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Schooling: Online and Off

By Baisakhi Roy Email By Baisakhi Roy
September 2020
Schooling: Online and Off

As the country grapples with Covid-19, everybody is getting used to class teams, Zoom rooms, and pandemic pods. Will online schooling affect academic learning in the long run? What is the social and emotional fallout of not having in-person interactions with peers and teachers? How are working parents handling homeschooling? Khabar spoke to individuals, mostly from the Atlanta metro area, to get a sense of how virtual education has affected their lives and what they hope for in the coming months.

Just a quick look at the comments section of the Gwinnett County Public Schools Facebook page reflects the anxiety of parents, unsure of what the future holds for their children. Indeed, the issue of virtual learning has sparked impassioned debates amongst parents and school boards across the country. Some parents laud educators for “working their butts off” to swiftly put together an education plan for their kids. But as the new school year begins, there is consensus about one issue—March 2020 was a mess!

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Post spring break, when the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak qualified as a global pandemic and schools shut as states issued stay-in-place orders, parents scrambled to get their kids’ home school routineorganized, while also preparing their own work-from-home stations. Teachers had about a week to pivot. “It was rough. We were making stuff up as we went along—designing lessons, connecting with families, as also organizing our own lives and those of our kids. Those first few months after spring break were a blur, honestly,” says Anita Aysola, a math teacher who also teaches a song- writing course at The Paideia School in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta. The following months were a mishmash of online Zoom lessons, weekly assignment packets being dropped off for families who wanted them, and phone calls with teachers at random hours to discuss projects.

[Top] Anita Aysola​

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But soon, the schools ramp-ed up as they prepared to reopen after the summer holidays. Most counties in Atlanta went “back to school” in September on virtual learning platforms, using tools like Microsoft Teams among others. Teachers were in training over the summer and parents were looking into options that were in the best interests of their children. Counselors were urging positivity and restraint, especially to parents. “The tone is set by the parents—if they present to their children that this is going to be an unproductive semester, then that’s the mindset the child will develop as well. Come to class without any preconceived notions and believe that everyone has been working hard to ensure that instruction will be delivered effectively,” says Sumana Moudgal, Magnet Counselor at Wheeler High School in Marietta.

[Left] Sumana Moudgal

Hoping for the best: parents speak out

From juggling work-from-home schedules to monitoring the use of screens, parents have been run ragged since March. If, on the one hand, there are concerns that children might not learn as effectively on an online medium, sending them back to classrooms in the midst of a pandemic is a huge risk. A recent Washington Post-Schar School survey conducted by Ipsos revealed that about 44 percent of American parents wanted a hybrid system for their kids—a mix of online and in-person classes. It’s an option that gives kids an opportunity to socialize with peers while also staying away from full-capacity classrooms that carry the risk of exposure to coronavirus.

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“I think Fulton County managed the situation pretty well in following protocol as well as following science. Hopefully, in about five months, when community transmission is less and the numbers go down, parents will be more at ease in sending their kids back to school,” says Deepa Agarwal, who had picked remote learning for daughter Gia way before it was enforced. But while safety is top priority for Agarwal, she acknowledges that virtual is not the most ideal way to learn. “It becomes boring to stare at a screen after a while. If kids have questions, I feel it is easier to address that in person, at that moment. You learn so much in class from your teacher and peers, and it’s not all academic. Conflict resolution, teamwork, even checking out a book from the library, are all part of social skills that are important,” she says.

[Right] Deepa Agarwal and her daughter.​

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Her sixth grader managed the transition to online learning pretty well and thanks to her independent study habits, tests were a breeze as well. The challenge, though, was logistics—every member of the household had to be assigned to different parts of the home to work and study simultaneously. Screen time was also a concern. However, Agarwal feels that now fatigue is setting in and that’s a good thing. “Kids are getting tired of screens. Previously, she used to come back from school and go straight for the iPad, but now it’s the opposite. Kids want social contact.”

[Left] Anandita Mukherjee and her sons.

For first grader Shourya, the highlight of the lockdown has been learning to ride his bike. “On a regular day after coming from school, there would be activities like swimming, then dinner and bed, that was the daily routine. Weekends were tiring. So, in this lockdown, we found the gift of time and learnt to bike in one day!” says his mum, Anandita Mukherjee. A happy fallout of the lockdown—Shourya and his older sibling, 13-year-old Shaayan, overcame their age gap to become best buddies. Shaayan even takes complete care of his younger brother while both parents are busy working, says their delighted mother.

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But the fall session will see Shourya going back to school full time, to classrooms that will be outfitted with desk shields and stocked with sanitizing supplies. Anxiety is running high for the Mukherjee family, who live in Jacksonville, Florida, which is only second to California in the number of cases. Though Mukherjee is concerned about sending her younger son back to school, her experience with online learning in the previous academic semester has her leaning towards in-person learning. “For the older one, I just had to keep a check on his work with occasional reminders. He’s independent and capable of handling his work with minimal supervision. But for the younger one, it was hard to keep him engaged. Their attention span is so short at that age, that it’s impossible to expect them to sit for hour-long sessions. There were tears, screaming . . . it was quite stressful,” she says. Parents of younger kids are concerned that with virtual classes they will miss out on play-based and hands-on learning, communicating with adults other than their parents—especially their teachers, who are invested in their learning— and will be addicted to screens more than ever.

[Right] Sairoz Allarakha and her family.

Getting organized for the day will also be a challenge. “The atmosphere in school is obviously vastly different from home, where we woke up at whatever time we wanted and did our work whenever we wanted to. I was really looking forward to them going to school. They were excited as well to meet new teachers and new friends. They are ok now with online learning, but the most they want to do is about one and a half hours of learning and then be done with it,” says Gwinnett County resident Sairoz Allarakha, whose kids, Sarah (first grade) and Kayden (second grade), have kept busy with Eye-level classes, picking up books from the county book drive, and playing Nintendo. Sairoz, who juggles two jobs as a realtor and an insurance agent, expected a shaky start to the fall session but feels it’s the better option, considering the county’s growing coronavirus numbers in August. “The main thing is a kid’s safety; if one kid is sick, it will spread quickly. I’d rather keep them at home right now and ensure the kids’ safety. There will be challenges, no doubt. Internet overloads, permission to use the bathroom and [snack cravings] every two minutes . . . the general chaos that comes with younger kids. The teacher will definitely have a tough time! But once the session starts, I’m hoping it will go smoothly,” she says, while attending a technology check with her kids’ school.

Allarakha’s fears are not unfounded. The research is still not clear on how asymptomatic children could spread the virus. According to a study published in June in the journal Science, while children were about a third as vulnerable as adults, the picture was drastically different when schools reopened. Children had about three times as many contacts as adults, and the probability of becoming infected also rose threefold. As of July 30, there were 338,982 cases reported in children since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

[Bottom] Bhuvana Krishnan and her sons.

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For Minnesota-based Arpita Somani, these numbers are a cause for concern, especially because she is immunocompromised. Additionally, the fact that Minnesota reported more than 2,300 Covid-19 infections in August does not help ease her worries about sending Ahaan, her younger son—he is profoundly deaf in both ears and has cochlear implants—to school part-time. “In the lockdown, we were given an iPad from school. So Ahaan had to focus on the speaker and interpreter on a shared screen. It was very exhausting. He had to watch both, use his brain to hear and, therefore, it was more of an effort. Obviously, he suffered from hearing exhaustion. He was cranky all day and his learning and productivity both went down,” she says.

Bhuvana Krishnan, a mom in Suwanee, Georgia, is also crossing her fingers that her decision to enroll her fourth grader into a homeschooling pod, led by an experienced Montessori teacher, pays off. “It is an experiment that we are trying. We will use a Montessori tutoring service to support his learning. It will function like a school, mostly, with 11 other participating families,” she says. The in-person sessions will be planned by the teacher, and parents will help out as required. The instruction will be dispensed in small groups or even individually, if required. Krishnan’s decision was prompted by the fact that the Montessori school her younger son attended, and thrived in, shut down due to low enrollment rates: a direct fallout of the pandemic. “Montessori has very specialized learning, it’s very hands-on and interactive. As a family, we did not see the value in online education that the public schools are offering, at least for his age group. I wouldn’t have a problem sending him to public school if it were in-person,” she adds.

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Homeschooling has also been a rough road for the working mom who has a tenth grader in the public school system. More than anything, what bothers her is how the lack of socialization with his classmates will impact him. “He’s been seeing how stressed we all were about this schooling situation. I don’t want him to be stressed out. Years later, when he looks back, I want him to have some good memories. You’d think education is the one thing we had all figured out. Well, it’s been quite the journey,” Krishnan says. The hope is to come out on the other side, unscathed and wiser.

Kunal Bajaj and his wife, who live in a Toronto suburb, are bracing for September when their older daughter, Syra, begins third grade. "We picked the online option because safety is of the utmost priority for us,” he says. “It is going to be tricky because both my wife and I have full-time jobs and a toddler; but it seems to be the best option considering the circumstances.”

[​Top] Kunal Bajaj and his children.

Though Covid-19 cases in their area are relatively low, anxious parents are still unconvinced about the safe return to classrooms, since there hasn't been a solid plan put forth by the provincial government— yet. Classroom sizes will likely remain the same, so parents of especially young children like Syra are wary about contingent plans by schools to handle potential outbreaks. This has prompted a significant percentage of families to opt for online schooling, at least for the fall semester.

"We love our school and teachers, and can't wait for this to tide over and we're back to normal,” Bajaj notes. “Plus the lack of social interaction with other students is a huge loss. A Zoom chat can't replace that. Having said that, there have been benefits of remote and online learning. It has helped us to know more about what’s going on in class. We can see firsthand how our kid is coping. The time at home allows us to complement the online learning with conversations over the lunch table.” For now, having had time to prepare since March, when classes first moved online, the family is trying to remedy issues like screen fatigue and technology disruptions. They have also been looking at apps like Simply Piano that enhance the learning experience for their daughter. "It's very new and we're still figuring out how to make it work for us all," he adds.

Excited and anxious: teachers share

While families prepare to log in to school, teachers are working behind the scenes to make the process seamless and glitch-free. “In March, when we went online overnight, it was a very one-sided process where I was doing the teaching and my students were just listening. I was using PowerPoints and sharing my screen . . . there were a lot of technical difficulties that the kids were having and so on. At that time, we just wanted to let the learning go on and not stress out the parents too much because they were also all working from home. But now, families have had time to prepare,” says Gita Sinha, who teaches third grade in Fulton County. It’s been a steep learning curve, but Sinha is wowed by the interactive and collaborative tools provided by various online platforms that their county will be using. “Kids who thrive at a slower pace will have fewer distractions. I can record the entire lesson on Microsoft Teams and if a kid is sick and unable to attend class, they can catch up later, and also watch it repeatedly. It’s also a great
way to house all the class material,” she says.

[Bottom] Gita Sinha

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But she is also anticipating challenges that are unique to online learning. “We have to walk the kids through the learning platform, and ensure that they are able to connect and get organized before each class. Some families don’t push their kids and those kids may not be self-motivated, so we have to keep a track of who is logging in and who is missing out and why. The most heartbreaking aspect of online learning was when some kids told me how lonely they were. Some parents were strict and did not allow any kind of interaction, not even socially distanced ones. We also need to keep checking with vulnerable kids who may not have the kind of support at home that they need,” she says.

Building rapport with her new batch of kids, recreating all the fun that she would have with her wards in her class, and being able to reach out to her struggling students is what worries her the most. “I'm apprehensive about not having that rapport this year. It feels impersonal because we are looking at each other through screens. And I’m not too thrilled about putting them in front of screens for hours. I used to do silly things with them all the time. They nicknamed me Dory (from Nemo) because I always pretended to forget things. Also, I will miss their spontaneous hugs and cuddles,” she says wistfully.

Ashu Manoj, a Gwinnett County middle school teacher, is also missing her students, especially the banter and ideas that they brought to her class. “Kids come up with their own ideas and theories about things and that’s what livens up a class. I have learnt a few things about math tricks from videos that my students have brought to my notice,” she says with a laugh.

Manoj is also concerned about students who are not motivated enough or may be facing trying circumstances at home that don't contribute to a wholistic learning experience. “Some parents may have just one work laptop,so students have access to it to do their work only in the evenings. Some parents might not be able to follow up with academics at home, simply because they might be unfamiliar with the curriculum. At school, we would pair a struggling student with another one or pull them out and study with them one-on-one. I’m not sure that can be replicated effectively in the online setting, but we will try,” she says. Despite all these concerns, teachers are glad that studying and learning has not stopped.

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That March was truly a time when everyone was flying by the seat of their pants is a popular opinion, particularly with teachers. But teachers empathized most with their students who were the most affected by this sudden change of routine. “When I was in high school, I wasn't the most organized student. It wasn’t my forte. I knew I was smart, I never worried where I was going to class and when. My body knew where to go. One of the things I learnt, as a teacher and adviser on a virtual platform, is that there are students who, in that environment, were lost.Some very bright students were not showing up for class or returning assignments. They couldn't figure out how to get themselves organized,” says Aysola.

[Right] Ashu Manoj

For high schoolers who missed out on the big events—graduation, sporting events—it’s been an emotional roller coaster. “High schoolers may look like big kids but they are so childlike. It’s hard for them because they have to keep these feelings and emotions hidden. For them it’s truly been a dramatic change of pace,” she adds.

Be positive, adapt, and take a breath: counselors advise

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“Parents, and specifically South Asian parents, are a bit too hung up about managing their child’s education,” says clinical counselor Surinder Bal, who has worked extensively as a mental health advocate in the South Asian community.

“We tend to mollycoddle and indulge our children, and don’t really teach them life skills and coping skills that are very essential in a crisis. Well, there’s no better time than the present.” Bal recommends talking to one’s children about dealing with these uncertain times, managing risks, keeping themselves safe, and yet not feel debilitated. “This is not the first challenge our children will face in their young lives. Support your child to develop their coping skills rather than creating pressure or projecting your own anxieties as a parent onto them. Some kids are self-learners, and others may need their parents to guide them. One of the biggest lessons that parents can impart is to teach their kids to take back control of their lives,” she adds.

 

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Moudgal concurs that building resilience and taking advantage of the positives of online learning should be the goal for the fall semester. “The biggest challenge of pivoting to online has been just the adjustment. Instruction is not usually delivered like this, so everyone has to pivot a little bit. But in this day and age, there is so much you can do with the tools that are at your disposal. Yes, teachers have had to redo their classroom lessons, but we at Cobb County have tried to make it easy and accessible via our Cobb Teaching & Learning System (CLTS) platform, a one-stop virtual learning portal for teachers, students, and parents. Students will be logging on to CTLS and teachers will be delivering live instruction. For us counselors as well, we have found a way to insert ourselves into the classroom, if needed,” she says.

[Left] Dr.Surinder Bal

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Moudgal is aware of the discussion on social media regarding apprehensions around the effectiveness of online learning and wants to send out a clear message to parents. “Parents have to tell their kids: This is not permanent. What kids should do and can do is get organized—prepare as you would for a regular school day. There is no need to reinvent the wheel every single day. The first month will be crucial and we all—teachers and students—have to make an effort to make this work,” she adds.

 


Baisakhi Roy is a Toronto-based writer and editor who loves to write about ordinary people and their extraordinary stories. Her daughter, Ayumi, is a seventh grader. She can be reached at
baisakhi.roy@gmail.com. To comment on this article, please write
to letters@khabar.com.

 


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