Students using laptops in Monmouth, Illinois. I(mage provided by Julia Levine.)

Rebecca Potter has been a teacher in Letcher County, Kentucky, for 29 years, but she’s never had a school year quite like this one. Like most teachers across the country, she has been teaching her students remotely, with the aid of educational software like Google Classroom. But that transition has not been an easy one. 

“Teaching has always been about adjusting on the fly, but you’re already trying to adjust to technology,”she said.  “And so when you have to adjust on the fly with technology, it’s a lot harder.”  

Adapting to remote learning has been challenging for Potter’s students as well. Learning how to use the new technology required to complete schoolwork can be daunting, even for so-called “digital natives” who have grown up in the internet age. 

But the differences between in-person and remote learning go far beyond simply moving lessons online (though teachers will tell you there is nothing simple about that process).

One important distinction is that the physical experience of being in a high school provides a rigid structure for students that online learning cannot. 

“It is really hard to stay engaged [online],” Potter explained. “And it’s really hard for students whose parents work to keep up with their own schedule. They are not used to doing that. They are used to their parents waking them up, going to school, the bell rings and they know to go to the next class, that sort of thing.” 

All of the teachers interviewed for this story teach live classes regularly, then post recordings of those classes online for students to watch later. Because of equity concerns, students are encouraged, but not required, to attend these live classes. 

This flexibility is important because it gives students facing a variety of circumstances at home more opportunities to complete their schoolwork. But without teachers watching over their shoulders, high schoolers have more freedom than ever to choose how to spend their time. And many are not completing their assigned work. 

“The ones that show up [to live classes], they’re doing fine,”Potter said.  “The ones that watch the videos later and do their work, they’re doing fine. But the ones that do neither one of those, they’re failing. And there’s a number of them.” 

Of course, there are plenty of reasons why students may not do their work. Because of the pandemic, many high schoolers are taking on additional responsibilities at home, including housework and watching over younger siblings. 

But even those not saddled with additional tasks are struggling with schoolwork. And those who consider these struggling students as merely lazy or apathetic are missing the bigger picture. 

Measuring the Hardship

Gavin Pielow, a first-year teacher in Knott County, Kentucky, has been tracking his students’ reactions to online learning through surveys.

In his most recent survey of 52 of his students, 60% of students agreed that they were “struggling to find motivation with school in an online learning environment,” and 40% of students agreed with the statement that they were “overwhelmed with virtual learning altogether.” 

The Daily Yonder sent a similar survey to 23 of Rebecca Potter’s students and found that about three-quarters of students felt that they had a harder time completing their work than the year before and that just over half of the students felt “way less” motivated to do their work.

(It is also worth noting that both of these survey responses skew positively because, presumably, those students who are most overwhelmed and least motivated are also less likely to have completed the surveys.)

When we asked the students what they missed about in-person learning, most of the answers had to do with being able to socialize with their friends and teachers. Other students missed their daily routine, getting help directly from their teachers, being in a good learning environment, and feeling like everything was “normal.” Other students simply wrote that they missed “everything.” 

Because most of the students who took the survey were seniors, they were especially disappointed to be missing out on their final sports seasons, school plays, and, of course, prom.  

High school students, like any other demographic, are not a monolith. Though they were a distinct minority, there were at least a few students who felt positively about their experiences with remote school and found it easier to participate and get their work done online.

Most students, however, felt that online school was significantly more difficult and less rewarding than a normal school year.  

“I am very happy we are not risking the health of others by staying online,” one student wrote, “but it is so much more stressful and hard to work like this and keep motivation.” 

Lacking Access

When schools first shut down last March, Rebecca Potter and other teachers had to resort to paper packets to teach their students. “It was a mess, just to be honest. That really was not optimal, I mean you really weren’t doing much teaching” she said. 

Switching to virtual teaching has made her feel more like a teacher again, but some of her students are still unable to benefit from online learning. Despite the fact that the school district was able to issue every student a chromebook, “we have some students who just can’t participate,” she said. “They don’t have the option to even have internet access, some of them, and some of them have the option but they don’t have the money to do so. And I worry about those kids. I worry that they’re not getting what all the other kids get.“

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that 21.3 million Americans do not have access to high-speed internet. But a recent report by researchers at Broadband Now, a database of broadband providers, concludes that the FCC’s survey methods have caused them to drastically underestimate the number of Americans without internet access. The real figure, according to Broadband Now, is closer to 42 million people. And the communities that have the least broadband access are disproportionately poor and rural

For the teachers of rural students who lack internet access, online learning is a logistical and pedagogical nightmare. 

At Letcher County Central High, where Potter teaches, students who don’t have broadband access are called “flash drive students” because they receive and turn in assignments by exchanging flash drives once a week. 

Potter says this solution works well for some of her students, who are comfortable with the technology and able to keep up with the cycle of assignments. But there are other students who continue to struggle with this system. 

“I don’t know if it’s because of transportation problems, or they just don’t care, or their parents don’t care, but they don’t regularly pick up the flash drives,” she said. Other students struggle to open and save their work without help, even though the school has done its best to provide training videos. 

Other school districts, like Louisa County, Virginia, have taken a different approach and built solar-powered hotspots around the community for students to use. But even when students are able to complete their work remotely, through online platforms or workarounds like flash drives, the inability to connect directly with their teachers and peers has important implications that go beyond their curriculum.  

Students without internet access are even more isolated than their peers, and it can be very difficult for teachers to maintain any sort of connection. “We are required to try to get in touch with them at least once a week by email or by calling, but that doesn’t always happen because the phone number we have for them doesn’t work, or that sort of thing,” Potter explained. The school will then try to arrange a home visit, but even that is no guarantee that councilors or administrators will be able to make contact with a student or help them to do their work. 

Julia Levine has spent the past year talking with rural teachers around the country for the I am a Rural Teacher podcast, produced by the Rural Schools Collaborative. “Kids are falling through the cracks in such unbelievable ways right now without that face-to-face contact,” she said. 

Levine is concerned not only with students’ education, but also their mental health. They are, she pointed out, living through a historic global pandemic. And though human beings are almost infinitely adaptable to new situations, she thinks we do high schoolers and younger students a disservice by not recognizing the ways in which they are uniquely affected by the pandemic.

“Every teacher that I’ve talked to, ever, has always emphasized their students’ mental health and wellbeing above their curriculum,”Levine said. “And I think it’s even more so with rural teachers who are able to develop these connections with students and families over generations.”. 

The Covid-19 pandemic changed the way schools operate, practically overnight, Levine pointed out. Whereas traditional academic standards are relatively straightforward, measured through grades and test scores, relying on these same metrics can seem nonsensical when students’ lives are so up-ended. 

But Levine believes that important lessons can be learned from the pandemic. “I hope that what is being learned is that we need to focus on students’ and teachers’ health and wellbeing,” she said. “Caring for each other is a basis for where education comes from, and we need to ground ourselves in that.”

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