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Distance learning poses challenges for students, teachers

Students and teachers are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered.

Capital News Service

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By Jimmy O’Keefe

Students and teachers at all levels of education are transitioning from classroom to computer as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to rise. Not every subject lends itself to a smooth transition to distance learning, as students and instructors have discovered.

“I think we’re all really frustrated,” said Jordyn Wade, a fashion design major at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “But we know that our professors are doing what they can in a really unprecedented situation.”

Wade said that she and her classmates are now meeting remotely through Zoom, a video conferencing platform. Zoom allows students to meet virtually during a time when people can’t meet physically, but distance learning poses challenges for courses that require more than a lecture, like art classes and lab components of science classes.

Students like Wade worked mostly with industrial grade equipment.

“We kind of rely heavily on the school for supplies like sewing machines and the industrial equipment that can cost thousands of dollars,” Wade said. “Now we just stare at each other and they ask us,‘What can you guys do? Can you hand sew an entire jacket before the end of the month?’”

Wade said that one of the most frustrating aspects of distance learning is not being able to receive direct feedback from professors.

“We can’t ask our professors what’s wrong with the garment that we’re making, we can just send them pictures and hope they can figure it out from afar,” Wade said.

Chloe Pallak, a student in VCU’s art program said that many of her projects are being graded on whether or not they are complete.

“To get a grade for an assignment, you just have to do it,” Pallak said. “It really takes away the motivation of wanting to make art and not just complete the assignment.”

Courses that include lab components, such as classes in environmental science, also face challenges as classes move online. Griffin Erney, an environmental studies major at VCU, said that distance learning prevents students from accessing lab materials that are typically provided in the classroom.

“Before the class was online we would just do different activities and be provided with the materials,” Erney said. “Having labs online is more challenging, on top of all the work that we already have.”

On Monday, Gov. Ralph Northam issued an order that closed down all K-12 schools in the state for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.

Davide D’Urbino, a chemistry and organic chemistry teacher at Clover Hill High School in Chesterfield County, said he plans on using computer applications to supplement labs that cannot be completed in the classroom. He said the school division requested that teachers hold off on introducing new learning material.

“The expectation was that you could teach new stuff, but then you have to go back in class and reteach it,” D’Urbino said.

D’Urbino said teachers aren’t allowed to teach new material online because some students may not have internet access. He said he understands why the school division has placed these restrictions but said it “feels weird.”

Distance learning has also presented challenges to teachers trying to adapt to lecturing online.

“Some people say teaching is 75 percent theater, you just go out there and do improv. You can’t really do that online,” D’Urbino said. “It’s very difficult to intervene and correct course if you realize something isn’t quite working out.”

Teachers have also scrambled for ways to continue instruction for students that lack access to the internet.

Janice Barton, a 5th grade science teacher at Honaker Elementary School in Russell County, said that about half of the 60 students she teaches have access to the internet. She said the school is using Google Classroom, a web platform that allows teachers to share files with students through the internet. For students without internet access, teachers create physical packets of learning content.

“We’re working as grade levels, we’re going in and working together to put the packets together,” Barton said. “We have pickup days and drop-off days, and that’s how we are working and dealing with this right now.”

Barton said the school uses phone calls, emails, and the app Remind, which allows teachers to send messages to students to keep in contact with parents and students.

While local school divisions are tasked with making decisions on how to pursue distance learning, the Virginia Department of Education issued guidance to help divisions continue instruction.

VDOE’s guidance to local school divisions includes offering instruction during the summer of 2020, extending the school term or adjusting the next, and adding learning modules to extended school calendars.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane issued guidance regarding eight high school senior graduation requirements and will be issuing further guidance for half of those, which can not be waived outright.

Two other graduation requirements — training in emergency first aid and the completion of a virtual course — require action by the General Assembly in order to be waived.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Night shift: Student safety ambassadors provide a resource for the VCU community after dark

The ambassadors, part of the university’s transition to a more equitable public safety model, provide assistance when people need help but don’t need to contact law enforcement.

RVAHub Staff

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If you’re looking for Virginia Commonwealth University sophomore Ayanna Farmer-Lawrence in the evenings, you’ll most likely find her around the Compass wearing a bright-yellow vest.

Farmer-Lawrence is a newly hired student safety ambassador for the VCU Police Department — and her vest is both a uniform and visual identifier for VCU community members.

This past summer, the university announced a plan for police reform initiatives, including workforce realignment and the hiring of non-sworn, unarmed employees to serve as resources on campus when members of the VCU community need assistance, but do not feel compelled to contact law enforcement.

Carly Jackson wearing a safety vest.
Carly Jackson models a designated, uniform vest during her shift. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

John Venuti, VCU’s associate vice president of public safety and chief of police, said with safety and well-being as the focus, a student may be a better alternative option for needs such as asking for directions, answering questions about transportation, working at events and walking people to their cars at night.

“The safety ambassadors will be present in places with high volumes of students, such as outside the University Student Commons and the Compass,” Venuti said. “They will predominately work at night because in the spring 2020 perception of safety survey, students told us they feel less safe at night.”

The three safety ambassadors received 40 hours of training and are also tasked with reporting safety concerns they come across during their shifts. In their first two nights working, they reported to police about damaged property, a traffic light failure and a fire at a business on West Broad Street.

Farmer-Lawrence, a homeland security and criminal justice major in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, said the part-time position coincides with her goal of becoming a special agent for the FBI. She was drawn to become a safety ambassador to learn from police, build relationships, network and be ready for internships or employment opportunities upon graduation.

“I thought it was a good idea to be that person that [people] can go to if they have a problem, but don’t want to go to the police directly,” Farmer-Lawrence said. “It’s a good idea given what’s going on in society currently.”

Venuti said he looks forward to hearing feedback from community members about the new program and plans to expand the number of student safety ambassadors, and their designated locations, in spring 2021.

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University of Richmond Partners with Richmond Public Schools on No Loan Program

“The No Loan Program gives our students the remarkable opportunity to graduate with a degree from a world-class institution without taking on any debt,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “We are incredibly grateful to President Crutcher, and the entire University of Richmond team, for this generous commitment to our students.”

RVAHub Staff

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The University of Richmond has announced, in a first-of-its-kind partnership, it will meet the full demonstrated financial need for all RPS graduates who qualify to attend with grant aid — not with loans — up to the full cost of attendance at UR.

“We know that the thought of taking out loans may create anxiety for families, particularly among first-generation students,” said University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher. “The University of Richmond and the City of Richmond want to retain our best students in the region, and the No Loan Program will further that effort.”

“The No Loan Program gives our students the remarkable opportunity to graduate with a degree from a world-class institution without taking on any debt,” said RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras. “We are incredibly grateful to President Crutcher, and the entire University of Richmond team, for this generous commitment to our students.”

“The University of Richmond has been a wonderful partner for RPS over the years,” said School Board Chairwoman Linda Owen. “I am thrilled to see the collaboration continue in this way and I can’t wait to see the next generation of RPS students who become Richmond Spiders.”

The University of Richmond and Richmond Public Schools already partner on a number of programs. UR offers RPS specific admission and financial aid workshops. UR Bonner Scholars and students from the Jepson School of Leadership Studies’ “Justice and Civil Society” class volunteer with RVA Future Centers. Also, the student-led UR Mentoring Project brings UR students in to mentor students in the Armstrong Leadership Program.

UR also offers Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, which provides full tuition, room, and board grants to all Virginians who come from families with incomes below $60,000.

“We hope local students will consider Richmond and know that they will find the diverse community here that is found at other top universities, said Stephanie Dupaul, vice president for Enrollment Management. “RPS students who attend Richmond will find that staying local doesn’t mean they only have local experiences. Our financial aid awards are only part of the story. We also guarantee funding for faculty-mentored research and internships; we ensure that students are able to study abroad; and we provide the pathways for students to successful careers and graduate school.”

UR students also benefit from the partnership. “Just as students from Richmond benefit from the geographically diverse student population at the University, students from around the nation and world have much to learn from our hometown students,” Crutcher said.

Over the last decade, UR has invested more than $11 million in University-funded aid to graduates of Richmond Public Schools and the City of Richmond-located magnet schools.

“I am so pleased that we can expand our financial aid programs to make it possible for more RPS students to graduate as Spiders,” Crutcher said.

Current RPS seniors are encouraged to apply by Jan. 1 for fall semester 2021.

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Here come the Mavericks: New nickname, chapter for Douglas Freeman High School

When Douglas Freeman High School competitors next take the field or court, it will be as the Mavericks. John Marshall, principal, announced the new nickname — along with a new logo — in a message Thursday to students, families and staff members. The choice was the favorite of respondents in a survey of four options, and was selected by the school’s administration, in tandem with student leaders.

RVAHub Staff

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When Douglas Freeman High School competitors next take the field or court, it will be as the Mavericks. John Marshall, principal, announced the new nickname — along with a new logo — in a message Thursday to students, families and staff members. The choice was the favorite of respondents in a survey of four options, and was selected by the school’s administration, in tandem with student leaders.

The final contenders — Mavericks, Pioneers, Trailblazers and United — were announced in October by a committee made up of members of the school community. The group had help from VCU’s nationally recognized Brandcenter, which includes Douglas Freeman alumni. The Brandcenter also helped develop the logo for the final selection, a stylized “M” above the words “Freeman Mavericks.” The new branding will join the school’s interlocking “DSF” logo, which will remain in use.

“After a careful and intentional process to find a new school nickname, symbol and mascot, we are overjoyed to announce that we are moving forward together, starting today,” said Marshall in a message to the school community.

Marshall noted that the nickname describes the school’s independent spirit and is consistent with the school’s core values of excellence, pride, intensity, family, diversity and tradition.

“We are free-thinkers and forward thinkers,” Marshall said. “We challenge the status quo to make the world a better place.”

To see a video featuring students and staff members talking about the selection, go to www.freemanmascot.info/announcement.

The school will share details soon about a planned “spirit-wear swap” where students can trade in Rebels gear for items with the new nickname and logo.

Marshall also announced in August the creation of the “Freeman Forward Fund” in partnership with the Henrico Education Foundation. The fund will build school culture and support long-term efforts to promote inclusivity and innovation. Members of the public can donate to the fund by going to https://bit.ly/33oNrqu.

The school announced in August that, after a review process that included public input, it was retiring its “Rebels” nickname and would seek a more inclusive nickname and mascot. That process drew more than 2,000 comments, including around 1,500 responses through an online form. The input also included emails, social media posts, handwritten notes, voicemails, videos and an online panel discussion on the topic.

While the school had used the Rebels name since it opened in 1954, it has not used a visual mascot for many years, instead opting for the “DSF” logo.

The school is named for Douglas Southall Freeman, a Richmond historian, author and journalist. While Freeman won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of both Robert E. Lee and George Washington, the school’s original mascot was likely inspired by his Confederate subjects.

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