As Florida’s closed public schools ramp up for distance learning — homeschooling, really — because of the coronavirus, the jokes are already making the rounds on social media: “So ... Home-schooling going well. Two students suspended for fighting and one teacher fired for drinking on the job.” But the challenge is serious. Until at least April 15, Tampa Bay’s huge school districts will have to teach all students remotely. It won’t be easy.
It will be one thing for a motivated high school junior to keep up with her studies from home. It will be another thing altogether to teach an antsy 6-year-old. Both Hillsborough and Pinellas public schools will ensure that all students who lack either appropriate digital devices or internet access will get both, and teachers will have webinars to learn how the systems work. But that’s all more about the infrastructure than the learning environment. Teaching remotely is far different than in-class instruction, and it requires entirely different skills. And when remote instruction begins, teachers will have to brace for a steep learning curve and be ready to adapt and improvise. They have no time to lose and little time to prepare.
Next week, Pinellas wants students and families to log on to become familiar with the system, and some general age-appropriate academic material will be available for on-line learning Tuesday through Friday. Beginning March 30, teachers will use Microsoft Teams software to give specific lessons to their classes and be able to send messages directly to their students. In Hillsborough, leaders began their eLearning by beefing up the material on the platforms that students and parents already use. Students and parents should test out the system ahead of time to identify any glitches early on.
With the suspension of standardized tests, teachers might even be liberated to teach a bit more as they really want, with no fear of having to teach to the test. But anyone who has taught internet classes knows that the workload can actually increase. Teachers will have to improvise, particularly to help those students who have a weaker support network at home. And when students finally do return to the deeply cleaned classrooms, teachers will have to be ready — just like after summer break — for some students who have surged ahead of where they were and others who have fallen behind.
It will be a stress test for Addison Davis, the new leader of Hillsborough school who officially becomes acting superintendent Monday. The same is true of Michael Grego, his counterpart in Pinellas. “Our goal is to really ensure that instruction is carried on," Grego said at a news conference Wednesday. "We’ll learn from this. This is unprecedented.” He is right. This is uncharted territory for Tampa Bay’s public schools, and it will require extraordinary effort by students, teachers, administrators and parents.
This is a disruptive but necessary move, and teachers as well as students will be learning as they go. Good communication will matter more than ever, and parents will play an even more important role in their children’s education. Don’t mistake this for an extended school vacation. It will just be a very different classroom, and all joking aside, school remains as serious and important as ever. And if parents have to break up any fighting siblings and send those misbehaving students to their rooms, they should make sure they take their laptops with them to keep up with their studies.
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