Matthew Tuttle, a fifth grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School, has mixed feelings about his experience leading virtual classes over the past few months, since the coronavirus forced the closure of public schools across the state. 

In an interview with The Lens in late May, he said he was glad he could offer his students something resembling a live classroom, via teleconference. It provided a bit of normalcy in an abnormal time. 

“As unreliable as everything was, school was still there in some form,” Tuttle said.

During the closure, he said, some of his students’ independence “flourished.”

“I saw a lot of kids grow in their self management skills and working independently and time management,” he said. “They stepped up and learned stills that are sometimes so hard to teach in the classroom.”

But virtual learning also brought challenges, like students and teachers not being able to easily read each other’s body language. Relationships are a pillar of learning, Tuttle said. 

“It still feels so painful when I’m just talking to 20 muted microphones. I can’t hear laughter after a joke. I can’t hear groans after I give an assignment,” Tuttle said. “That doesn’t just take a toll on students’ learning, that takes a toll on my spirit as a teacher.”

After rising COVID-19 cases forced a two-month remote learning experiment, parents and educators are now reflecting on the emergency virtual and paper-packet lessons implemented after the virus shuttered schools and how to improve them should the return to school this fall be online.

The Lens spoke with several educators who praised their staff’s quick adjustment to at-home teaching and also discussed challenges and changes they’re considering for the upcoming school year as they plan for multiple reopening scenarios depending on what health officials recommend. Teachers talked about teaching online and parents, who largely praised teachers, talked about juggling households. 

When Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools to close in mid-March, educators were forced to make a rapid switch from face-to-face, brick-and-mortar instruction to in-home education. For schools that wanted to go virtual, they had to overcome the digital divide and address internet and technology access for their students. Other schools focused on paper-packet instruction, eventually mailing home weekly work packets in an effort to limit social contact. 

FirstLine Schools — a charter network that runs five elementary schools in the city — got its program up and running the week after the school closure was announced in mid-March. They sent paper-based packets to all students and digital lessons were available but optional.

“The fact that we were able to do it in 48 hours was incredible,” FirstLine Chief Academic Officer Tom Shepley said. “But that was 1.0 and we want to have a robust program.”

Tuttle said continuing school during the closure — something New Orleans schools committed to early on during the pandemic — was critical for students.

“I think the transition to online learning offered stability that really was otherwise scarce during a pandemic and that was provided by the schools,” Tuttle said.

But some things don’t translate well to the virtual classroom. 

Plessy Community School kindergarten teacher Josette Castillo said she had to work extra hard to ensure her students with more reserved personalities could participate in class videoconferences. And Tuttle said peer-to-peer learning was much more difficult — students can’t quickly partner up on questions or to review each other’s work. All the educators we spoke with said reliable access to quality technology for students was a concern. 

Educators also had to adjust their expectations of students, now living through a pandemic, who were facing a range of challenges from food insecurity and lack of reliable internet to increased household responsibilities and parent illness or job loss. Castillo told students if they ever needed a break during class to take one.

Edwards and the state Department of Education granted relief on a state level by waiving several requirements, including attendance minimums and the annual accountability exams. 

Charter schools and the NOLA Public Schools district were able to provide laptops and hotspots to students across the city, but the district still thinks they weren’t able to cover all households. 

“Really I think we came to understand that equity and access go far beyond whether a kid has technology at home. There’s so many other aspects of online learning that go beyond ‘I can log on and log off’ that we found were just as important,” Tuttle said. “The big thing is the amount of support a parent could or couldn’t provide, it was huge and it led to such disparate levels of support and learning happening and I think in some ways deepened gaps between students.”

“We could tell the difference in assignments of the student who had a parent who was homeschooling them and a student left to their own devices to no fault of them or their family.”

‘The students don’t enjoy being muted’

Castillo said generally about ten of her 20-some kindergarten students would join for a daily Zoom call, which she limited to an hour or just slightly more if the kids were really engaged. 

“On some level it has allowed me to build deeper bonds with students and parents,” she said of remote learning. “They ask me things about what’s going on in the world.”

Parent Allison Cruz said morning video conference calls for her two children at Morris Jeff each day were essential. She said her son’s first-grade teacher “knocked it out of the park.”

“It helped the kids get out of bed with a purpose every morning,” she said. “It did provide some continuous sense of being in a class. That was something I really appreciate.”

But there were also the families Castillo, the Plessy teacher, couldn’t reach and didn’t know whether they had the technology to participate. 

Generally, lessons were smooth, she said. She’d set a lesson for the first half of class and let students decide on an activity, like drawing or watching educational videos for the second half. Giving students ownership really helped, she said.

“I didn’t really have an issue as long as the expectation was clear with parents,” she said.

Then she’d also set expectations for students: “If you need a break take a break. Sometimes you do have to mute them because they would keep talking.”

Videoconferenced class time was particularly difficult for her more reserved students, Castillo found. 

“It can be overwhelming if there’s no way to interject,” Castillo said. “You have to be able to wait your turn or be the loudest person in the room.”

She intentionally facilitated smaller groups so students could participate in conversations. 

Castillo also said the technology, microphone sensitivity in particular, were challenging at times. She recalled a day students were coloring.

“The microphone kept picking up the fact that she was coloring so hard,” she said of one girl. “It was because she was using her mom’s cell phone and that phone was just picking it up. She asked why she was muted. It’s just little things like that.”

“The students don’t enjoy being muted,” Castillo said. And then she had to explain. “I’m doing this not to mute your opinion but us listening to you coloring very hard.”

Cruz has a son and daughter at Morris Jeff and a two-year-old. She was taking care of the kids, working and going to school herself. Her husband works as a doctor. Her kids had different remote learning experiences.

“My daughter is much more self-directed learner and was much more conscientious about logging onto Google classroom,” she said. “My first-grader is gifted but he also has a behavioral disorder and it was really really challenging for him to do self-directed learning, unless there was an adult sitting with him.”

And sometimes that meant sitting “there with him all day on Saturdays doing homework. And that was really hard.”

Parents reflect and educators look ahead

At FirstLine, Shepley said the charter group is running a voluntary online summer school for all students.

“What we are doing there is distance learning 2.0,” Shepley said. “We are going to use that information to inform what distance learning will finally look like in the fall.”

“I think we need to kind of raise our heads and say ‘hey we’re raising our standards’” Shepley said. “Because if we are going to provide distance learning, it needs to be excellent.”

Cruz said she hoped to see some streamlining in programming if class continues online. Students had different programs for math, science and English skill-building, plus some schools offered additional options if students wanted to try another platform or were excelling.

“Everything was listed on Google Classroom which was great,” she said. “But there were so many different platforms the kid would have to use.”

Parent Megan Wright, whose son just finished first grade at Bricolage, also hopes her son gets more interactive learning this fall, should schools reopen online. 

“Remote learning was very difficult,” she said. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for needing to work fulltime and transition into being a teacher and with younger kids there’s no way to have them learn remotely without having the parents heavily involved.”

Her son mostly had worksheets to do, which he called “homework,” she said. 

“It was really about trying to get your kid to complete work sheets when they’re used to being in the classroom with friends and doing interactive learning instead of just doing what my kid called ‘homework’ all the time,” she said. “He was just doing endless homework. We mostly gave up.”

Instead, Wright said they did activities he was interested in.

“We worked on everything he was interested in, so cooking, logic learning, doing some independence sort of learning, even things as simple as setting your own routine and tying shoes all of those things you don’t have time to do when they are in school eight houts a day,” she said.

Cruz also worries her son may have missed important lessons, but doesn’t quite know how to gauge whether he did. 

That’s something Wylene Sorapuru, chief academic officer of the InspireNOLA charter school network, is thinking about. As she looks toward the fall, she said the seven-school network will focus on ensuring kids learn the important parts of the spring curriculum they may not have fully grasped. That means, for example, that fourth grade teachers will teach the end of third grade curriculum.

“We’re going to begin with spiraling those standards that were part of the prior year,” she said.

They will also have extra tutoring available for any kids who have a noticeable gap in those skills over the first few weeks. If they are back in school buildings, they will be social distancing per health department guidance, she said. 

“We are trying to make sure we are providing a lot of training on ‘Tech Tuesdays and Thursdays’ so they would be prepared if there was a school closure that needed to happen again,” she said. 

Sorapuru said her staff did an incredible job teaching remotely but understands it was a stressful time for staff and students.

“The challenges that I feel that we encountered in this period were the same inequalities and injustices that existed for a very long time.”

Hybrid models

Schools took a few different approaches to online learning. Perhaps one of the bigger discussions occurring right now is whether to increase live online teaching, called synchronous learning, or use recorded videos, called asynchronous, that students can access on their own timelines.

At Benjamin Franklin High School, Chief Academic Officer David Ferris told The Lens they had a clear vision from the beginning.

“We committed early on that we couldn’t rely on all of our students to all have access to technology at the same time,” Ferris said. “We just did not think that was a reasonable expectation for a whole host of reasons.”

The school currently works on an “A” and “B” day alternating schedule where students have half their classes on one day and the other half the next. They mimicked that schedule over the closure.

“We staggered our subjects over the course of the week,” he said. “So our kids would have two to three subjects one day and two to three the next.”

Teachers posted assignments online and were required to hold two virtual office hours a week when students could directly engage and ask questions of them. 

Though holding the office hours was required for teachers, taking advantage of them was voluntary. 

“When you make things voluntary for high school students, well maybe human beings, participation goes down,” Ferris said. 

The school is going to shift its class structure entirely next school year. They will move from seven or eight classes that students take over the course of the school year to three or four classes per semester. Ferris said students found it hard to manage so many courses remotely and the school wants to be prepared should schools have to reopen virtually. 

Kate Mehok, the CEO of Crescent City School, said they’re also thinking about how to balance live classroom lessons with recorded videos students can access on their own schedules.

“By that I mean how much live teaching should we be doing versus how much should students be learning on their own versus how much should students be in a very small group with their teachers,” she said. 

“Some students did really well in the Zoom meetings and were really engaged and some students said ‘give me the work to do and I’ll put my head down and do it and if i have a question I’ll call my teacher.’”

She said critically examining how to engage students is a top priority.

“I have three children myself and I know it was hard those last couple weeks to keep them going,” she said. “How do we motivate them to produce work and continue to engage especially if it’s over a really long time.”

Ferris thinks virtually all of Franklin’s students had internet access, but quality internet access was a problem. Some students, for example, only had access through a phone. 

“They are all reporting some level of access but not the quality that we’d like to see,” he said.

“Reliable internet service for all households, especially those in poverty, is something the city has to do better,” Ferris said. “I’d like to see that taken on at a higher level than individual schools.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...