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Doing school on Zoom is not the answer

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Over the course of this historic year, the pandemic has unveiled weaknesses in America’s public infrastructures: from health-care to education, people are falling through the cracks. Our educational system relies on people being together and does not cater to individualized learning but rather group-learning. In the Bay Area, people are coming together to leave behind the traditional school system for homeschooling and alternative learning which could likely result in an uptick in homeschool across the states. There are many reasons to doubt American public infrastructures but will this lead to an exodus from schooling?

Jacob’s parents found out about his learning disabilities when he was seven years old. He is dyslexic and struggles in Math. Without someone to help him through model sets and to show him how to problem solve, he is lost and falling behind. Covid-19 has impacted students like Jacob and many more.

Virtual Learning clearly has its setbacks and its failures. The main complaint from both students and parents is the Zoom fatigue that the students experience—not just daily—but hourly. These observations have raised questions from both students and parents about the type of education they’re receiving not only during the Covid-19 pandemic but also before. A poorly functioning institution of education is calling for new designs in how we educate our young during the pandemic and after. Some aspects of life will be different.

“Now that I’ve had my kids at home for the normal school hours doing virtual learning, I’ve realized how much sitting time they have. They participate in classes that have them docilely sit in their chairs and learn 8 am to 3 pm, Monday through Friday. I want more body movement time for my kids, especially Jacob who has learning disabilities.” says Meredith, mother of Jacob.

Jacob is regressing in his writing and comprehension skills. In his Bay Area elementary school, he had a special education class that was giving him the tools he needed in order to succeed in his regular classes. In efforts to aid and support students like Jacob, breakout rooms are designed to encourage group discussion and for specialized learning classes. Breakout rooms are small groups where the students can come together and work on projects or discuss class materials. The breakout rooms that many schools have adopted in their virtual learning environments aren’t engaging enough for the students and it adds more screen time for kids who are already exhausted from staring at the screen from their standard classes.

“After staring at the screen and reading online in my breakout rooms, I get anxious and feel like I need to go run,” says Jacob who struggles with dyslexia. When everyone else is taking their 10-minute breaks, Jacob is still logged onto Zoom doing additional work so he can stay caught up with his classmates.

Is it just Zoom fatigue or the expectation that our students must maintain high levels of productivity for hours on end? Is the traditional school system that we have in place in America suitable for all our students’ needs? The answer is no. More and more students are opting for alternative learning, especially high school students.

This training of the body and mind creates subjects, not individuals. Now that quarantine has radically changed the nature of classroom set up, we see students and parents creating more alternative ways to foster a learning environment. Pods are being created so students like children from the ages K-5 can have more opportunities to learn how to socialize. Pods are small groups of students who participate in virtual learning collectively with a shared tutor or accredited teacher. We have high school students adopting independent learning schedules in lieu of sitting in on zoom meetings.

While most children in America are interacting with their peers through Zoom, many kids go through the K-12 pipeline without much knowledge of alternative schooling methods. As students transition from elementary school to junior high, from junior high to high school, the expectation in work and productivity changes, making it difficult for some to nurture their love of learning.

Amy is an 8th-grade student who, after experiencing all the downfalls of virtual learning, is applying for an alternative independent study high school. The curriculum is designed to encourage motivated learning and customized study schedules. Much like the distinguished New York College, Sarah Lawrence, where you collaborate with your professors one-on-one, some of these independent study high school’s operate in a similar fashion: meetings with their teacher for 1-2 hours, twice a week, where they can discuss and go over their work.

This flexibility is more closely aligned with universities, where you oscillate between attending classes throughout the week without being confined to one classroom. Independent-study high school also allows for one-on-one time with teachers thus giving students more college prep and in-depth learning that is specifically catered to the learning habits of the student. Closely aligned with homeschooling, independent-study also allows for socialization and bonds to be created with other students participating in the same program. Skills that are not only essential for university success but in life as well.

This is the type of education I received in high school. I felt that I couldn’t maintain my focus in the 8 am to 3 pm classroom environment. I was falling behind in my classes and felt utterly unmotivated by the social benefits of a large school. I thrived in my independent study environment and went on to attend some of the most notable universities in the world. Working so closely with my teacher gave me immense confidence and had prepared me for the self-motivated learning that a university requires of all its students.

Amy is applying to the same alternative high school I attended in Marin County, Tamiscal High. It is students like Amy who are seeking alternative learning practices and it is schools like Tamiscal that are garnering more attention than ever from younger applicants versus previous years.

The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have no end date or return to “normalcy” and it seems there might be no return to “normalcy.” Students are falling through the cracks of our educational foundation sooner than usual and are struggling to receive the individualized help that they need. The fringe benefit that many educators are seeing is that we can use this time to reevaluate the educational institution and as a way to create more alternative learning platforms.

Homeschooling has risen by 3% this year, according to the National Homeschooling Association but not all parents are up for the challenge. After interviewing twenty different parents in the Bay Area on whether they have considered homeschooling, the most common response is no.

“Authority is a major issue between my daughter and me,” says Wendy, a mother of three. “I am their mother and struggle to fit both roles into one.” Wendy had been struggling with Virtual Learning with her daughters not only due to Zoom fatigue but having them view her as an authority that can help with their work. “When your child is constantly complaining to you that their eyes are sore or they can’t look at the screen anymore, your mother instinct kicks in and you let them leave the meeting.”

But when it comes to helping her daughter learn 2nd grader curriculum material like basic sentence structure, addition and subtraction, grammar, and so on, her children become defiant. “They don’t view me as a teacher,” says Wendy. This is why Wendy and a band of other parents joined together to create a small pod. While keeping Covid-19 protocols in check, the pod meets together and participates in a blend of specialized learning from the Tutor/Pod Teacher and from the school’s curriculum.

Every parent in the pod pays a small portion to the tutor to design extra course material, walk them through classwork, and help them in the areas that need tending. “Having a tutor has been great. But having a pod has been even better. Having my kids home from 8 am to 3 pm every day, especially when the shutdowns first started happening, made working from home at my 9-5 job extremely difficult. My kids needed help with their classwork. They need to be let out for recess and lunch and honestly, they just need peers to play with.”

With the challenge of playing mother, provider, and teacher to her children, Wendy clearly finds many benefits from the pod. Moreover, she recognizes how much her children love it too.

“The pod has helped our family so much. While our daughter loves school, she prefers pod to school because of the one on one time she receives with her pod teacher.”

I am a pod teacher and a tutor and I have witnessed where students are struggling and where they are succeeding. For my 2nd graders who are exceptionally bright, some of them are struggling with basic reading and writing while others struggle with overwhelming anxiety.

“I really like the pod,” says Artemis, a 7-year-old 2nd grader. “I get more one on one time with my tutor and I feel like I’m learning a lot.”

The main developmental area that needs the most in Elementary school is socialization. K-5 learning is focused on how to interact with others and how to build relationships. Many pods and alternative Elementary schools focus on the formation of social skills as well as a foundational skill set for academic subjects.

Without a teacher’s encouragement and after-class assistance, it makes it difficult for kids to stay engaged and work on the areas that need it. Through testing and their peers, many students can recognize the subjects that they are not succeeding in which creates a sense of self-doubt.

In the pod, Artemis will raise her hand on Zoom—which will often go unnoticed—and then she will sit there blankly staring at the screen. It’s easy for her to fall behind in class because her question was unanswered. When her questions go unanswered, it affects her confidence and learning ability. Luckily, it’s my job to catch her up.

There is a clear disparity between students who are in a pod and those who are not. Through tutoring students in various settings, I am seeing students who are struggling to read and who are swamped with pages of busy-work. The love of learning is a dimmed light and teachers rarely talk directly to them, making them feel lost in a sea of Zoom squares.

Is smaller better? Many K-5 students need a lot of socialization making pods more popular for in-person playtime without violating CDC rules and regulations.

Returning to in-person schooling will include engaging in socially distant behaviors with friends who are not within their core class. The fear of contracting the Covid-19 virus is very real. For students who have family members with compromised immune systems or are more susceptible to experiencing the severity of Covid-19’s symptoms, the stress of being out in public is exhausting. Children across the spectrum are threatened and fearful of the virus resulting in unusual behavior.

“I have not been eager to go back to class,” explains Elijah, a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. “My community is in general, at-risk, and I sometimes feel afraid to even go outside on walks since I live in a city. The idea of being back in school is overwhelming.”

Not only is Elijah experiencing the stress of going back to a large high school, but he is also considering enrolling in an alternative high school that

can allow him to take his piano lessons more seriously. “Music is one of the only things that has been able to calm my nerves during the pandemic—and my high school doesn’t encourage it. It’s more of an academically driven school with a focus on Math and Science.”

Students like Elijah recognize the difficulty this has on their teachers but view it more as an institutional problem. “The curriculums are designed and the teachers teach them. I’m not sure how much creativity is allowed in that.” Elijah and Amy are protesting the return to school yet both leave their class Zoom meetings early due to lack of engagement.

“Virtual learning has been tough. I often feel that I don’t have a voice or that my raised hand goes unnoticed. It’s this weird space of being there and not being there. Not being able to interact with my teachers and classmates is challenging. I’d be on Zoom all day and then on the phone Facetiming or Instagramming my friends. I’m just fed-up with the screen,” says Elijah.

Non-traditional schools can help students find their own path and design their interest in and out of academics.

Through all the turmoil that Covid-19 has brought, it has a silver lining: an organic experiment in education. Alternative schools are gaining clout and recognition leading to success in various students. If the past is any measure for the future, many students and parents will continue to reevaluate how our educational system is operating and where they fall into it.

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