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Home (virtual) schooling now the norm

Pam Mueller, a third-grade teacher at Clemmons Elementary.

By Larry Stombaugh
For the Clemmons Courier

One of the many things that is unusual about these times is not seeing school buses on our roads and highways during what are normally busy school days. Like most students across the country, students in the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School System are now receiving their instruction at home due to schools being shut down because of concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic. Beginning on March 19, students across the county officially began online instruction after teachers had been trained to deliver their curriculum in a virtual setting rather than seeing their students face-to-face in their classrooms.

This sudden transformation occurred with little warning, and it has presented many challenges for teachers, students, and parents. Across the district, teachers had only a few days to be trained and to prepare for the transition to an online learning platform after Gov. Roy Cooper made the announcement that all public schools would be shut down until at least May 15.   

For teachers like Pam Mueller, who teaches third grade at Clemmons Elementary, the learning curve for converting her students to a virtual classroom has been quite daunting. “The first two weeks of teaching online were the most challenging of my 34 years of teaching,” she said, noting that is also difficult emotionally to not being able to see her students in person.

Mueller considers herself to be an “old school’ teacher who enjoys personal interaction with her students and doing hands-on activities with them. “I have been forced to get outside of my box,” she remarked. “I have learned how to download videos and to put some fun activities online. Teachers, parents and students are all in this together. Some of the parents have been great about giving me positive feedback about how things are going.”

Tiffany Ehnes teaches advanced placement psychology as well as honors history at the Career Center High School. Her husband Kai also teaches an alternative energies course at the Career Center. The two veteran teachers are dealing with challenges that they have not seen in their decades of combined teaching experience, but they are dealing with those challenges with a positive outlook. “The first few days, the system was overloaded with all K-12 students, parents and teachers all online at once,” she remarked. “For the first few days, it was 24/7 communication getting all students on board with their new classes. This is an asynchronous environment in which high school students may be doing their work in the evening or in the middle of the night, and they sometimes have questions on their time schedule.”

Ehnes went on to remark that she and her husband believe that despite the challenges they are facing teaching in an online environment, they are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to teach their classes in a different venue. “It was the right decision to keep students at home from contagion,” she said. “Allowing students to work from home has been imperative for them, but we do miss the personal interaction with our students and not seeing them every day and being able to offer them face-to-face feedback.”

Lisa Putnam and her husband, Chip, are another married couple who both teach in the school system. Lisa teaches AP calculus at the Career Center, and Chip teaches honors chemistry and AP environmental science at West Forsyth High School. Like Tiffany and Kai Ehnes, they both are experienced teachers, and they also indicated that there have been some challenges for students and teachers to consistently have internet access while trying to stay online. “The biggest challenge is so many teachers and students all trying to access the same online resources, and these resources temporarily shutting down,” Lisa said. “We are all working many, many hours in order to provide the best for our students.”

Being recently retired from teaching, I do not have to deal with the challenges that teachers are currently facing as they transition from face-to-face instruction to teaching online. During my teaching career, I did have the opportunity to be one of eight teachers to pilot online instruction for the state through a three-year grant. The eight teachers involved were all advanced placement instructors with various ranges of technology skills (mine were quite limited). Looking back on that experience, I have the unique memory of the director of the grant program coming from Raleigh to help me to set up the software on a desktop computer in my basement and giving me a crash course on the delivery of AP psychology online. That was in the summer of 2004.

The success of the grant-funded program led to the formation of the North Carolina Virtual Public School in 2007. Over the 13 years that NCVPS has existed, the enrollment of students receiving instruction has increased from a few hundred to 430,000. With Gov. Cooper’s directive that schools will be closed until May 15, every North Carolina public school student from kindergarten to 12th grade will be an online student for the next few months.

As someone who once taught online, I can speak to both the positive and negative aspects of this type of learning. On the positive side, students have some flexibility as to when they submit assignments, and they can schedule their day around other activities (I often received work and emails in the middle of the night). Also, some students find it easier to focus on learning without the distractions of a classroom setting. Teachers also have the same flexibility to do their work around other responsibilities and activities.

On the negative side, it requires significant discipline to be an online student, a trait that some students do not have. Without a teacher physically present, it is difficult for some students to keep their focus and to stay on task and to submit assignments on time. Also, if students are not consistently monitored, cheating can be an issue. For teachers, online instruction can seem like a “24-7” job as texts, emails and assignments are sent by students all hours of the day (and night). I remember being out to dinner on weekend nights and my phone would be buzzing constantly with texts from students with various questions and concerns.

For parents who have children receiving online instruction for the first time, they are in the challenging position of juggling the role of teacher and parent while dealing with the responsibilities of their jobs and various household duties.

Dr. Wendy Brewington, the principal at Clemmons Elementary school, is in the unique position of being a school administrator and a parent with young children who are now doing their school work at home. “As a parent of two elementary school children, I have been able to see the student/parent side of the assignments and what the teachers are assigning to their students,” she said. “So, when one of our parents calls me with a problem or a situation, I have been able to understand what they are seeing at home.”

As someone who is balancing a demanding job with helping her children with their schoolwork during these challenging times, Brewington offered this advice to working parents: “On some days I have to handle my work during the day and have had to extend the work for my children into the evening hours to get it all done. As long as the work is completed and my kids are learning, it is all working. So, if parents feel stressed about not being able to do all of the school work during the day while trying to work their own job, they can plan around all the obstacles to get it all done even if that means finding some time later in the evening or over the weekend to revisit the child’s assignments.”

Brewington has been impressed by the work that the faculty at Clemmons Elementary has done to prepare students for online instruction. “The teamwork at our school and across our school district has been amazing to watch and experience,” she said. “It has been so neat to watch everyone use their expertise in certain areas of technology to teach each other what is needed to make sure the learning is still taking place at home for their students. The teachers are finding that it literally takes them all day to check all the different assignments students are entering to them during the day, along with answering parent emails. This online learning is a new experience for a lot of parents and causing them to value our teachers even more than they already do.”