What remote learning taught me about teachers, inequality and more

At best, many families muddled through remote learning, If educators pay attention, we can use the experience to make schools better when they reopen.

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A debate has started in the early weeks of the school year over how much time students should be spending in front of computer screens for school.

Remote learning became the norm this spring for families like Kim Tyler (left) and her daughter Madison, who live on the city’s South Side.

Annie Costabile/Sun-Times file photo

When Illinois public schools shut down back in March to stop the spread of COVID-19, kitchens and living rooms became makeshift classrooms and parents began to juggle work with teaching.

We entered the world of remote learning, and I wrote about my struggle to balance teaching my own elementary-age children with continuing my work as a high school librarian. 

Even with a routine in place, adequate resources, and kids who mostly went along with it all, at best we muddled through. 

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As many school years have ended or are ending across our nation, there are lessons from these past months that I hope educators, school districts, and policy makers take into account as they prepare for a potential return to in-person schooling sometime in the fall.

First, we all should take extra care to remember the importance of our children’s teachers. I am a teacher myself, but my children definitely paid much more attention, even remotely, to their classroom teachers than to me. It was their teachers whom they wanted to see their work, and whose teaching methods they would mimic. My daughter, a second-grader, often showed me how her teacher taught her a math strategy. She also would explain her teacher’s expectations for a lesson — and how, of course, those expectations trumped mine. 

My son, a kindergartener, got the chance to have one-on-one e-sessions with his teacher once a week. During those meetings, he somehow became the nicest child I had ever seen.

My children’s teachers, like my colleagues and teachers around the country, spent long hours creating e-lessons and holding Zoom classes. They communicated with parents much more often. My son’s teacher hand-delivered to our home a book he had picked out before school closed. 

Because of remote learning, parents saw first-hand the big influence our children’s teachers have on their lives, and how important it is to support and work with those teachers.

Second, remote learning has shone a big light on inequities, digital and otherwise, in schools and homes. Those inequities must be addressed if all students are to get a high-quality education.

During many lessons with my children, I printed out materials, used my own laptop and a second electronic device if needed, and had writing and art supplies on hand. But not every family has those same resources for their children. Nor does every child’s classroom, as I know well from spending half of my career in two under-resourced, under-staffed neighborhood public schools in Chicago.

We must continue to advocate for equitable resources in every public school in our state and our nation.

Third, anti-testing activists finally got their wish: Standardized exams like the SAT and the ACT were postponed, and many colleges and universities have temporarily waived using test scores in admissions decisions for the coming year. 

Some universities, such as the University of California system, have decided to drop SAT and ACT scores from admissions requirements indefinitely. Standardized tests have long been known to be biased against students of color and lower-income students, so these actions are long overdue.

The pendulum is shifting, and we educators must continue to advocate against relying heavily on high-stakes testing to evaluate schools and determine our students’ futures.

Finally, a deadly pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd clearly show that our schools must do a better job of teaching science and social studies.

For both of my young children, science and social studies were optional during remote learning. I understand the desire to avoid overwhelming children with too much work. But even before a pandemic that shut down schools, science and social studies often fall by the wayside in elementary classrooms while reading and math take precedence

With COVID-19 and systemic racism constantly in the news, schools cannot wait until middle school and high school to begin teaching social studies and science in earnest. We must start early.

Parents and educators often just muddled through these past months, trying make remote learning work as best we could. It was not a complete success, but I hope that policymakers, district officials and political leaders take note of the lessons learned.

If so, the time will not have been wasted.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in the Chicago Public Schools for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified.

Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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