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Virtual learners struggle to adapt

by Eplunus Colvin | November 29, 2020 at 2:07 a.m.
FILE — This 2015 file photo shows public school buses. (AP Photo/File)

The pandemic has shifted the academic learning environment and many students have struggled virtually to the adjustments.

With three weeks left in the fall semester, Watson Chapel School Superintendent Jerry Guess is urging students to contact their principals to do everything they can to improve their grades before the semester ends.

Earlier this month, approximately 362 virtual students had returned to on-site instruction. Kristy Sanders, chairman of the Ready for Learning Committee, said during the November school board meeting that the district had engaged numerous staff members in an effort to track down students that were having trouble with virtual learning and talked to them and their parents to encourage the students to come back to school for on-site instruction.

Guess said he noticed a struggle with the district's virtual learning after the first nine-week grading period ended on Oct. 15. During that time, 24% of the elementary students receiving virtual instruction were failing one or more instructional areas, and 40% of secondary students receiving virtual instruction were failing one or more subjects. Guess said an alarming percentage of students had D's and were approaching failure.

He asked the parents to consider letting their children return to school or take more responsibility for their success as a virtual learner.

This wasn't just an issue for the Watson Chapel School District, as all Jefferson County school districts, as well as school districts throughout the state, reported difficulties in the virtual aspect of learning. During the White Hall School District's November school board meeting, it was noted that students who normally excel in the classroom academically were having difficulties keeping up with the fast-paced Virtual Arkansas learning platform. As a result, the district asked all students to either return to in-person instruction or "Bulldog Academy" online learning using White Hall School District teachers.

In October, the Arkansas Department of Education partnered with the state's Education Renewal Zones and Graduation Alliance to launch the ENGAGE Arkansas attendance and reengagement initiative at no cost to districts. The initiative was to support school districts by reducing the workload on identifying, locating and reengaging students, allowing them instead to focus on providing necessary educational supports to students both in-person and virtually.

Students who were failing one or more virtual classes were given the opportunity to work with a dedicated coach through the end of the school year.

"There are many reasons why a student might be disengaged right now -- and, as our data from the spring shows, even those who were successful in their classes before the public health crisis may be struggling," said ENGAGE Arkansas officials. "This is not their fault, nor is it the fault of their teachers or their schools. The learning environment has shifted in profound ways and many students are struggling with this change."

Teachers have also had their fair share of struggles with online learning. In a nationwide survey by RAND Corp., teachers in all-remote environments reported higher student absenteeism and less student work completion than teachers in face-to-face classrooms. These online teachers also said that they needed more support and guidance in planning instruction than their colleagues who were teaching in-person.

Guess said there was nothing more powerful than the relationship of a teacher to a student in a traditional classroom. With many virtual students on a course for failure for the semester, Guess said he received many phone calls from parents who said they were "lost."

"Several have told me that they thought going virtual would be like AMI last spring," he said. "AMI instruction in March, April and May was primarily review of previously taught material. Semester grades were largely based on previous learning. This semester, grades will be based on students' learning of required new instruction."

When students return to school after their Thanksgiving break, they will have three weeks left of their first semester. Class will dismiss early on Wednesday, Dec. , 9, and 16. In addition. Watson Chapel schools will dismiss two hours early on Dec. 17 and 18 for semester tests.

Guess said all the Watson Chapel Schools are using the recommended safety precautions, including disinfecting their campuses and buses daily. PPE and hand sanitizer are also provided.

"This has been a difficult semester for us all," said Guess. "I can promise you that teachers and administrators are working very hard to close out this grading period successfully."


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