Note to Readers: In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Irvine Community News & Views has launched a series of SchoolWatch articles to update our readers on the “new normal” taking place at our local IUSD and TUSD schools.

This series explores how the transition to an e-learning environment is impacting teachers, parents, and students. Contributors for this new set of SchoolWatch articles include retired Irvine teachers Carolyn Inmon and Jean Anne Turner, along with Irvine pediatrician and UCI School of Medicine Professor Emeritus, Dr. Phyllis Agran.

Our second article in the series (below) was written by Jean Anne Turner.


SchoolWatch: How Are Irvine Teachers & Students Holding Up Under the New E-Learning Environment?

Our education system is now in uncharted territory with classes moving online.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers have begun using some new jargon.  Remote learning or distance learning is now the common lingo for students to log into Google Classroom on their home computer to receive the day’s assignments.

Schools in Irvine have been closed since mid-March, so we wanted to check in to find out how students and teachers are handling the new e-learning environment.

As expected, our survey uncovered very different experiences.  For example, a third grader reports that he begins his day with a morning video message from his teacher with an explanation of the assignments laid out before him.  He claims it only takes an hour to finish his work each day, so he has a lot more free time on his hands.

The exact opposite experience was reported by a sixth grader who says that she is being given far more work than if she were in a physical classroom setting.  To her, it feels like a lot of extra homework since there is no teacher to actually explain the work.

In general, our survey revealed that most students think it’s “kind of fun” to have this new flexible schedule, but they miss their friends a lot.  And many students complain that there is nothing to look forward to as the end of the year approaches.  Online group chats among school friends have become the norm to fill the empty hours.

A sampling of elementary and secondary teachers was asked this question:  How effective is distance learning in your experience to date?

Although all declined to be quoted, one teacher stated that teaching is difficult without the level of student engagement derived from the student-teacher relationship, especially at the elementary school level where so much effort goes into building that relationship.  With no opportunity for a student to ask questions or share insights, education has been reduced to “engaging with material.”

To mitigate this problem, some teachers are scheduling Zoom meetings so that the entire class can see one another.  However, one high school teacher stated that she was disappointed in the Zoom meetings because there was no personal feedback, just heads of passive students displayed on the screen, occasionally nodding, but often appearing to be unengaged.

The majority of secondary teachers who responded to our survey stated that they do not believe that online lectures are particularly effective.  Most teachers reported that they are spending copious amounts of time learning new software options and preparing video and PowerPoint presentations, as well as designing assessments for students to turn in as a way of knowing who is on track and staying engaged.

It is important to note that two groups of teachers and students are facing exceptional challenges right now:  Special Education teachers and Advanced Placement (AP) teachers. 

Special Education teachers need to be with their students in order to provide instruction adapted to each individual’s needs.  There is no easy solution here.  AP teachers are facing the unique challenge of preparing students for the required AP exams.  With regards to testing, students will have two options this year.  They can wait and take the full test next year or they can take an abbreviated version this year, which will consist of a single essay based on one Data Based Question (DBQ).  Assuming that an at-home essay will be open book, the construction of the argument will be weighted more heavily than the content.  Given the unique circumstances, this is considered to be an adequate, though not perfect, solution.  It is hoped that the abbreviated version of the test will be as respected by colleges and universities as previous versions.

Everyone who participated in our survey agreed emphatically that despite challenges, teachers are doing their very best, each doing whatever they have the capacity to do to help students continue to learn.  And we’ve found that students and teachers agree that computers cannot replace teachers, and that the “school” experience is one dimensional without actual person-to-person interaction.

Jean Anne Turner