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Sarah Garland’s dining room is doing double duty as a reading classroom. She’s teaching her kids to read at the same time she does her paid job. Garland is the executive editor at The Hechinger Report, and she’s been watching as parents like her across the country have been forced to sub as teachers while schools are closed because of Covid-19. For students, school as a mainstay of day-to-day life has evaporated. Sarah Garland talked with Stephen Smith about what she’s hearing from teachers, parents and students as they adapt. She also shares what she’s experiencing herself and what changes might still be yet to come.  

Stephen Smith 

Sarah, last week we talked with Jon Marcus, he’s higher education editor, about how the coronavirus is affecting colleges and universities. Now we want to talk with you about how it’s affecting K-12 education. What have been some of the biggest changes for you in New York City over the past month of school closures and these stay-at-home orders?

Sarah Garland

I mean, everything has changed. It’s been mostly a disaster, I think, in every aspect of our lives here as parents. I do think for some of the youngest kids it’s great to be home with their parents during the day, but beyond that, to assume that much education is happening is a real stretch. Parents are really, really stressed out. And then, that doesn’t even get into the sore sort of, that doesn’t even get into what really vulnerable kids are dealing with right now. And that, I think, is what we’ve been seeing. That, there are the stressed out parents who are working from home, or who have savings and are filing for unemployment, and then there are the kids who are homeless, or were already living in poverty who’ve lost this lifeline to school, right? 

Stephen Smith

Because, often, it’s a place of stability, and in fact, nutrition. It’s where a lot of kids get their food. 

Sarah Garland

Right, and even though they have regional centers here so the kids of health care workers and other essential workers are able to go into a physical place during the day while their parents are working, running the subways, delivering medical equipment, delivering groceries, that kind of thing. But even there, I was talking to a mom whose child is in one of those centers and it’s really hard for those teachers there. They’re overseeing 12 kids. The teachers, I mean, they were trained up in two to three days to do remote learning. And, we’ve been looking at — what does it take to do online learning well? And it takes weeks, if not months and years, to really train teachers up in the kind of skills they need to deliver education online, well.

Stephen Smith 

And especially for younger children, I mean, I just don’t see how that works. And you have two children yourself?

Sarah Garland 

Yes, I have a four-year old and a six-year old. For a four-year old, the learning is play. So pre-K and even kindergarten, really, the point is interacting with your peers, learning how to be in school, using play to learn skills. Really good teachers are working with them to help direct their play, and we’re reporting right now on how parents are not good playmates. We’re busy. We don’t have time or patience to get on the floor for hours at a time.

Related: Stuck at home with young kids due to the coronavirus? Here’s what to do—and not to do

And they’re not learning those essential skills of how to get along and share. It’s especially hard for only children who don’t have a sibling to share with. So, they are really missing out and it’s a huge strain on parents dealing with small children who are cooped up inside most of the day.

Stephen Smith 

Are there any school districts you’ve found that are doing K-12 education in any particularly novel way? Or are they all just sort of faking it?

Sarah Garland

One of the things that we tried to do is look at what the districts and networks of schools that were already fairly proficient in using technology and doing online education, are doing. To see if there’s lessons there that most districts, which are scrambling to figure this out, can learn from those places that have been doing this for a long time and doing it pretty well. And we found, for places that already have one-to-one devices, obviously it was a little bit easier for them because kids already had a Chromebook or an iPad or a laptop that they could work with at home. Teachers were already used to using educational software and apps. So it was slightly easier there.

Related: Coronavirus is poised to inflame inequality in schools

What I think is fascinating is that these districts and experts know that online learning, completely remote education, is really, mostly, a last resort. That the vast majority of technology used in education goes with a really skilled, in-person teacher and that’s what’s missing. So even in these places that absolutely know what they’re doing, and have teachers who’ve been trained it for years in how to use technology well and do online learning in the classroom, are still struggling because they’re missing that key in-person element, which is the relationships with kids, peer-to-peer interactions, all of that stuff that a great teacher knows how to do and that you just cannot do very well online.

Stephen Smith

New York City decided to ban the use of the meeting software Zoom. What happened there?

Sarah Garland 

It’s been sort of a larger problem where there are these “Zoom bombers” coming into Zoom rooms. So I think what happened is the officials here got nervous that that was going to happen to classrooms, where you have someone spewing profanities and racism to a classroom of second graders, for example. So it made sense from a security standpoint. I think it’s been tragic for kids who are relying on that connection with their teacher in an emotional way. So I had actually set up Zoom rooms for my kids, two classrooms, and they were just really for the kids to get on and see each other. They’re completely chaotic. The kids would get on and show the Lego thing they made or the picture they had drawn to each other. But, just to see their faces light up. To see each other and talk to each other. And then we had these early childhood classrooms. So we had our teachers get on, and they would read them stories and of course, the chaos would immediately end and they were completely rapt watching their teacher read a story to them and they’ve lost that, and I think that’s it’s just really sad for kids.

Related: Teletherapy has been powering virtual special education for years

And there’s this added scarier element — one of the trends that we’re keeping an eye on is is child welfare — teachers are, are mandated reporters and they are one of the main ways that child abuse gets reported. They’re watching their kids, they’re paying attention, it’s their job to alert authorities when they think a child’s being abused. And those cases are going down, partly because of the closure of school. So you have teachers who were able to keep an eye on kids, especially the most vulnerable kids, who can’t do that anymore. And even that, just once a day connection through a video chat room, there are ways to sort of keep an eye on kids and that’s gone now, too. At the same time, you had a lot of kids who weren’t checking in. I mean, we’ve had our classroom set up, but there are kids who we still haven’t seen yet. And we don’t know what’s going on with those kids. And I don’t know that teachers have a great way of keeping track or finding kids who just aren’t logging in. [New York City schools have since authorized the use of Google Meet to allow teachers to hold video conferences online.]

Stephen Smith 

In Seattle they nixed online learning because they felt it exacerbated social inequities. What was happening there?

Sarah Garland 

Yeah, this has been a really interesting storyline that we’re keeping an eye on — this fear that if we can’t provide an equitable education to everyone, then we shouldn’t provide one at all. It’s primarily been focused on kids with disabilities, who do often need a lot of in person support, whether that’s occupational therapists, speech therapy, other interventions that really are best provided in person. And that is hard. It’s not impossible. You can do some of these therapies online, but it’s obviously much better when you do them in person. And so some districts have just said, If we can’t make this fair, then we’re not going to provide an education to anyone.

Related: Should schools teach anyone who can get online – or no one at all?

They were worried about lawsuits, I think, is one of the reasons. This is a liability concern, that they would be sued if kids with disabilities weren’t getting the services that they’re promised through their IEPs (Individualized Education Program). Again, I mean, one of the interesting points people are making is that this is pointing out some of the disparities that have been going on for a long time. That this very quick shift to remote learning really highlights how much some kids need and how hard it is to provide those when the resources are limited.

Stephen Smith 

There are some school districts, or at least some people in school districts, who are arguing that students who have been affected by this ought to repeat the grade. How would that work? And is that a very widespread sentiment?

Sarah Garland 

Yeah, it’s really interesting. We’re looking at and thinking about what happens next year. So right now, a lot of schools and parents and teachers are in this immediate crisis. But there’s also a lot of educators and experts who are pushing folks to start thinking ahead. How are we going to deal with the fallout as soon as the summer? And next year? And one of the one of the options that I’ve heard is just repeating this whole year again for students. Probably a less drastic idea would be for teachers to loop with their kids, so that kids have the same teacher next year. I mean, there’s a host of logistical concerns with all of this, obviously, not least high school seniors who are already planning to go to college next fall, potentially.

Related: Planning ahead to catch up students when school reopens after coronavirus

But we’re at a point where we’re in the middle of the crisis, but thinking about what’s going to happen next is really important. Some of the options are summer school, extending the school year or starting the school year sooner. And then, of course, just regular interventions during the school day. And, trying to really consider how school days can be organized to help kids catch up who are left really far behind this year. Some experts are talking about how to build time in the school day next year, so that kids who fall behind in reading get intervention. Thinking about how we can make sure the curriculum that they’re being served is rigorous and is helping them get up to grade level when they are certainly struggling, but also need that challenge to make sure that they can catch up.

Stephen Smith 

Given that we’re in this sort of huge, massive, uncontrolled experiment with online learning in K-12, what do you think is going to happen to the idea of using more of those technologies going forward? Or is this even a fair test at all?

Sarah Garland 

That’s a fascinating question. And I’ll be really interested to see. I mean, there may be an element of just trauma around this experience. Meaning that we go back to school and we’re just so thankful to be in person that we give up on all these technologies. Some of us are at that point right now, but I do think that teachers are getting a crash course in online education, and they may find that there are tools that make their lives easier. One of the interesting things I’ve been thinking about is that we have a really interesting experiment where, at least in a lot of New York City Schools, kids are getting a very universal experience. So there are a lot of teachers using the same videos. So you have kids watching a module on math, where everybody’s getting the same instruction. And it would be interesting to see if that kind of use of videos and curriculum, where the teacher’s job becomes more to support kids who are struggling, to help them do the work, that sort of flipped classroom model, takes on. But I really think, I mean, I just don’t think we know what’s going to happen. For sure, if teachers are going to continue to use these kinds of technologies, they’re going to need more training.

Related: ‘It feels a little hopeless’: Parents of kids with disabilities worry coronavirus quarantine will mean regression

The training they’ve been getting has been pretty spotty. Our teachers have been so stoic and are really trying so hard, and we were just hearing this from all over. Teachers just really, really working hard to do their best. But they do need a lot more training on how to use these technologies well. I think what we may see is that some of these platforms and software that are marketing themselves very heavily to schools right now, they may get picked up. Right now a lot of them are free. But if districts like what they see or find that it’s a useful way to deliver education, that’s something we will want to watch. A lot of these software programs don’t have a lot of research to back them up. They’re fine in a pinch. I’m using some software that I know doesn’t really have a lot of research to back it up in the classroom, but it sure is great to keep my kids busy while I do conference calls in the afternoon. But it will be interesting to see if some of these software programs that don’t have much to back them up in terms of effectiveness, do get picked up. So I think next year will be a really interesting year to see if some of what we’re doing now gets picked up, for better or for worse.

Stephen Smith

Sarah Garland, always good to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Sarah Garland 

Thank you, and take good care. 

This story about learning at home was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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