Teaching in a Pandemic: How Educators Are Handling the Sudden Shift to Distance Learning

By Jon Gorey

This March, as the novel coronavirus escalated into a global pandemic, school districts all over the world made the difficult decision to shut their doors—forcing an abrupt and nearly universal shift to distance learning that proved disruptive for teachers, students, and parents alike.

What at first seemed like a temporary, emergency precaution quickly gave way to a new normal, as students—even graduating seniors—were forced to finish the school year remotely. Three months later, school districts are grappling with how, or even whether, they can safely re-open in the fall.

 


We at Earthwatch have had to make some quick pivots of our own, cancelling a season’s worth of expeditions and keeping our passion for science alive through our Science Matters webinar series and our new climate change course, Earthwatch at Home. As we worked to develop those online resources, we asked three teachers how they and their students have been adapting to this new, all-online learning environment, and how they’ve managed to overcome some of the unique challenges it presents. 

A Quick Shift

“All educators right now are in a pickle,” says Meredith Salmon, a biology teacher at the Peddie School in New Jersey. “Transitioning to online in such a short period of time is really tricky… one day we were in school, and the next day, the whole world was kind of flipped upside down.”

That goes for everyone, including parents—Salmon says her colleague is juggling a full course-load of teaching while caring for her own young children at home—and students, who come from all walks of life and don’t all have the same technology or support at home. “A lot of kids are in different situations with different home lives,” she says.

For teachers, the shift to online education has meant rethinking lesson plans to fit a very different format. “You sort of have to redo all of the curriculum so you can teach it online, because a lot of it was dependent on you being there and leading the students through certain things,” says Tina Morris, science teacher and sustainability director at The Pike School in Massachusetts.

Morris says she’s had to reconfigure most of her biology labs, since kids don’t have the equipment at home. And while students are still learning and absorbing the same material, it’s taking a couple of days longer than usual, because she can’t circulate around the room checking in with each student as they work. Some are more hesitant to ask for help online, too. “They haven't seen each other in a long time, and so they're much shyer about saying, ‘Wait a minute, I don't understand what you just said.’”  

You sort of have to redo all of the curriculum so you can teach it online, because a lot of it was dependent on you being there and leading the students through certain things.

Tina Morris science teacher and sustainability director at The Pike School in Massachusetts

Morris describes her teaching style as fluid—more discussion—than lecture-based. But real-time instruction on Zoom doesn’t allow her to read the pulse of the classroom, she says, to see if kids are raising their hands or quietly struggling. “You either can have access to another screen, and you can help them through that, or you have access to the group—but you can't do both at the same time,” she says.

Adam Blundell, a science professor at Farmington High School in Utah, agrees that losing that personal interaction is one of the most difficult aspects of remote learning, for students and teachers alike. But Blundell is grateful that the closures happened toward the end of the school year, when teachers had already established a connection with their students. “Finishing a school year online has not been much of a challenge, because the students know us so well and we know them so well—we can communicate and make it work,” he says. “But to start a new school year remotely would be very challenging.”

Finishing a school year online has not been much of a challenge, because the students know us so well and we know them so well—we can communicate and make it work, but to start a new school year remotely would be very challenging.

Adam Blundell — science professor at Farmington High School in Utah

Schedules and Structures

One positive that Blundell has experienced during this global experiment in at-home work and learning is that it’s forced a lot of us to slow down our fast-paced lives. “For me, personally, life used to be full of drive here, go here at this appointment, meet this person, drop the kids off a dance class, pick the kids back up, get lunches ready for school tomorrow,” he says. “It has been nice to just sort of calm down and spend time with my wife and my kids, and not be consumed by the rush of life.”

At the same time, students often struggle to stay motivated without that hectic schedule. As an example, Blundell recalls a student who fell behind in his schoolwork after his athletic season had ended—even though, without the demanding schedule of practices and games, he had so much more time to study. “Because he missed that structure,” Blundell says. “And that might sound like a one-off story, but it's not. There are a lot of students who really fall into this pit of, ‘I have so much time, there's nothing forcing me or putting pressure on me to get things done.’”

Morris and Salmon agree that time management has been one of the biggest challenges of distance learning—one that also presents an opportunity for students to practice a crucial life skill. “I definitely feel like this has been a test of their time management skills and their discipline and motivation,” Salmon says.

During the school day, Morris says, students have set places to be and teachers telling them what to do and when to do it—their time is completely managed for them. “And now, all of a sudden, they get up in the morning, and they've got to figure out how to do six subjects during the day and get everything in on time, but it's up to them to schedule it all,” she says. “And for a 13- or 14-year-old, that's asking them to basically act like a college student, and I think it's very hard on some of them.”

But, she tells her students, it’s a really great skill to work on, even if they’re learning it three or four years ahead of schedule. “It's going to help you in the long run,” she tells them. “You're going to look back on this and say, ‘Yeah, I really learned how to make my own schedule when we had a pandemic.’”

And now, all of a sudden, they get up in the morning, and they've got to figure out how to do six subjects during the day and get everything in on time, but it's up to them to schedule it all. And for a 13- or 14-year-old, that's asking them to basically act like a college student, and I think it's very hard on some of them.

Tina Morris — science teacher and sustainability director at The Pike School in Massachusetts.

Bringing Virtual Science to Life

Salmon says one of her biggest challenges has been bringing science to life on a computer screen, something she imagines is difficult for teachers of other hands-on subjects, too, like art and music.

“I miss doing labs, I miss kind of letting them get their hands dirty,” Salmon says. “We actually try to have them design a lot of their own experiments, so I just feel like I'm cheating them out of that experience … we tried to do a couple virtual labs, but it's not the same.”

Blundell’s large, public high school is just a mile down the road from the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area. So he’s usually able to take his ornithology class—which he believes is the only full-year high school class of its kind—into the wildlife center, binoculars and all, on a near-weekly basis. ‘It’s real field-based,” Blundell says of the class. In rain, snow, and heat, “we're outside and being a part of nature and doing identification and drawing and tracking, collecting data.”

That, clearly, hasn’t been happening the past few months–during peak migration season. Blundell still ventures into nature and records videos of birds and bird calls for his students to watch at home, but it’s hardly the same thing.

“One of the greatest things about science is the A-ha! moments, when you discover something new,” Blundell says. “And being out in the field, when you spot a bird you've never seen before, and you're trying to identify it and you do, there's a real rewarding feeling about it. So they're missing a whole emotional experience tied in with doing that field work… it's missing the euphoria and the pride that comes into it.”

What’s more, there’s just no way to virtually replicate the important social interactions that take place on field trips and in the classroom, whether it’s just sitting on the bus together, eating lunch with friends, or getting guided support from a teacher. Blundell says his students are still learning academics at home, but it’s the friendships and human connections that are suffering. “That's what the students are really missing out on,” he says. “We can give them the knowledge at home, we can give them the data to review, we can give them tests to take at home, but you just can't replicate having a caring person standing there helping you.”

Salmon says that interaction is a two-way street—and the thing she misses most of all. “They make me laugh every day, I miss them a lot,” she says of her students. “We’re still trying to have a good time on Zoom, but it's definitely just not the same as having that classroom environment. I really enjoy their company, and I enjoy their feedback … I feel like they have as much to offer as I do.” 

One of the greatest things about science is the A-ha! moments, when you discover something new, and being out in the field, when you spot a bird you've never seen before, and you're trying to identify it and you do, there's a real rewarding feeling about it. So they're missing a whole emotional experience tied in with doing that field work… it's missing the euphoria and the pride that comes into it.

Adam Blundell — science professor at Farmington High School in Utah

Finding Connection

Communities are now making preliminary plans to reopen schools in the fall, and it’s currently looking like many students may have staggered in-school schedules to reduce class sizes and cafeteria crowding. That means distance learning will remain a key part of education for the foreseeable future. But at least now, educators have had an intense crash course in what works and what doesn’t.

We borrowed some lessons from that steep learning curve in the development of Earthwatch at Home, our new virtual science and education program. We’ve learned that it’s more important than ever to stay connected with each other and with our natural world—and Earthwatch at Home is an opportunity to do both: to join fellow citizen scientists and take part in hands-on pollinator research in our own communities.

All of us are eagerly awaiting the chance to reconnect with friends, teachers, coworkers, and teammates. In fact, this collective experience may instill in us a newfound appreciation for field trips, friendships—and even the classroom or workplace. If there’s one thing students are gaining at home right now that they couldn’t at school, Blundell says, it’s an appreciation for what they’re missing. “I’d give anything to be back in school now, when it was the one place I didn't want to be before,’” students have said.

When seniors stopped by the school to pick up caps and gowns one at a time for at-home graduation photos, Blundell says their enthusiasm was palpable. “The excitement that students brought with them coming to the school again—even if they weren't going to see their friends or be in class, just to be away from home and be back at their school—was amazing,” he says. “And so many of the students who complain all the time about coming to school, suddenly telling you how much they missed being here and how great it was to see their teachers again—it’s a really powerful type of emotional day.

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