Is it the nightmare we've all heard?

Disclaimer: This article contains the author’s personal opinions and does not represent Arlington Public Schools.

The first two weeks of virtual school in Arlington County have come and gone, and the big question on everyone's mind is, "But how is it going? Like, really?"

Many news outlets are playing the testimony of disgruntled parents and students on repeat, painting a bleak picture. But what do things look like from the inside? It's true that the experience is radically different, with an entirely new set of challenges to troubleshoot. It's also true that many families are scrambling to create working conditions for their children, who may span multiple age ranges and have very different needs. However, where technology falls short, could it be possible that it also has the potential to liberate us from dated, impractical routines?

Admittedly, the first day was riddled with technology problems and inconsistent attendance. In fact, the district landed a spot on the evening news with a statement from the new superintendent, Dr. Francisco Duran, providing a public explanation. The county is using two apps as their primary distance learning platforms, Canvas and Microsoft Teams, and they did not handle the sudden influx of web traffic well, despite test runs prior to the first day. Parents and teachers alike struggled mightily to help their students get online, but many were not able to access their classes at all, leading the county to apologize to families across multiple platforms.

Child Distance Learning

Courtesy of NBC Connecticut

However, after what must have been a sleepless night for many county employees, student access (and consequently attendance) improved drastically. In the second week, it is rare to mark more than two or three students absent from each class. Now, students' families are expressing two primary concerns. They worry about students making new friends in this virtual environment, and they wish students could participate in more active, analog activities, rather than sedentary digital ones. Teachers likewise recognize the importance of relationships and movement for students and have been racking their brains and the internet for creative solutions. The technological learning curve has been undeniably steep, and although Arlington Public Schools pushed back their start date from August 31 to September 8 to give teachers more time to prepare, many teachers are working longer hours than ever to produce resources and interactive plans for their students. Monday has also been designated as a teacher planning day, but it's still not unusual to receive emails from colleagues time-stamped well into the evening.

However, while it's easy to wax nostalgic about the way the school day used to be, we would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge that it wasn't without its problems. In my years as a teacher, I've recognized that the traditional school environment, which is essentially based on a factory model, does not always nurture the diverse needs of students. Trying to do so effectively within this structure is a constant uphill battle for many educators. Unfortunately, our educational system is prone to over-crowding classes, under-paying teachers, and demanding more from teachers' time with every passing year, making it difficult to truly address students as the individuals that they are. Instead, it encourages both students and teachers to engage in a kind of education that focuses more on checking the boxes than on igniting our intellectual curiosity or listening to our inner convictions.  

Teacher Instruction on Microsoft Teams

Courtesy of ITSC - The Hang Sen University of Hong Kong

As I've gotten to know my students this year, many have already grown weary of their iPads, unthinkable as that would have seemed a year ago. However, they have also identified parts of the traditional school day that they frankly did not enjoy. For example, many are glad they don't have to ride the bus to school or deal with crowded, noisy school lunches. Others have mentioned that they've been in distracting classes before and hope to be able to focus better. Still other more introverted students see the chat box as a way to participate that allows them to express themselves more freely because they feel less pressure to put themselves on display. Some students also appreciate having the freedom to work at their own pace, and the time to explore other interests. And despite the awkwardness of having to constantly mute and unmute, and talk to a pinhole camera, most students agree that they are relieved to find supportive, kind adults on the other side helping them through this unusual time.

While distance learning presents its own set of challenges, it could offer some brilliant gems. Many teachers have discovered new tools that they never would have had the time or need to explore before. Schools have a reputation for adopting new ways of doing things painfully slowly. These circumstances could very well be the catalyst forcing schools to deliver on the formerly largely untapped promise of personalizing learning through technology. Although students and teachers are experiencing different kinds of fatigue than before, perhaps we can also now recognize how exhausting and overstimulating some aspects of traditional school days were. 

As an educator, I fervently hope that we can use this time to critically evaluate what is actually good for teachers and students alike and that we can find the courage to make the needed changes for a future of innovative, compassionate education. 

What did you like about a traditional school day? What would you have changed about it? Let us know in the comments!