W-L community debates distance learning Written by Julia van Lare '21

On May 22, Interim Superintendent Ms. Cintia Johnson announced that when classes resume for Arlington Public Schools (APS) in the fall of 2020, they likely will continue online. This announcement comes after more than two months of distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the county considers its plan for fall, it likely will reflect the lessons that have been learned in distance learning this spring. They may also face scrutiny from the APS community, where there has been no shortage of opinions on the county’s handling of distance learning.

“We came to Arlington because it had a reputation as being an exceptional school system, and it has been,” Brian Carome, a Washington-Liberty parent, said. “But, they're falling short since they're not doing the same degree of instruction as some of the neighboring systems and other systems around the country. We have the resources we need to do better.”

APS’s approach to distance learning this spring dictated Arlington teachers could not approach new content, with the exception of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Dual Enrollment classes who needed the additional content to prep for national exams or to meet third party regulations. Whether new instruction could continue in these classes after the exams was not specified. Students not enrolled in these classes reviewed and fine-tuned the skills learned in the first three quarters of the year. On April 15, Ms. Johnson said in a plan outlined to the school board that this requirement came out of concern for maintaining equity among APS students: “[The plan] aligns with our commitment to equity by ensuring all students have access to resources and new learning opportunities.”

Graphic by Julia Van Lare '21

Managing Equity Concerns

As Ms. Johnson said, the county’s plan for distance learning comes in large part due to equity concerns; Students may have special needs, have non-English speaking parents, have limited access to the internet or be struggling with mental health concerns, and the county does not believe they should be penalized for these circumstances.

“We don't know what's going on in their homes, with their families, so I do like that students are not being required to do anything,” Ms. Tracy Matthews, a chemistry teacher at Briar Woods High School in Loudoun County, said. “I know there have been some students who have family members who have passed away from COVID-19. For some of these kids, school is an escape, but for other ones, it's just an extra burden.”

Graphs from Virginia Department of Health

As mentioned, this equity concern was a significant reason why so many of these decisions were made by the school board. Some have argued that the issue is not impactful enough to hurt the instruction of students; the APS data from May 21 reported that 95 percent of devices in the county accessed Canvas in the past weeks. According to the school board, APS has provided 866 MiFis and received a $500,000 grant from the county to provide students in need with Comcast Internet Essentials. At Washington-Liberty, the school’s staff created a large spreadsheet with the names of students not engaging. Counselors, social workers and the administration then reached out to the around 100 students who had checked out to determine their access to the internet. Surrounding counties, as well, have made significant efforts to give resources to students in need. Ms. Colleen Lally, an assistant principal at Justice High School in Fairfax, said that herself and four other staff members at Justice have made more than 5,500 communications with families to ensure all students have internet connection and the resources they need to learn.

“There was a kid in my class who was only working on [certain days of the week],” Ms. Melanie Manikas, a fourth grade teacher at Cherry Run Elementary School in Fairfax, said. “I know the family--one of their kids is in high school, and high school days are Tuesdays and Thursdays--and I realized that, sure enough, they have one device that they’re sharing between four kids. So, I contacted the principal and we were able to get them another computer.”

For students for whom English is not their first language, virtual learning becomes much more difficult, particularly without the support of an English-speaking parent. Ms. Jennifer Forney, an AP and freshmen biology teacher at W. T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, as well as the biology team leader at Woodson, says her school has seen less participation in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.

“It's not necessarily that they don't want to be there,” Ms. Forney said. “Many of them have second jobs and limitations as far as technology. The situation is not equal in everybody's home.”

Another equity concern is that of mental health. In a recent Crossed Sabres survey of 74 Washington-Liberty students, student stress about academics during the pandemic averaged at 3.38 on a 5 point scale, with surveyed juniors feeling the most stress and averaging a score of 4, and surveyed seniors being the least stressed and averaging a 2.4. Ms. Manikas says mental health has impacted her students, as well.

Graphic by Megan Goodall '20

“I have a student who has a mom who’s an essential worker, and Mom decided that for [the student’s] safety, she wasn’t going to come over [to his dad’s house],” Ms. Manikas said. “[The student] hasn’t seen her since this started. So, whenever he talks about her, he gets very upset.”

With this closure, the academic gap between the most and least privileged may widen. According to Paul Reville, a Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, school districts must attempt to put students at an even level or some students will face a huge disadvantage.

“I think [this closure has widened the reading gap], without a doubt,” Ms. Patty Butler, a kindergarten teacher at Ashlawn Elementary School, said. “I think that these kids that are in kindergarten now, when they go to first grade, are going to be very different, and it's going to be a big challenge. I think, years from now, like ten years down the road, the gap is still going to be there.”

However, while APS’s plan may have been created with equity concerns in mind, it also has many worried that APS is sacrificing the standards that community members have come to expect from its schools.

New Instruction

“The greatest weakness [of the plan was the lack of] new content,” Carome said. “[Students] have essentially missed slightly more than a quarter of their academic year. If school were in session, and [students] were skipping school, the county would be sending truant officers out to go find them. The county knows that if you miss that much school, it's going to set you back in your life.”

In Arlington’s plan, elementary schools and secondary schools follow similar guidelines. Thus, elementary schools also have no new content, which some say will have a detrimental impact on learning.

“[No new content] is a bit frustrating,” Ms. Butler said. “As an educator, it is in my heart to want to grow my students as much as I can. Meeting them where they are and growing them to where their end goal is for kindergarten, those standards are really important. As a whole, I feel that we should be introducing new content.”

Freshman Elec Schoenbrun also finds the restrictions on new content discouraging.

“[My learning] has not been effective at all,” Schoenbrun said. “I'm not in a school setting...and I'm being given work that's the same work over and over and over again, and there's just no reason.”

However, Schoenbrun does not think the fix to this issue is introducing new content. Instead, he thinks mental health considerations are more important than the additional instruction.

“We're trying [to have things be as normal as possible], trying to stay at home, trying to stay away from other people,” Schoenbrun said. “[We shouldn’t have] to do school work during that rather than making masks to help our community or actually talking to our friends, which probably is teaching us more than what we're doing in school.”

Ms. Claire Peters, an assistant principal at Washington-Liberty, said the lack of new instruction does not have to mean a stand-still in learning.

“By providing students the opportunity to strengthen and apply the skills they've already learned, you're hopefully filling that [need to learn],” Ms. Peters said. “It's more about what you can do with the content you already know.”

In frustration with the lack of new instruction, many community members such as Carome cited the fact that other counties in the area are receiving new content, such as neighboring Fairfax County.

Graphic by Julia Van Lare '21

Ms. Lally said that comparisons between Fairfax and Arlington--both in the decisions they make and the effectiveness of those decisions--are difficult to draw due to the differences between the counties. Ms. Lally’s opinions do not reflect the opinions of Justice High School or Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS).

“I think it's hard to compare the tenth largest school district in the nation to the smallest county in the nation,” Ms. Lally said. “You don't really want to expect Arlington to do everything that Fairfax does, because when you're a larger district, you can have better bargaining with companies. On the flip side of that, Arlington's per-pupil spending has definitely surpassed, I believe, every district in the state of Virginia for years.”

Junior Ava Baumeister, a student at Justice High School, said her classes meet consistently on Tuesdays and Thursdays in a structured schedule, and are allowed to learn new content. However, in contrast to the opinions expressed by members of the Arlington community, Baumeister, too, does not believe the Fairfax County model has been any more effective.

“We have four periods on Tuesday, three on Thursday. On Tuesday, the first class starts at 9:15, and it’s forty-five minutes, so it goes to 10:00…[and so on]” Baumeister said. “I think forty-five minutes of one class every week isn’t nearly enough to learn new content efficiently or sufficiently.”

Baumeister says that, even beyond the time constraints, the learning itself has been difficult.

“I’m appreciative [of new content], but also a little concerned, because a lot of the teachers are treating it like it's normal school, and they're rushing through [lessons],” Baumeister said. “It's harder for a lot of people to learn online versus in-person, so, I don't think it's great, but I'm glad it's not just a complete standstill and going over the same things over and over.”

Synchronous Learning

Another aspect of Arlington’s plan that differs from other counties in the area is Arlington’s ban on synchronous learning. Synchronous learning is live instruction where all students must attend lessons virtually at the same time.

“[Synchronous learning] certainly would have lessened the mental health impact of the isolation that the entire cohort of students is facing right now,” Carome said. “It would have given them a chance to have the types of conversations that students have with teachers and peers that aid in education.”

In Arlington, teachers are expected to have office hours where students can drop in to chat and ask questions on the lessons. The difference is, with the type of synchronous learning APS has prohibited, students must attend the session or miss out on instruction.

“I have a friend who teaches at Mount Vernon, and [the difference is that] her students are required to report at a certain time of the week to do forty-five minutes live with the teacher,” Ms. Peters said. “That requirement of being there, and the expectation that students will be there, is the part that Arlington doesn’t have.”

Despite the expectation that students will attend these meetings, in other counties, the sessions are not mandatory. This means that attendance rates fluctuate depending on the class or school. In Ms. Matthews' class, for instance, synchronous meetings are much like the office hours Arlington teachers hold.

“I have very low attendance at my synchronous sessions, and so they turn into check-ins,” Ms. Matthews said. “I don't really do much teaching during those sessions. We might play a Kahoot game or something, but I very rarely have done actual teaching synchronously, and I really miss that.”

Online teaching, even if done synchronously, does not substitute for in-person teaching, according to Ms. Matthews.

“The synchronous sessions are very awkward,” Ms. Matthews said. “I sit there, it's in Google Meet, and I might have five kids from a class show up to a session. They all have their cameras off, they're all muted, and it's me talking at the screen, and I know they can see me but I can't see them. I'm hoping that if we do online teaching in the fall, that I'm able to get more interaction with those students. The way I teach, a lot of the time, it's more of a discussion, and I feel like I'm missing out on that.”

However, for other teachers, synchronous learning has been hugely important for delivering instruction. When the closure first started, Ms. Lynnette Russo, an Advanced Placement (AP) Government teacher at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax, used her forty-five minute sessions to review and practice writing for the AP exam. Now, she uses them to discuss current events by having students read articles or watch the news, then she leads discussions and even introduces guest speakers.

“I think the major strength [of FCPS’s plan] is that we are doing [learning] synchronously,” Ms. Russo said. “Once we ironed out all the details of that, I think that that's a strength because it keeps us connected with the kids. It keeps the kids on a regular schedule because they're able to log on to their classes twice a week. It's going smoothly, and I have a good amount of participation.”

The difference between what classes have high participation rates and which have lower may just depend on the class. Many teachers said that their AP students stayed involved in their class to study for the upcoming AP exam, and Ms. Russo said that some of her classes were better attended than others because of the subject.

“The AP kids [are] definitely [participating]--the majority of them are there,” Ms. Russo said. “For my elective class, I would say about half of them log on.”

Grading Online Instruction

Arlington’s plan also eliminated formal grades for the fourth quarter, which has been the source of much debate in the county. This decision was created so students would not be held accountable for work when so much is uncertain about students’ circumstances. Instead, teachers must offer students the opportunity to either raise their grade a maximum of one letter grade or to pass a class they are currently failing. It is up to teachers to judge whether students deserve to have their grades raised. Some have complained that counties such as Fairfax are offering grades while Arlington is not. However, just as in Arlington, in Fairfax and Loudoun County, grades can only be raised; teachers cannot lower students’ overall grade.

“It's hard to incentivise people to come to class,” Baumeister said. “I've seen the numbers dwindle because people are realizing these grades don't count for anything, so [I would] try to incentivise those more. I would say [work] should have counted for your grade, but I also don't think that's fair. So, I'm not really sure what a fix would be.”

Ms. Lally says that despite the lack of grades providing incentive to come to class, Justice High School has been able to connect with 99.9 percent of its students, with only three students still unaccounted for.

“To know that [2,297] students are connecting with their teachers at a time like this--that's powerful,” Ms. Lally said. “That shows the great work that our teachers are doing to build those lessons, and the willpower of our students, that even when their grades won't hurt them, they're still signing on.”

At Washington-Liberty, Ms. Peters said she believes student engagement is around 70 to 80 percent.

“I think it depends on the class and it's depended a little bit on the grade level,” Ms. Peters said. “I do think there's been a little decline post-Memorial Day now that the testing is done and people are reaching a point of fatigue.”

Looking to the Fall

All of this shows just how important the county’s decision for fall will be. On May 21, APS proposed three plans for next year; the first, that every student will start the year virtually with synchronous instruction of new content; the second, that the school year will commence with a socially distanced model, lowering class sizes and ultimately leading to a hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning; the third, that schools will open normally.

Equity concerns from this current model of distance learning will not disappear, but many teachers say the next school year needs to have formal grading, whether online or not. Thus, somehow, a new model will have to balance the need for grades with equity concerns.

“I'd want them to keep in mind that [grades] aren't working as it is,” Baumeister said. “Make things clear, have incentives, have disincentives, have longer class periods and have more class periods.”

Besides these specific challenges, the need to return to some sense of normalcy is important in more ways than academic. Schools are a safe place for many students, and not being in school physically could harm those students mentally. To consider this mental health issue, Ms. Peters said APS teachers will be trained in trauma-informed instruction. This is to help students who either experienced COVID-19 related trauma or already had traumatic experiences at home that may only be heightened during this time.

“My kids want to be in school,” Carome said. “They need that for their education and they need that for socialization and mental health reinforcement that socialization provides. I'm certainly not asking the county to be reckless about this, but we've got to figure out a way where we can resume live learning, even if it's online.”

Even if school returned to a hybrid or in-person model, Ms. Peters believes the technological lessons learned during this time will stick with educators.

“This has been a great opportunity for our teachers to explore some new instructional technology tools that they can bring back to enhance learning when we get back to school,” Ms. Peters said.

Considering primary school requirements is important when planning for fall, as many requirements for primary school influence secondary school decisions. All Arlington students have the restrictions of no new content and asynchronous learning, no matter the age of the child. According to Interim Superintendent Ms. Johnson, the distance learning plan for spring, “addresses students' academic, social and emotional needs at each grade level.” Thus, primary aged children’s need for face-to-face interaction with teachers could play a major role in decision-making come fall.

“I know it's almost impossible, but, I think that, ideally, we'd be in an environment where we could see the kids for part of the time,” Ms. Butler said. “Honestly, I don't think we could go back to school with the mask on, either. That would scare the [kindergarten] children to death.”

The need for socialization is a big concern for students now, and while it is not clear if that will factor into the county’s decision on this matter, students may have to get creative.

“If fall is like this--which I hope it's not--there are a lot of seniors and juniors who need extracurriculars,” Schoenbrun said. “I think that if we had online clubs that'd be really fun, because then they can add it to their college resumes. Especially because losing an entire year of extracurriculars can be really bad.”

Washington-Liberty's Model General Assembly (MGA) club meets via Zoom. Students have had extracurriculars move virtual or be canceled altogether.

A major downside to online learning that many teachers have cited is the lack of productive conversations, so this is one barrier the plan for fall will have to overcome. Ms. Peters said an online platform that could be used in fall must allow for face-to-face interaction, as well as the ability to pull students into smaller groups. Some teachers agree that this is necessary for instruction.

“I personally want student-to-student interaction next year more than anything, whether virtually or in-person small groups,” Ms. Emily Robbins, a social studies teacher at Washington-Liberty, said. “I feel the majority of learning happens through discussions, group work, and sharing ideas and this interaction is what students need more than anything right now.”

A hybrid model may lower the flexibility that students can have with their course-load. While a fully online or fully in-person model allows students to balance seven classes at once, Ms. Peters feels that may be too much for students in a blended structure.

“[One way] to do it is to temporarily shift to what's called a four by four block schedule, where you're doing four classes in the fall and four classes in the spring,” Ms. Peters said. “That would really have to be an above-my-pay-grade decision, but it's something that I think should be given some thought.”

In a virtual version of school, integrating freshmen into a completely new school is another point the administration has had to think about.

“[Freshmen orientation] is a really big event for us, one that sets a positive tone for Washington-Liberty and starts to get families comfortable,” Ms. Peters said. “We've talked about doing a virtual tour of the building. [Another possibility is that] families have questions, so we talked about having the middle school PTAs work with the communities that they know to submit questions to us.”

Many community members have expressed concern over the amount of school students will end up missing by the end of this school year. However, to Ms. Forney, the concern for secondary school students should be put into perspective.

“I get irritated when I read in the media, 'this is going to hurt kids forever,'” Ms. Forney said. “It's not. You're going to be okay. I do think [the closure] will affect kids differently, and I'm not saying that [the closure] is not detrimental, and in some cases it will force kids to grow up a little bit earlier. And, that's not fun, but it's not the end of the world and it doesn't mean that you're not going to be able to get a good education. Humans have been dealing with adverse things for a long time.”

As a parent, Ms. Peters said she also is not concerned for the future of her children in APS based on the last few months.

“This is a time to look at the world through a different lense than our own and look at how other people's experiences might be different from ours,” Ms. Peters said. “We can't keep doing this [style of learning] in the fall, but this has been a couple of months in what is going to be thirteen years of my own kid's education in a great school system, so I'm not worried about what we've had to do in this emergency situation.”

Schools all around the country are grappling with these issues. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released guidelines for schools operating currently, including provisions such as: wearing cloth masks, ensuring adequate access to sanitation supplies, discouraging shared objects, pursuing virtual field trips and gatherings, and, for the lowest risk of infection, continuing with completely online school.

“No matter what school looks like next year, we know it will look different than normal,” Ms. Robbins said. “We need to adjust expectations, each of us focus on doing the best job that we can each day, and remember that this is just for a season of time.”