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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