This story was originally published in an ongoing partnership with The Gambit. The following is that article, verbatim.
For two months this past spring, Tajh Watts used his bed as a school desk, propping two laptops against pillows each morning as he hunched over, diligently taking notes under the blue glow of his neon lights while struggling to hear his teachers over a portable speaker.
Though Watts, now a senior at St. Augustine High School, kept at it, the setup wasn’t very conducive to learning.
“I have trouble in chemistry,” Watts says. “That hands-on experience is something I wish I had during these times, because it helps me a lot.”
So Watts started taking matters into his own hands. He went to YouTube to find guidance for his chemistry problems, which helped him get better results than just doing it on his own. But it was far from ideal, and now he worries his education is suffering from it.
And he’s not alone. With schools across the greater New Orleans area starting to come back into session, students and teachers say they have little confidence the spring’s COVID-19-induced chaos won’t be repeated again this fall, particularly if a new outbreak forces them back into full-time distance learning.
“Students will not get the same education that they receive in regular classes as in virtual classes,” says Leslie Pittman, a science and math teacher at Clancy Maggiore Elementary in Kenner, which is overseen by the Jefferson Parish School Board.
Jefferson Parish public schools started hybrid classes August 26. “I think the reopening plan will be a fail,” she says, “because not everyone is on the same page.”
On March 13, New Orleans schools announced they were postponing classes indefinitely due to the coronavirus. Teachers, students and school leaders did not know what would happen next, and by the end of the month Gov. John Bel Edwards had shut down in-person schooling for the remainder of the spring.
The decision forced all schools in the state to switch to a distance learning model. From the start, the shift was riddled with problems. Although private and parochial schools, as well some wealthier city charters had the resources to provide students with laptops and hotspot devices, others did not.
This forced some — including some better-off schools like St. Augustine — to contract with telecommunication companies to install Wi-Fi in students’ homes. Others scrambled to procure and distribute hotspot devices to help students gain access to their classes. The Orleans Parish School Board also worked to provide Chromebook laptops to students in need.
But the problems with the online system ran significantly deeper. No teachers, let alone entire schools, had plans in place for switching from in-person classes to a completely virtual classroom setting, and students and teachers alike struggled to adapt.
“I don’t really like online school,” says Dalisia Hughes, a senior at Benjamin Franklin High School, a top-ranked charter school adjacent to the University of New Orleans’ campus. It opened classes to students on August 12 and plans to be virtual until after Labor Day. After a recent Orleans Parish School Board announcement, teenagers could return to classrooms as early as mid-October, but it depends on sustained, decreased cases of the virus.
“I’d rather be in school,” Hughes says. “Being at home with sisters and brothers can lead to distractions.”
For teachers, the shift was equally difficult. Most teachers spend months preparing lesson plans for an upcoming semester — plans that went out the window the moment the governor closed down schools. Combined with their own struggles of adapting to working from home, the chaos and uncertainty made it difficult for them to effectively do their jobs.
And the students noticed. Both Hughes and Watts, for instance, said teachers gave increasingly more work in online classes in the spring, compared to regular in-person classes. And the lack of direct interaction made it challenging for teachers to provide needed help to students who might be struggling.
Most students believe being at school is a more effective way of learning than at home.
“Online school is more stressful at home than being at school,” says Bobby Davis, a senior at the International School of Louisiana. “I’m more organized with my work at school rather than at home.”
It’s difficult to strike the balance between reopening plans. Virtual classes ensure less spreading of COVID-19. But one immeasurable struggle for virtual classes is that teachers can’t provide all of the proper resources for students.
Pittman typically uses physical models and objects in science class to help her students feel and see the interactions between matter and energy. But with virtual classes in the spring and now distanced hybrid classes, that option is limited.
“My students are used to learning by interacting with one another and using objects,” Pittman says. “It will be much tougher for the students to learn this year because the hands-on experience isn’t there.”
Kendall Crawford, a teacher at St. Augustine, readily admits the online model used during the spring had a lot of flaws. And even once a system was in place it proved to have unexpected logistical challenges that bogged down the educational process.
For instance, Crawford says it proved difficult to manage everyone’s work when students are sending in different assignments at different times, and it now takes him longer to grade their work.
Teachers didn’t have long to plan for the spring due to the uncertainty of the virus. Voltaire Casino, a New Orleans-area teacher who asked that his school not be identified, says while most teachers in area schools were frustrated with only three days to get their plan together in the spring, the summer has been helpful for his school. After polling students, teachers and families, administrators came up with their plan for the fall.
Likewise, most school systems put into place plans for reopening schools this fall. For instance, New Orleans public schools are following the “Roadmap to Reopening” which was developed in coordination with city and state health officials. It lays out how and when schools are to open. It envisions a hybrid mix of in-person and distance learning for much of the coming semester, which educators hope will help solve some of the biggest problems students faced last year.
But most students remain skeptical. “Online school is a pain in the ass,” Watts says. “I thought I would be finished with it after last year, but having to do it this year, during my senior year is just something I hate.”