's success number one. And then success number two is now that they're listening, how do I get them to manifest work when they're six and seven and they're at home.
[00:09:26] Sara Bernard: Yeah, I guess I thought, and even Carter originally thought that teaching the youngest grades virtually was kind of, I don't know, ridiculously hard.
[00:09:33] Carter Allen: Is it holding super pixelated writing samples up to a camera and then I'm taking a little snip of it on my computer and really quickly saving it to a document. And they're sitting while I go through 20 students holding up like a sample of writing?
[00:09:47] Sara Bernard: But he's figuring it out. And of course it's not about kids writing things down on a piece of paper and holding it up to a screen. There's an app for that.
[00:09:54] Carter Allen: That's on Jamboard. I created a template with lines for them to draw on.
[00:10:01] Sara Bernard: For example, there's this piece of software called Jamboard. For Carter it's become basically the digital equivalent of a first grade writing workbook.
[00:10:08] Carter Allen: So they can write, there's a box for a picture. They can go page by page and fill it out and write a narrative that goes across pages.
[00:10:17] Sara Bernard: Do they have, is this kind of like a stylus then that they have with their Chromebooks?
[00:10:21] Carter Allen: They've got tons of different, yeah, different things that they can use a lot. Some of them, some of them write with their fingers. Some of them write with a stylus. Some of them write just using a text box and typing into it. Cause typing is now, you know, a first grade skill that they can have.
[00:10:36] Sara Bernard: And with styluses or finger writing or typing plus pictures and other tricks and tools, that's how these kids are doing their assignments.
[00:10:43] Carter Allen: I had a student use a picture of themselves inserted into a Jamboard, and then were saying like, this was a moment when I was scared, because I saw this spider, and they put a picture of themselves on the screen. And then over that they drew a spider up in the corner and the picture of themselves was reacting like they were frightened. And then in typing next to it on like a little sticky note, colorful, sticky note, it says, like, "This is when I was scared."
You never know what they're gonna be able to do until we, you know, you show them a bunch of tools and give them a little bit of structure. And immediately they're like filling up pages and pages with writing.
[00:11:24] Sara Bernard: The days are long though, for sure. They start with an hour long commute.
[00:11:28] Carter Allen: I get up at 5:45 and I drive from north Seattle down to here. Getting up that early both helps me beat traffic and also it gives me a bonus hour in the morning because, you know, especially for a first year teacher, like there's a lot to kind of just, just to understand and absorb.
And then 8 o'clock is when I need to be here. And 8:30 is when the students show up. We normally start our day with reading and writing or writing and social studies, depending on the day. We have a topsy turvy schedule. No day is the same. Recess, breaks, they have a specialist they go to, so music, PE or library. And in that time is when I have my planning. Lunch, little short breaks to move around and stretch, and then we hit all the subjects.
[00:12:16] Sara Bernard: Wow. So how many hours do you have, I guess, students like you're interacting with them on Zoom. Like, how many hours a day is that, just curious?
[00:12:24] Carter Allen: From 8:30 to 3:10, minus 45, 15, minus an hour. So 9:30, 10,:30, 11:30, 12:30, 1:30, 2:30, 3:10. So 3:30. So that's eight hours minus an hour and a half is six-and-a-half hours minus 20 minutes. Is, is that right?
[00:12:46] Sara Bernard: It turns out this question is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be.
[00:12:50] Carter Allen: So it's six hours, forty minutes, an hour and a half. So then it's, okay, so, five hours and about 20 minutes. I should be able to do this. You're exposing me.
[00:13:07] Sara Bernard: So it's not like the exact number of hours really matters. Point is, these 6 year olds are on zoom with Carter, something like five and a half hours a day. When I have five and a half hours of new meetings in a day, I'm pretty fried. But I guess for these kids, that's what school is. This is the only school they've ever known.
Does, does it impact you at all? Does it impact your students at all? Or does it feel normal?
[00:13:33] Carter Allen: It's difficult to compare it to something, because I, you know, will never be teaching the same students, whereas like, would they prefer to be in person and even if in person means masks on all the time and distancing and all of those things where it's like, it's hard to compare a group of students and what they appreciate about online and what they don't like about it. And then if you brought them back into a fully normal situation and like, said, "Hey, what do you like better?" who knows what they'd say?
But as far as Zoom fatigue goes, I mean, yeah, you can see it every now and then, and I can feel it every now and then, but there are strategies to get us up and moving and to build, you know, start strong, end strong. Putting the really core academic subjects at the beginning and middle of our day. And then trying to be more high energy kind of ramp up the energy as our levels go down.
But there's different. Yeah. There's different things we can do. We often do social studies at the end of the day, a lot of, you know, read alouds and things that are just gonna like be interesting but low pressure, or high energy and still low pressure, just to make sure that they're like... you know, because you can see it in their eyes and I can feel it in my body just like, whew, we've been here a while and everybody's like starting to realize that the toys that they have around them are more interesting than me. And I'm like, wait, come back.
[00:14:55] Sara Bernard: I mean, there are some quirks specific to an online classroom.
[00:15:02] Carter Allen: Maybe once every few days it'll be like, "Hey everybody, can we just double check that your face is in the screen and that your, you know, I can see both your ears and the top of your head and everything," but, hey, learning is happening.
[00:15:14] Sara Bernard: And maybe in ways that wouldn't have happened in a regular classroom. These first graders are doing all kinds of things. They're doing breakout rooms.
[00:15:21] Carter Allen: Yeah. They go to breakout rooms pretty frequently for math stations, like to play games with one another, cuz it's a way for, to get more voices in the day and for them to like be social and be focused.
[00:15:33] Sara Bernard: They're reading together
[00:15:34] Carter Allen: And then I've got this document camera for physical books. And I also use YouTube. Like, I can find a list of like, here's some really good books. Here's the ones that have won awards. And then I put those into YouTube and it's like, boom, here's the author reading it out loud, and I'm like, phenomenal.
[00:15:49] Sara Bernard: They're creating these elaborate multimedia eBooks.
[00:15:52] Carter Allen: And I had one kid just rewrite 'Little Red Riding Hood,' but did it in like the most interesting, wild way I've ever seen. So she's got like sticky notes of text, she's got color and faces and little like stamps of pictures.
[00:16:05] Sara Bernard: They're teaching each other how to do things.
[00:16:07] Carter Allen: When she was done sharing, I said, "Does anybody have any questions?" And a few people, "How did you do that?" "How did you add that picture?" And so we reshared her screen and she showed us how, what the buttons that she clicked on were. And then the next week I had four more kids working on a story just like that.
[00:16:24] Sara Bernard: They're even teaching Carter how to do things.
[00:16:26] Carter Allen: And my student goes, no, there's an option to turn that to totally fix that. And he goes, yeah, you just, you flip this and it's like, now it's says show questions on devices. And I went, "Oh my gosh," like, you wanted this to happen, and you just showed me that it totally could.
[00:16:46] Sara Bernard: So it's not like virtual school is a totally new thing. People have been talking about the possibilities of online learning and running online schools for years. It's just that it's become so much more tangible because of the pandemic. All of a sudden, we absolutely had to make online learning happen for everyone.
Teachers everywhere were forced to experiment with it. And Carter says he still is.
[00:17:07] Carter Allen: And so it feels like I get to sort of set the bar a little bit. I've got a lot of bars to meet, but there's also this, like, "and this is an experiment." At the end of the day it's both, we need to do this, we need to meet, meet people's educational needs. But at the same time, we are experimenting with it and finding out what works. And who knows how long it will last and what the next steps will be.
[00:17:41] Sara Bernard: So, I know what some of you are thinking: online learning for first graders, really? Even if kids all had equal access to the same kinds of broadband at home and all that, which is a big if, isn't online learning, especially for elementary school age kids, exactly what hasn't worked over the past couple of years. According to all the studies, all the surveys, all the news articles, it seems that overall the past year and a half of online school was not a good thing.
And just ask a few kids, you might get that impression too.
[00:18:30] Student 1: I hated online assignments. I just wanted to go and actually, and go see my teachers and friends and that's, I hate online
[00:18:42] Student 2: Basically online, your camera could be off and you're doing something else on your phone and the teachers wouldn't know.
[00:18:49] Student 3: Yeah. Like sometimes the wifi would glitch out, so they'd have to join back in and that would happen like five times a day. Or your teacher would get kicked out and a random kid would be host and that went crazy. They were playing videos and wouldn't let the teacher back in.
[00:19:06] Sara Bernard: A lot of people said this time was horrible. It was simply a lost year. In fact, getting all kids back to school in person has been the singular goal ever since that first round of shutdowns. And it is very clear to people like Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools, who you heard from in a previous episode, that that has got to be the goal going forward to as variants continue to present themselves.
[00:19:34] Susan Enfield: And as we continue to respond to this, we have an absolute moral obligation to our children to keep our schools open. And that means that we will continue in Highline to and encourage everyone eligible to get the vaccine, to get the booster, because we cannot send our children home again. We cannot do that. They are counting on us to keep them in school and we need to do everything in our power to make that happen.
[00:19:59] Sara Bernard: Same goes for U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
[00:20:02] Miguel Cardona: My priority right now is to safely reopen as many schools as possible, as quickly as possible.
[00:20:08] Sara Bernard: But on a case-by-case basis, Carter, at least is gonna beg to differ.
[00:20:12] Carter Allen: If you are a family member or a parent, and you are sending your kid to a remote school, if you go onto Twitter and look at like our secretary of education's tweets, you're basically being told that you are not making the right choice because they are saying, every day, the goal is a classroom. The goal is kids in seats in a classroom, that's the way to do education. And my goal this year is to counter that message, that narrative.
These parents were like, "Am I doing the right thing? Is this the right thing? Is Mr. Carter's classroom the right place for my kid?" And I'd like them to ask that for reasons like, well, who knows? He's young, he's a first year teacher. But now it's like, well, it's remote. It's remote and that's evil or, like, something that there's some sort of bad vibe to it. All of this experience has, has pretty much culminated in, I think, that this is an okay thing to be doing. Like, we have an option and it's so possible and it's so doable and the kids are proving it to me every day. And they're constantly impressing me with what they're capable of that I just, I think that when it comes time to show our work at the end of the year, we're gonna be able to say, "Look, whether or not this continues, we did do it. We did it. We came out of it and we were successful."
[00:21:44] Sara Bernard: So, a bit of an update. When I talked to Carter back in November, neither of us knew whether this particular virtual first grade would continue and turns out it won't. A remote option at the high school level will carry on, but the online elementary school programs in the Renton School District will be done in June.
Still the broader trend continues. For one thing, Carter is not alone. We found someone else who's totally embracing the virtual classroom and it's not her first year teaching. She's been at it for decades. More on that after the break.
[00:22:33] Anonymous speaker: Good teachers need good teachers and class is in session at Western Governors University. Online and competency-based, WGU Washington offers respected bachelor's and master's degree programs in teaching for aspiring and veteran teachers who want a high quality affordable education on their schedule and at their pace. Learn firstname.lastname@example.org.
[00:23:04] Sara Bernard: So, a few months ago, Crosscut staff reporter Venice Buhain and I went to visit Elaine Simons at her house in Renton. She's an art teacher and has been for decades.
[00:23:17] Elaine Simons: I've been teaching, um, many different art programs in New York City and Seattle in person. And all I've ever taught was how to make masks and do collages and, you know, three dimensional type things.
[00:23:33] Sara Bernard: But of course, the past couple of years upended everything she knew.
[00:23:37] Elaine Simons: When the 13th happened on, was it Friday the 13th? Yeah. We were told closed down. And by that time, only half of my students showed up, I think for the day. So it was kind of like unfinished art projects everywhere.
[00:23:55] Sara Bernard: Elaine had been teaching in Seattle schools for years, but had just gotten into a brand new art classroom at Foster High School in Tukwila, just south of Seattle, when the first shutdowns hit.
[00:24:05] Elaine Simons: It was in, I think January, I got my classroom and by the time I felt like I was acclimating by March, I lost my classroom to COVID. So the last day, um, whatever students were there, I said, "Please take home your stuff. I have no idea when we'll be back here." And most of the kids just abandon all their stuff. So we did a, I decided to do a contest on that last day, and we didn't know what COVID was. We didn't even know if it was a virus or a monster, we didn't know. So I had the kids make, in groups, what they thought this guy looked like, and they were brilliant. If I could show you at some point, I'll show you all their different monsters.
[00:24:53] Sara Bernard: So Elaine said goodbye to her students. And then on Monday, March 15th, she and her colleagues were told to go back to the school building to pack up and clear out as if it were summer break.
[00:25:03] Elaine Simons: And they said, "Everything, everything off your walls, everything put away," you know, "Turn back all your stuff, close down, unplug." And I was like by myself. And so I went to my art room and I actually started crying. And I don't know how other teachers were feeling on that day. I cried because I didn't even know if I was ever gonna come back to the school. I had no idea what the future held,
[00:25:34] Sara Bernard: But the immediate future for Elaine was first just getting art supplies to students. You can't have a hands-on art class, in person or online, without art supplies. So she went online to look for grants and secured a thousand dollar grant that let her shop anywhere. She built these custom kits for each of her students.
[00:25:51] Elaine Simons: So, in the kit was drawing paper, a whole thing of oil pastel paper, water colors, markers, oil pastels, color pencils. I even had masks. I had a book, I had coco butter; I decided to get them coco butter. I had Takis, which is this hot, spicy food that kids like. I just made it a fun thing. And so I contacted my principal and I said, I wanna have a drive through, because this way the kids could drive up, they could pick up their little gift bags, social distancing. I had it all laid out and boom, that that was my last contact physically with any of my school until graduation in June and virtual world began.
[00:26:50] Sara Bernard: So you might not think that a veteran teacher is likely to adapt all that well to the new normal. Especially someone like Elaine, who doesn't consider herself to be too tech savvy.
[00:26:59] Elaine Simons: When I had a physical room up to the time of COVID, I never really understood how to use a lot of the technology. So I had a thing called a doc camera and I had a station and a whiteboard where you could document and show students. They could get little, I had little laptops there and they could actually take the laptops and I could ask all the students to do some research or whatever, but I really never really understood how to use all that, because most of what I was doing was teaching them and showing them how to do plaster casting for mask making, how to work with paints and mixing, so it was a very functional art, hands-on classroom,
[00:27:45] Sara Bernard: But she did. She adapted right away. And she learned that in the virtual classroom, it was all about that doc camera.
[00:27:52] Elaine Simons: And the doc camera was so important because once the students would virtually come in with the doc camera, I could put a painting here and I could paint, they could see me painting and follow a along. So I got the doc camera and met with a tech person through zoom. And he walked me through how to use this stuff because I never used it in the classroom.
[00:28:19] Sara Bernard: So, long story short, in the fall of 2020 Elaine's contract with Foster High School ended and she reapplied, but wasn't hired.
So she just kept going, securing a range of virtual teaching gigs. There was a program through the Interagency Academy, an alternative high school in Seattle. There was a small class she taught for a group of seniors at Seattle Southlake High School. And then she found lots of gigs as a virtual substitute teacher.
She had to use Zoom for some things and Microsoft Teams for other things.
[00:28:47] Elaine Simons: Yeah. A lot of new stuff to learn, especially for somebody that is a fine arts teacher.
[00:28:53] Sara Bernard: She decorated her small office room at home with student art projects that had been left behind.
[00:28:58] Elaine Simons: So, in this room I decided to set it up so that it was like the students were in my art room. I had different artwork that I was able to save from Foster High School. So when kids abandoned artwork, I decided to take home my favorite pieces. And hopefully if those students ever find me, at least these students, their artwork was preserved. And then I set it up with all the same art supplies.
So I have acrylic paint and canvases, the special watercolor paper pastels
[00:29:35] Sara Bernard: And she made her quiet elderly dog, a part of class.
[00:29:38] Elaine Simons: And she became my art dog, everybody, all the students know my Suki.
[00:29:44] Sara Bernard: And then this past fall, she landed a part-time hybrid position for Clear Sky Academy, a program led by the nonprofit Urban Native Education Alliance. There she helps to teach, or really facilitate, a hybrid class on Native art and history with the help of local Indigenous artists and elders. She teaches in-person students at a classroom at North Seattle College, as well as virtual ones from a handful of school districts across Western Washington. Hybrid, of course, has its own challenges.
[00:30:13] Elaine Simons: If you're talking to your kids in person, your back is to the kids that are virtual. If you stand to the side, who are you talking to? So there's this kind of, because if you're not near this screen and the kids are chatting or leaving messages or raising their hand, if you're not looking behind you, you don't see the students saying, "Miss Elaine!" you know. So there's this like weird thing. And every week there's been a hiccup technology-wise.
[00:30:48] Sara Bernard: It all sounds kind of difficult and it is, but actually, Elaine says, she wouldn't have it any other way.
[00:30:54] Elaine Simons: If I didn't make myself work outside my comfort zone, I would be unemployed.
I am probably a pilot teacher in the world right now. I don't, know how many of us are teaching hybrid, but I'm actually learning it on the job.
And that's what I'm saying; I've been given a gift. I'm learning so many new skills, PowerPoint development, curriculum design, I'm finding other skill sets, strong suits that I never even knew that I had. And being older, learning Zoom and Microsoft meets and PowerPoint and how to use all this technology, I like it in a way.
I actually can see my retirement days just being a virtual teacher. And I always said, if you need a sub, why not use us virtually. Those kids can maybe take out their little laptops, sign in virtually with us and just have a staff in the classroom, supervising them. That is such a win-win.
[00:32:06] Sara Bernard: So there are some challenges, but also some serious advantages to the flexible virtual school model, Elaine says, and at the end of the day, she's feeling pretty pragmatic about it all.
[00:32:16] Elaine Simons: I think it's probably the direction we're gonna go because there's a lot of kids not coming back in person. I mean, this is our new reality, and I think the school system, I think everyone, we've learned how to live like this. Why not keep hybrid and virtual options as part of moving forward? Because with the new virus coming, we are gonna go back and forth. What happens if next month we shut down again and we all have to go virtua?. And then what? We're gonna start are all through what happened on March 15th, 2020?
This is something we don't get rid of. We don't get rid of the virtual aspect and hybrid is a good solution. I mean, I think it is probably one of the smartest solution because those kids have the choice. That's why this other school that I'm working for is going to make it and be successful because they are creating a hybrid that they could take forward that these kids from out of district could be in school virtually even when the world's back to normal, whatever that is.
[00:33:29] Sara Bernard: Whatever that is indeed. But it really does seem that like it or not across the country, online learning as an option at least, it's gonna stick around. And if you hate online learning, don't worry. I don't think that's ever gonna replace the effort to keep school in person. It's just possible that this will be a new and newly sharpened tool in the toolbox.
There's a whole other conversation here around equity of course. At the beginning of the pandemic, thousands and thousands of students and families in Washington did not have the kind of broadband and device access needed to even do online school.
[00:34:06] Sharonne Navas: The only thing that connected us was the internet and for a lot of, so for 18,500 households in King County, they didn't have that.
[00:34:15] Sara Bernard: This is she Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity and Education Coalition.
[00:34:19] Sharonne Navas: Once it got to the place where every single person needed a laptop, a PC or a tablet, then suddenly we were just like, oh wait, the libraries with their 30 computers for 6,000 people in a town is just not enough. And then suddenly you don't have the libraries anymore, right, because they shut down and then Starbucks shut down and like, you don't have public access wifi. And then suddenly everyone's just like, "Oh crap," right? And of course you see the racial divide in who has access to laptops.
[00:34:55] Sara Bernard: So yeah, a lot of homes didn't have broadband access, didn't have devices. Early on, there were a lot of efforts to change that. Efforts coming from schools and school districts from nonprofit organizations, from for-profit companies, providing wifi, hotspots and computers and so on. And there have been some legislative fixes proposed and even passed since then. We won't go into all of those here.
But if that digital divide could truly be narrowed, if the infrastructure could catch up for everybody, not just the affluent, then we could talk about another kind of equity Sharonne says.
[00:35:28] Sharonne Navas: And I think we now have the opportunity to revolutionize what education looks like to be excellent for every student and, you know, we have this opportunity to create an excellent hybrid model. We have an opportunity to create an excellent online model where zip code is not an issue, right? We know that for a lot of students in face-to-face classrooms, their zip code is a determinant of what kind of education they're gonna get.
And I think one of the things that we can do now is we can bring in excellent teachers to offer coursework. There's no reason why a student who lives in Mattawa, Washington, can't be taught by the teacher of the year because, you know, they could have internet, we could have a face-to-face and there's gotta be a way to revolutionize how we offer education that doesn't specifically mean seat time, right?
[00:36:23] Sara Bernard: And I think Sharonne really does mean revolutionize. She's one of those people who sees this moment as an opportunity to radically change education, to embrace and expand on the things that the crisis made possible. What if school didn't mean six-and-a-half hours of seat time in that same seat in that same school building day after day? What if we took the best parts of online school and used them to make education better for everyone.
[00:36:46] Sharonne Navas: I think it's really an exciting time to think about, like, what would it look like if we had a cohort of 7,000 kids throughout the state learning from each other, right. Like, you know, it's, it's something very different when you put kids from Seattle in the same room with kids from Battleground, and they're really talking about the different cultures, the different things, the like how they, their lives are different. It expands the worldview of our kids in such a better way.
[00:37:19] Sara Bernard: Of course for this kind of vision to become reality, we'd have to make sure all students can get there.
[00:37:24] Sharonne Navas: But I also know that there have been students that have really, really had a hard time being just online, because of housing issues, because of health issues, because of violence in the home. But I think that if we take into consideration needs of those students, the assets that those students bring, we can create and develop an educational system that works for them too.
[00:37:52] Sara Bernard: One thing that is clear of course, is that the future is very unclear and how we create a system that works for all students is exactly the kind of question educators and policymakers have been debating for decades, but this moment, it could be one worth seizing.
I was a full-time education reporter with Edutopia magazine back in the aughts. And we were talking about the digital divide then. We were talking about what schools could do with online learning and one-to-one laptop programs then. But now, because everyone had to, we've supercharged all of those conversations, we've learned a whole lot more about what works and what doesn't. And so maybe these questions around flexibility and equity and even the structure of how school rule is done. Well, maybe we'll finally have some answers. Here's Carter, again.
Education has been going on for hundreds of years, thousands of years. And now we've had remote school for one and a half, or really like two-ish. And so if this kept going, where would it be? Like years from now, this could look completely different.
It could be something that more teachers are electing to do or would prefer to do. I don't know if that will be me at the end of the year. LIke, there's like, there's a vision. I think that if, if the right people got on board could say like, this could be something that we offer. And they're, they're looking at it and they're researching it and they're finding out ways of teaching it to all of us who go, "That's awesome. Let me try to figure out how I can teach 22 first graders about it." From there, like, the sky's the limit.
Thanks for listening to This Changes Everything. This episode was reported and produced by me, Sara Bernard, with additional reporting by Venice Buhain. Editorial help from Claudia Rowe and Brooklyn Jamerson Flowers. Donna Blankinship is our consulting editor and our story editor and executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Audio support from Jonah Cohen.
We also want to note that Mark Baumgarten's wife works for the Renton School District as a special education facilitator, though she doesn't work with any of the teachers interviewed for this series.
You can subscribe to This Changes Everything wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please review us. It really helps other people find us.
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This Changes Everything is a product of Cascade Public Media.
I'm Sara Bernard, and for the next episode, we're turning to one of the other major events from the early days of the school shutdowns: a racial awakening. The protest following the murder of George Floyd, combined with the shutdowns, helped a lot of people see what they already knew about racism at school differently.
That's next time on This Changes Everything.