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Learning Curve is WKSU’s reporting initiative examining the past, present and future of K-12 public education in Ohio.

Learning Reinvented: Lessons Learned from Virtual Schooling During a Pandemic

Eliana Payne learns online
Amie Payne
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Amie Payne's six-year-old daughter, a kindergartner at Findley Elementary, surrounds herself with some of her favorite fluffy friends as she learns remotely at home.

Tricia Stanton, a third-grade teacher with Canton City Schools, pulls out all the stops to keep her students engaged as they learn from home on computer screens. From glittery gloves to bells, fancy wall drops and more—she has it all.

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Tricia Stanton
Tricia Stanton, a third grade teacher with Canton School's new Bulldog Virtual Academy, says that she has experienced growth since she began teaching virtually and has been able to spread her wings.

Like Stanton, all the teachers in Canton were trained to teach physically in the classroom. But very quickly, over the past year, many have had to learn a whole different set of skills to teach virtually.

“Now, we’re teaching the whole family,” Stanton said. “We’re teaching the parents how to monitor their own children and how to utilize some of the computer skills.”

Challenges of Virtual Teaching

Like schools throughout Ohio, Canton is concerned about a lag in student performance that began when COVID shut down in-person instruction a year ago.

Preliminary data released by the state earlier this month shows that chronic absenteeism is up, and test scores have plummeted compared with previous years. And all signs are that urban schools have been hurt the most.

Dean of Students at Findley Elementary in Akron Theresa Essandoh says teachers are motivated to help their students even while the teachers are learning and perfecting new skills.

“It’s very hard to teach a standard that you’ve taught 10 times before, and you know how to teach it. You know what materials to use, and you know what’s going to be effective,” Essandoh said. “And then, you’re in this virtual world, and the students have all these distractions behind them. It’s hard for them to focus.”

Rediscovering Skills and Expanding Frontiers

But the past few months also has shown the resiliency of teachers.

Gary Kandel, director of teaching and learning for Canton Schools, says remote learning has reignited the creativity and passion that teachers have for their craft.

Gary Kandel
Foluke Omosun
Gary Kandel, director of teaching and learning for Canton Schools, says the district's new Bulldog Virtual Academy will continue after the pandemic is over, offering families the option to keep their students educated remotely if they choose.

“If I’m teaching a biology class and reaching out through a website like Twitter and connecting with a biologist who is out in the field, that may not have been something that teachers thought that they could do,” Kandel said. “If there’s one positive from an instructional standpoint that has come out of this, is that teachers have rediscovered that, ‘Wow, I can do this, or I can do something new and be successful with it.’”

Unlike other urban school districts in Ohio, Canton has been offering both in-person and remote learning since the fall. Forty percent of its students are currently enrolled in the new Bulldog Virtual Academy and Kandel says that option will continue.

“We went from a program that didn’t exist in July to now in December/January having roughly 3,000 students participating full time in a virtual learning environment,” Kandel said.

In the Bulldog Academy, kids learn from home and get the meals and other services, such as mental health counseling, offered to students who are learning in person.

Successes, Challenges and Lessons Learned

For nine-year-old Adrian Munford, a third-grader in the Academy, virtual school has been great, says his grandmother Bertha Munford.

“He has learned so much more than he has ever done in the classroom,” Munford said. “There’s no bullying. There’s no distractions. There’s nothing that could distract him from getting the proper assignments done. He’s doing an awesome job!”

At Akron Public Schools, Essandoh says discussions are underway to keep a virtual learning option for families.

But virtual learning is not easy, especially for younger kids.

Amie Payne
Amie Payne
Amie Payne, mother to two students at Findley Elementary School, says it has been a challenge keeping her kids focused when learning remotely at home.

Amie Payne, mom to a second-grader and kindergartner at Findley Elementary, says issues include basic structure.

“It is definitely a challenge trying to get them to stay on school and getting them to understand that when they leave the area of where their teacher can see them, they are essentially leaving the classroom,” Payne said.

When Payne and her husband are at work, they must rely on a sitter to help the kids navigate virtual school, which would not have been a problem if they were in the school building.

Still, Jennifer Walton-Fisette, Ed.D., director of teacher education at Kent State University, predicts that the new normal for education will be to offer a virtual option to families.

“Not all kids learn well in a school setting,” Walton-Fisette said. “If they have less anxiety and can succeed in this platform, I’m really hoping that school districts will say we need to continue this. Hopefully, it took a pandemic to shake things up a bit and to see the possibilities and realities that can really benefit all kids.”

And that reality is a mix of frustrations, successes and hope that a new model incorporating distance learning will help Ohio’s urban districts meet the needs of a greater range of their students.

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Learning Curve is a statewide media collaborative focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing K-12 public education in Ohio.

Our partners include WCPN, WOSU, WVXU, WYSO and The Devil Strip.