| Telegram & Gazette
WORCESTER – After going through almost a full year of remote learning, Worcester parents unloaded on the model at a recent School Committee meeting, saying they can’t take it any longer.
But even if schools return to mostly normal next school year, remote education, and the unprecedented experiment of this past year, will not be forgotten entirely. Local school officials and experts say in addition to the failings of online school compared to traditional in-person learning, there have been benefits, from increased parental involvement to a greatly expanded arsenal of learning tools, that are worth keeping around.
For Worcester especially, the necessity of moving to remote learning ushered in a new era of classroom technology that otherwise might have taken years to reach, according to Superintendent Maureen Binienda.
“The pandemic has been an awful thing to go through,” she said, but there’s no denying how “it moved up our tech plan.”
Last summer, in anticipation of starting the 2020-21 school year in fully remote mode, the district set about providing a Chromebook to every student in the system, enabling a one-to-one technology model that will benefit traditional classroom teaching as well, according to Binienda.
“Teachers have always wanted ways to do more interactive work in the classroom, but just didn’t have the technology to do it,” she said, adding now teachers will be able to more easily access online content during the day, break up students into groups for more project-based learning and coordinate with other schools. “If you’re a history teacher, and you want to do a debate with kids at another school, now you can just Zoom it.”
After getting a crash course in virtual teaching over the past year, many educators will be better equipped and more confident in using technology going forward, experts generally agreed. Holly Dolan, chair of Clark University’s education department, said the experience has also provided a pause to rethink how to teach.
“I think teachers are having a moment where they’re saying, ‘What is the most important learning goal here?’ ” she said. “ ‘When everyone’s fatigued after staring at a screen all day, what can I zero in on?’ ”
Consequently, Dolan also believes a potential positive outcome of remote instruction is that educators may be able to give more choices to students in what they’re learning.
“There are many more options now for kids to dive into what they’re really interested in and what they want to learn about,” she said, thanks to the proliferation of technology and online resources over the past year.
“A lot of content has gone online – students and teachers have access now to a tremendous amount of high-quality material,” said Jennifer Davis Carey, executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative, who also sees more focus on project-based learning as a potential takeaway from remote schooling, “where kids can still learn the content, but enter it through things they’re particularly interested in.”
Increased parent involvement
Remote learning in general has expanded the ways schools can interact with students, particularly after the school day ends. Fitchburg, for instance, which has also stuck with remote school most of this school year, is rolling out a free virtual tutoring service, paid for by the district, that students can access anytime they need help with their schoolwork, said Jonathan Thompson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and Title I.
“That’s one thing I’d like to continue as we move back to in-person,” he said. “Students may not sit down until 8 or 9 o’clock to do their work, and there’s often no one there to help them.”
Schools have also had to change the way they communicate and interact with parents, who previously had to carve out time to physically meet with staff.
“That was one of the biggest things we saw, the parent communication we had, the participation” during the remote period, Thompson said. “We’ve seen an uptick in the involvement of parents in after-school meetings,” he added, likely in part due to the convenience of hopping on a video conferencing site instead of driving to their child’s school – something Fitchburg will likely continue beyond remote learning.
As unpopular as it’s been with many students and parents, virtual learning has also been well-received by some families, to the point Binienda said the district is having conversations about establishing a remote academy next school year as well.
“We’ve been thinking about that,” she said, and not just because Worcester may need a remote option next year anyway depending on the course of the pandemic. Having a virtual school in-district could provide the school system a way of retaining students looking for an online school alternative who in recent years have been siphoned off by the state’s two existing virtual public schools, for example, she said.
For some, remote worked out for best
One of the resounding lessons of remote learning, Thompson said, is the realization of how much the current education model revolves around a rigid traditional schedule. Many students in Fitchburg have work obligations, for example, that make a regular school day and workload more difficult.
“Could we provide an alternative education for them?” Thompson said. “We need to think about how we can be more accommodating for our high school students going forward.”
Similarly, there’s a type of student that has thrived during the shutdown of schools, he said: kids who might otherwise be too shy to participate in in-person classes.
“They’ve been doing a lot better learning remotely,” according to teachers, Thompson said. “They’re the ones who maybe didn’t participate in class a lot before but are really talking now.”
But some education professionals still believe there is a limit to how much remote learning can be leaned on. While snow days have notoriously been retired – for this year at least – in some districts, including Worcester, thanks to virtual learning, some officials weren’t sure if that standard would be extended to more general absences, like sick days or other times when a student can’t physically be in school.
Carey also believes remote learning cannot replicate the social development students undergo in in-person learning.
“I do think it’s important for kids to come together and learn together,” she said. “Part of being in a classroom is learning how to be part of a community, to work with kids who are very much like them, as well as kids who are completely different from them. That’s something they can’t get outside the classroom.”
Remote learning has also raised new questions about equity, particularly in a city like Worcester, where not all students enjoy the same quality of access to the internet, for example, or have non-school-issued technology in their home.
“Just giving a kid a Chromebook isn’t going to be the great equalizer,” Dolan said.
But Binienda is among school officials who think districts have at least retained something this past year about how schools can be better going forward.
“There’s just so much we’ve learned about technology and providing services to students,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that.”
Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnell@telegram.com