An elementary school teacher reflects on distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic

Kipapa Elementary teacher Coby Thornton says ‘It has been a very unusual time in my educational career’

Coby Thornton is a fourth-grade general education inclusion teacher at Kipapa Elementary School. Below, he shares his experience and reflects on the final quarter of the 2019–20 school year, from adapting to changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic to what he feels needs to change moving forward.

The transition to distance learning

When the Hawaii State Department of Education announced that we would not return to school after spring break, I reached out to my students’ parents and asked if they would be interested in having their children participate in a distance learning website. I received an overwhelming amount of positive responses so I spent the last few days of my spring break building the website for my classroom using Google Sites. I contacted my coworkers and offered to open the website up to the entire grade level and they agreed.

The website went live on Sunday, March 22, and my students were able to begin their lessons without any missed instructional days. Throughout the fourth quarter, I continued to update the website with daily lessons, which consisted of worksheets created on Google Forms by my coworkers, and assigned projects that utilized various G Suite for Education apps to showcase their learning. I added links to resources I found online, such as instructional videos, virtual science experiments, and online academic games. Every Monday, I made sure to incorporate lessons on current events that were happening in Hawaii due to COVID-19 so my students were aware of what was going on outside of their homes.

Managing assignments and tracking progress: what worked and what didn't

Usually, when a person finishes a Google Form, that person can have the results sent to his or her Gmail account, but that wasn’t an option for the fourth-graders because my school had disabled all student Gmail accounts due to misuse by students. Therefore, to keep the parents up to date on their children’s progress, I created a Google Sheets file for each of the students in my class with a list of assignments and the score received for each assignment. A number of parents expressed their appreciation for the weekly progress updates I provided on those Google Sheets files. I told parents to send me a message using ClassDojo if they made their child complete late work and wanted me to look at it.

Building a distance learning website was my plan because I had done it before in my masters studies and I wanted to make the curriculum as accessible to the students as possible, but if I had to do this again, I would create a Google Classroom. I have found that Google Classroom would help me to keep track of the number of students who completed each assignment and notify me when late work is submitted which would have saved me a lot of time. I also like that Google Classroom has a comment feature that would allow students to communicate more easily with their teacher and each other. I also found that updating the students’ progress on their individual Google Sheets took a lot of time, and if the 2020–21 school year begins online, I will look for an online gradebook that will automatically update parents on their children’s progress for me.

Dwindling student participation and increasing technology issues

At the beginning of the quarantine, about half of the fourth-graders used the website I created, but by the end of the school year, that number dropped to about one-third. The parents were told that it was not mandatory so a large number opted out of their child participating in online learning and printed homework packets. A staff member called parents to check up on their children and found that a number of parents got upset and defensive when she asked if their children were doing their distance learning work.

A couple weeks into the quarantine, the HIDOE pushed the idea of teachers using Webex by Cisco to hold online meetings with coworkers and students. The program was easy to learn because it worked similarly to Google Hangout. In the beginning, it was an effective way to communicate. However, as more and more teachers began using Webex to hold online meetings, the program began to experience audio issues, lag, and sometimes even crashes. My co-teacher and I used Webex twice a week to hold class meetings, but we couldn’t teach clearly due to the poor audio. We ended up using those sessions to make sure our students were doing fine and to discuss anything they were worried about. Eventually, Webex’s quality decreased to the point where I didn’t want to use it if I didn’t have to. The HIDOE and Cisco will have to work together to upgrade the hardware that supports Webex or it won’t be a viable communication option, especially if we begin the 2020–21 school year online.

The emotional impacts of COVID-19 and distance teaching

It has been a very unusual time in my educational career. I found myself overworking at home due to the physical boundaries between work and home evaporating with the quarantine. When I heard people complaining about teachers being paid during the quarantine, I felt the need to overcompensate by producing a large amount of work and products to prove that I was worthy of my paycheck. On the bright side, I’m pleased that I was able to use what I learned while pursuing my master's degree in Learning Design and Technology to help my students, their parents, and my coworkers. I did my best to use the skills I have to help the people in my sphere of influence, and I will continue to do so.

Looking ahead

My school is in the process of preparing a summer school program, which I have chosen not to take part in as I was not planning to teach summer school before the global pandemic. It appears that the plan is to require all students to wear a mask and teach them in classrooms of eight so that the students can practice social distancing during class time. I am skeptical that such an arrangement can be made when the 2020–21 school year begins. In order to teach a typical class of 24 students in a classroom that can only accommodate eight at a time, students will have to be on a track schedule that has them coming to school every three days or coming to school for a week and then taking two weeks off. In either case, a teacher will have to teach three times the amount of content and students will have to retain all of that knowledge.

My school also has a large population of students who don’t do their homework at all. If a student who doesn’t do homework receives one-third of the usual class time that he or she normally receives (usually the only time such students do any academic work) he or she will be so far behind that repeating a grade will be almost inevitable. The only way that I can see safely and effectively teaching in the beginning of the 2020–21 school year is online. Teachers would upload instructional videos and work that can be completed at home and students would watch those videos, complete the work, and contact their teachers if they have any questions about the materials.