• Timothy Lord

Covid-19 Ongoing: Getting Students Ready for Full-time In-Person Learning During Pandemic

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic took over the world, our lives have completely changed. It was a 180-degree turn. We weren’t ready for it, and we didn’t expect it to happen so fast. For most of us, what we consider to be normal will never be the same again. The infectious disease has affected everything, including students who had to adjust to remote online learning right away because schools needed to close for safety reasons.

For more than a year now, classes are conducted through virtual classrooms, which meant students are staying home to do their schoolwork. But with the gradual mitigation of the coronavirus and the availability of vaccines, school districts are planning to reopen the schools and bring back the classroom learning setup. Despite the pandemic’s presence, are the school districts in the U.S. ready for full-time in-person classes again?

Worries and Uncertainties

It has been a challenging time for school districts in small towns, and the future academic years will inevitably be different than how they were before the pandemic started. But even if there are still many risks that need to be addressed, the American Academy of Pediatrics wants the schools to welcome the students back into the classrooms.

Parents, however, have mixed views about doing the in-person learning again. They want a more conducive learning environment for their kids due to the difficulties brought by remote learning. But they also need to think of preventive ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19 since going back to school also means exposing the kids to the disease itself.

According to Gallup, an analytics firm based in Washington, D.C., 56 percent of the parents supports the idea that their children attend a classroom setting. Meanwhile, 37 percent want a combination of in-person school attendance and distance learning, and only seven percent of the parents prefer only distance learning for their kids.

Educators and health officials also have the same sentiments as the parents. It is for that reason why they have set guidelines that everyone needs to follow. Every school system in small districts needs to prioritize the students' and staff's safety and health first. Moreover, strategies are laid out by the local and national governments, and everyone needs to adhere to them to monitor the level of transmission.

Covid-19 is highly infectious, and it can spread so fast that it can be difficult to contain if we are too lenient. With that, monitoring the transmission is not an easy feat. The disease is unpredictable, and anything can change within a week or month. That's why careful and thorough planning is imperative before children can go back to school. And if possible, contingency plans should be ready as well because we can never know what happens next.

Planning the Comeback

When it comes to planning the reopening of schools to the students, school districts should follow the guidelines set by the national government. With that said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC has created a guide that can help school administrators prepare for in-person classes.

The national health agency also emphasizes that the educators and other school staff members should work together with their local public health officials when they plan to reopen the schools. The preparation, which the CDC suggested, consists of five steps. It takes 5-8 hours to complete the entire process for seven to 14 days.

1. Planning and Coordination

It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to do this step. School administrators should coordinate with the public health departments, district staff members, and other necessary assistance providers like companies and government agencies to do the walkthrough or the inspection of the buildings and facilities. The schools should also make sure that their technical assistance is always ready or if they can conduct an independent readiness assessment for a classroom learning setup.

2. Completion of Covid-19 Toolkit

This step involves going through the reopening plans of the school and reviewing the current Consideration for Schools of CDC. It also includes the completion of the Covid-19 Mitigation Toolkit, which is designed to evaluate the dangers within the school and implement strategies to minimize the spread of the disease. The second step is in preparation for the meeting before the inspection and the walkthrough itself. A maximum of three hours is allotted for this part of the plan.

3. Pre-walkthrough Meeting

An essential part of planning, of course, is to have a meeting with the people involved in the reopening of schools. In this step, important matters will be discussed. It includes the the findings of the mitigation toolkit and the expectations for the upcoming school inspections. The walkthrough can also be done through virtual platforms if deemed necessary. This step can be done within an hour.

4. Walkthrough

After the meeting, it is time for the walkthrough. This step is important as it assesses the school buildings and facilities. It will also help the school administrators determine the mitigation practices that they need to help them reduce the risks of spreading the disease among the people in the school. The walkthrough should include the areas that need to be checked, and the school administrator should determine those locations before the walkthrough begins.

The allotted time for this step is two hours. But before this happens, ensure that everyone on site is wearing protective masks and have negative results after undergoing swab tests or the SARS-CoV-2 Testing. All participants in the walkthrough should be in top shape to make sure that no one gets sick after the walkthrough.

5. Debriefing

The last step of the plan is debriefing. School administrators should schedule another meeting to talk about the recommendations that have been discussed during the walkthrough. It is the best time to suggest ideas, make changes, ask questions, raise concerns, and request additional resources if the school needs them before the reopening. It is an hour-long meeting, so make sure that everyone will use the time well.

Challenges and Strategies

There is no certain time when the pandemic gets lifted. And while the disease is not yet completely contained or eradicated, there are several challenges that school districts face when schools reopen. With that in mind, here are some of the challenges in bringing students back to school. They also included respective strategies that can help schools cope with the situation.

Challenge 1: Maintaining Physical Distance and Sanitation

Probably, the biggest challenge is ensuring that physical distance is maintained inside the classrooms. But CDC has made recommendations that keep everyone safe at a distance without hindering the students’ ability to learn. To counter this challenge, school districts will have to follow the recommended classroom settings and everyday steps to keep the spread of Covid-19 at bay.

Elementary, Middle, and High Schools - The recommended distance between students is at least three feet. Masks should also be worn at all times, regardless of what level the transmission the community has.

Students in middle and high schools should practice social distancing. They and must be six feet apart from each other. This recommendation should be followed in communities under a high-level transmission.

Practice hand hygiene at all times. Provide cleaning and disinfecting products like hand sanitizers and alcohol. Handwash information should also be visible in schools.

Challenge 2: Keeping Masks on while on School Premises

Education week interviewed four superintendents from different school districts and all of them revealed that students and staff members struggle to keep their masks on while on school premises. They have problems following the guidelines. The only way to mitigate this situation is to keep the distance from each other if wearing masks becomes too difficult to implement. And while practicing social distancing, school administrators should only allow the removal of masks when:

  • eating or drinking;

  • swimming or doing activities that involve submerging faces in the water;

  • staff members are working alone in an office;

  • Sleeping; or

  • communicating with a person who has a disability or a health condition.

Challenge 3: Meeting the Teaching and Learning Needs

Small-town school districts are also facing problems of meeting the teaching and learning requirements of the students. Although full-time remote learning is still an option for students and parents who prefer it, teachers are overwhelmed with the tasks to prepare the lessons for both virtual and in-person learning setups.

In an interview with EducationWeek, Matthew Gutierrez, Seguin and Hillsborough district administrator, said that their teachers are 100 percent dedicated to their jobs. Some teachers are even doing in-person teaching while broadcasting their lessons at the same time.

For those who are unable to attend the classes because they have to go to work to make ends meet, teachers have taken the initiative to prerecord their lessons and create different assignments for them. But it's not as easy as it sounds. Unconventional teaching formats require different strategies to produce the learning materials for working students. Apart from that, teachers may need to provide tutorial sessions if students have difficulties understanding the lessons.

These are big challenges that educators have to deal with while the pandemic is still around. They have to go the extra mile to craft all the teaching and learning materials they need. To ensure that the students have understood the lessons, teachers apply basic teaching skills like encouraging classroom participation, preparing weekly or monthly tests, and giving assignments.

Due to the number of tasks, it will be helpful if teachers are given more paid hours to compensate for the time spent beyond normal working hours. For instance, Superintendent Roger Stock of the Rocklin district has added four paid hours per week so that teachers will have more time to prepare their classes both virtual and face-to-face.

Challenge 4: Discarding or Changing of Teaching Practices

Another problem for the teachers is the need to discard or change some of their teaching practices. It is especially true when it comes to group work since everyone is required to observe social distancing at all times. Because of the pandemic, school districts find it hard to make their students work with their classmates. They have to modify collaborative activities, including working in pairs, so that students can still reap the advantages of working in groups and increase their engagement in class.

Daniela Simic, the assistant superintendent in Hillsborough County, told EducationWeek that small group instruction is challenging with Covid-19 still around. Although teachers are developing ways to continue conducting group work, it doesn’t look promising and may no longer be as effective as before the pandemic happened. For the time being, students attending in-person learning can only work with individual assignments to prevent the risks of spreading the disease.

Aside from modifying group activities, giving examinations to students is also one of the concerns that small-town school districts need to address. The test results may not be comparable, considering that some students attend in-person learning while others attend class at home.

What many school districts do to address this challenge is to give quarterly tests. The periodical examinations help teachers check the students' progress at par with the state standards. What many school districts do to address this challenge is to give quarterly tests. The periodical examinations help teachers check the students' progress at par with the state standards.

Challenge 5: Surveillance During Examinations

school districts experience difficulty in monitoring the students while taking the exams. Nicki Ruess, the assistant superintendent at Festus district, revealed that providers of K-12 education are only given a few options when it comes to security during examinations. They are not provided with enough resources to monitor the class during the test. And without the proper tools, cheating is inevitable, especially if students are answering the tests at home.

One effective strategy to minimize cheating during examinations is to provide tests with open-ended questions or subjective-types tests. It will allow students to think and expound their answers. It prevents them from copying the answers of their classmates or other sources. If teachers provide only objective tests or questions with specific answers, it can't easily be determined whether the answers are copied or not.

In an article written by STEM educator Stephanie Toro on Edutopia, she wrote that whenever she gives exams in math and science, she asks her students to explain how they solve the problems. She also provides follow-up questions to help her assess how the students process and find the answer to the problems. If they ask for the correct answer, she replies with a question instead of telling them the answer. She believes that it encourages the students to think through the problem.

Using Technology to Close the Digital Learning Gap

When the pandemic started, having a connection to the internet became a basic commodity. Everyone had to stay at home, and the only way to stay connected to the world is through the internet. The same goes for people with jobs; they work at home, including teachers and students who needed to adjust to online remote learning within a few weeks.

For more than a year now, most educators and students have been using technology and the internet to conduct classes. It is challenging for some school districts due to the lack of devices or access to computers, laptops, and other learning tools, but it did not stop educators from continuing their lessons. Without a doubt, technology has done a great deal during these trying times despite the difficulties of some students accessing to it. With that said, how is the technology used to close the digital learning gap?

Digital Learning Gap in a Nutshell

To simply put it, the digital learning gap is a big problem faced by many students. According to Digital Promise, it happens when there is disparity in terms of access to and use of technology. It is usually evident in the school systems where not all students can use technological devices for their learning needs.

While the pandemic is still around, all the kids need to have equal opportunities that are made available by technology, and one way to do that is to close the digital divide. The learning gap consists of three parts; limited access to technology, unused internet, and inability to maximize technology.

Part 1: Limited Access to Technology

It means that not all students in the U.S. have access to a fast internet connection and mobile learning devices every day. Most of these learners are in remote and rural areas where they can only get the minimum internet speed.

Moreover, only 28 percent of school districts have met the FCC-required one Mbps internet speed per student. It is fast enough to allow all teachers in every school to utilize technological resources every day. However, school districts need to continue upgrading their internet speed to meet the increasing demands of the students and even the teachers.

But that's not the only problem. Although high-speed internet is available, 15 percent of households with school-age children don't have an excellent internet connection at home, the Pew Research Center has revealed. It's even worse in families that only earn an annual income of less than $30,000. A third of these lower-income households have no access to high-speed internet. It simply shows that financial status is a contributing factor in the digital learning gap.

If students don't have computers and access to the internet at home, then they can't answer their assignments. It's another learning divide, and that is the homework gap. In the same article published on Pew Research Center, one in five teenagers can't finish their assignments because they don't have a computer and internet connection at home.

Furthermore, one in four teenage students belonging to lower-income households can't finish the homework because there is no computer, compared with four percent of teenaged students living in families that earn a minimum annual income of $75,000. Instead of using the more convenient device, one-third of teenagers resort to using their mobile phones to do their school assignments.

Part 2: Unused Internet

Almost everyone in the U.S. has access to the internet. However, seven percent of them (many are senior citizens) don't use it, according to the updated report by Pew Research Center. Students living in a household with an annual income of less than $30,000 (14%) may not be using the internet. Those living in the rural areas aren't using so much internet compared to those living in the cities or suburban areas.

If this issue is resolved, then it can eradicate the first problem over time, putting the digital learning gap even closer. It is important for school districts to teach students and even educate the parents about the benefits of using technology and the internet and how they can be advantageous for the future.

In addition to that, schools need to make sure that students are digitally literate before becoming adults. They need to learn how to understand online information, use various media platforms, and be digitally competent while they are still young.

Part 3: Inability to Maximize Technology

The third part refers to students and educators of all ages who may (or may not) have access to the internet and technology but don't have the skills to use them productively. Using technology effectively goes beyond just accessing the internet through mobile devices and using various social media platforms. In a digitally-driven world, technology supports learning, provides better avenues for learning, especially during this pandemic, and helps us solve complicated problems.

How Technology is Used to Close the Digital Learning Gap

l Technology provides a massive source of information. It means it can easily provide students with relevant content, alternative learning platforms, and various options for support and guidance. At the same time, it makes learning content and resources more accessible to students with disabilities. Technology also allows teachers to customize the information they have gathered to help them improve the progress of their students.

l In case you haven't noticed, technology through the internet makes it possible for all of use to get in touch with experts from different parts of the world. Wherever and whenever, it gives us access to:

- relevant data that are available to the public

- courses, resources, and materials on various topics

- research articles and publications

l Complex and complicated concepts have become easier to understand with the availability of technology. We can create animations, live simulations, visualizations, and videos to have a clearer vision of the concept, design, or problem. You can skip doing things by hand because technology has made it more convenient, more fun, and more interactive for us.

l Another way for technology to close the learning gap is by providing ease and convenience for connection and collaboration on a global scale. Teachers and students can communicate and interact with other educators and learners from different parts of the world, increasing school competence and widening the knowledge about the world. Aside from that, it provides various learning resources that students can access anywhere in the world.

l With the availability of technology, everyone has the chance to use professional and advanced educational tools for different skills. There is a wide range of free tools for writing, editing, video making, photography, game design and development, layout, music composition, and many more, allowing students to be more active in their chosen fields of interest. Technology also provides a great platform where teachers can share their feedback and assessment on their students' performances and give suggestions for their improvement.

Integrating the Advantages of Covid-19 Quarantine

The pandemic has taken us by surprise, and we were not prepared for its massive, almost irreparable effects on our lives. Everything is affected, including how school learning is conducted. Because of Covid-19, remote learning became the only safer choice to ensure that classes continued. Although the shift to online learning took a few months of adjustments, the pandemic has somehow given us educational benefits that come in handy in the future.

Time at Your Hands

One of the best things about remote learning is that students have more ease and convenience in attending classes. They can be more flexible, and time is at their hands, except, of course, when the school has set a specific time for the classes to begin. And they end earlier than the conventional classroom setting.

Think about it. They wake up, open and set the computer for classes, eat breakfast a little, then attend the class. There is nothing much to do before the lessons start. Plus the fact that they have the freedom to study whatever they feel works best for them. They can also stay anywhere they want as long as there is a good internet connection.

Moreover, the flexibility that remote learning gives is beneficial for students who live far from their schools. It saves travel time and commute expenses. As previously said, you only need a good working computer or mobile device and a stable internet connection to stay in class. The integration of video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Skype makes online learning more personal because of the face-to-face interaction in the comforts of their home.

Improve Self-Discipline

With more time and freedom come more responsibilities. Remember that you already manage your schedule and studies, that's why self-discipline plays an important part in your remote learning. Procrastination is the big enemy, and it's important for students to overcome that as much as possible.

Despite how it has caused so much trouble for all of us, the pandemic has paved the way for remote learning that has taught students to be more organized and time-efficient than traditional classroom learning. It will also help them become more motivated individuals, preparing them for their future endeavors.

Develop IT Skills

Because remote learning deals with the computer and internet, it improves the IT skills of the students. Aside from that, it educates teachers to be more tech-savvy. If school districts decide to welcome back full-time in-person learning, they are already prepared for remote learning whenever they need to go back to it.

More than that, having IT skills is a great factor in achieving success in every student's studies and career. The world is digitally driven, which means that companies are more likely to hire people who have knowledge or skills in using the computer.

Synchronous Classes on Video-Conferencing Platforms

In cases when quarantine becomes necessary from time to time, synchronous classes on various video-conferencing platforms allow students to interact with their teachers and classmates at scheduled times. With that, it offers a similar interacting experience to a traditional classroom setting.

Class sessions are also spontaneous with free-flowing discussions while students engage in their studies and teachers create their lessons. Even if students are not in the same room, remote learning while the required quarantine is going on can be more intimate and personal than doing the lectures in a standard four-walled classroom.


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