Canyon Rim Elementary students

Canyon Rim Elementary students embraced remote learning after Gilbert Public Schools rolled out its online programs when schools closed last month.

Highland High School sophomore Gage Dayley says he’s seen a few snags with distance learning – especially when it comes to his honors chemistry class.

“It’s not really lab work anymore,” said the Gilbert teen. “It’s lot of watching videos and learning off that way. She’s still teaching but we don’t get to play with fire.”

Gilbert Public Schools officially rolled out online lessons March 23 after the governor closed campuses statewide due to COVID-19.

With over eight in 10 parents in the country reporting their children are learning remotely, 49 percent of them worry the pandemic will affect their children’s education, according to a Gallup Poll conducted April 3-5. 

That percentage increased from 42 percent when the poll was conducted March 24-29.

GPS, the fifth largest school district in the state, acknowledged limitations with remote learning.

The district, like virtually all in Arizona, is following the state Board of Education’s advice that bad grades not be given to junior high and high school students during their last quarter of the year. 

Elementary school students aren’t even receiving grades; their assignments are solely to enhance their learning.  

“It’s really important for us to remember lots of these things that have been happening are out of the control of our students and families,” said Barbara Newman, GPS executive director of teaching and learning. 

“And so, we don’t want anything that we’ve implemented to negatively impact our students in any way,” she said.

Newman, who gave an overview of virtual learning to the Governing Board in early April, said that because younger students don’t have as much experience with independent learning their assignments are “more of enhancement and enrichment.”

“So, we’re not going to start the new year expecting that our kids already have mastered all these standards,” she said. 

Instead, teachers for the remainder of the school year are “cycling back into some of our priority standards and giving additional support,” Newman said, adding:

“Our teachers are providing remediation for students perhaps after the end of the third quarter they still saw there might be some deficits and that is going to be the focus.”

Students in grades 7-12, are getting their work graded but if they don’t turn in a remote assignment, it won’t count against them, Newman said. 

She said students who are currently passing their class should not fail because of fourth-quarter remote work.

“This is an opportunity for improving grades, not penalizing students for not completing work,” according to Newman.

She explained while the district is successful with its online Global Academy, students there only take two courses at a time.

“So, for us to all of a sudden expect students to work on six classes all at one time in a different setting and perhaps not even having access to all the resources – that would not be kind,” she said.

She said many GPS campuses have established schedules to spread out the learning content where it could be science and math one day for students and language arts and social studies the next day.

“So that way they are not expected to do six hours of work every day,” Newman said. “We know that is an unreasonable thing for us to ask.”

The district is focusing on graduation requirement in core classes as a priority, according to Newman.

Gilbert mom Danaleigh Sheehan said her daughter Lily, an 8th grader at Highland Junior High School has had no problems so far with remote learning.

“Lily is participating well with online learning and is following a good routine each day to remain engaged with learning and school activity,” she said.

Although there are no studies yet on the coronavirus’ impact on learning, the pandemic is highlighting the imbalance in education, according to Jonathan Supovitz, University of Pennsylvania professor of Leadership and Policy at the Graduate School of Education and chair of the Education Policy Division.

“I think that there’s an exacerbating inequality” he said. “Obviously, more wealthy parents and kids from more wealthy homes have more readily access to both technology and internet access. I don’t think schools were obviously prepared to send out electronic equipment with kids.”

All GPS students in grades 7th-12th are provided a Chromebook, a standard routine  by the district. And with the closure, Higley Unified School District has loaned laptops to students who needed them. Students in both districts who did not have internet access were provided their lessons on paper.

Although most schools in general turned to remote learning as a solution, Supovitz said it has its stumbling blocks.

“Kids who are really young aren’t mature enough to be online,” he said. “And there’s issue with special education, too.

“Parents can’t treat their kids like college kids, as independent learners. They have to do a lot of monitoring.”

He said a child’s attention span and parental involvement play a role in the success of online lesson plans.

Gilbert mom Kimberly Carrillo said she is keeping an eye on her son Ian’s learning, a seventh grader at Mesquite Junior High.

“I have him start at 8 or 8:30,” she said. “We start on his emails and things he has for the day and what is due. He works in his room and shows me his assignment and then he goes on to the next assignment. I’m pretty involved.”

Carrillo said her son do lessons for about four to five hours a day with a 30-minute break. She also makes sure he does his P.E. classes by setting aside two days with 30 minutes each for full exercise.

“He can’t do video games or watch a movie if he’s not done something in school,” she said. “He’s reading or something so he’s just not sitting here on vacation. I’m sure they would be learning more in class but it seems like he’s getting lot of information.”

Carrillo also credited her son’s teachers being easily accessible.

“There are a variety of ways teachers are able to connect with their students,” Supovitz said. “You hear great stories of teachers calling individual kids who need extra work (but) it’s not the same intensity as it would be in school.”

And, he said, by bringing the classroom into the home it changes the dynamics by putting more emphasis on the parental role.

“The parents are essentially substituting for the teacher’s role,” Supovitz said. “When we have kids in a structure environment, the teacher has a huge influence. Teachers have much less influence now that it’s being distributed to parents and naturally that produces a different kind of consequence.

“First of all, parents do not have the experience of teaching kids. So, if we believe, and we do believe educators have the expertise and experience to help kids gain understanding of content. Parents don’t have that background.”

Supovitz said eventually there will be concrete studies showing student learning during the pandemic was likely impeded.

And, school districts in Arizona aren’t taking official headcounts.

“As far as attendance, the state is not requiring nor allowing us to submit daily attendance so we are not tracking participation this way,” said Michelle Reese, spokeswoman for Higley Unified, the smaller district in Gilbert. “We are encouraging teachers to connect with families directly.” 

At its monthly meeting last week, the Arizona Board of Education granted a request from the Department of Education that it not be required to collect absence data, stating it “is not a prudent or feasible way to measure student engagement during a school closure and so represents an administrative burden without a purpose.”

Supovitz compared learning under COVID-19 with that of “summer melt,” which typically refers to learning loss suffered by students over summer break.

“I think that there will be probably more of a range in student abilities in entering next year,” he said.

But, he added, he didn’t think students will see their learning detrimentally affected.

He explained the remote learning is basically three months, so for a high school senior who’s had 12 years of studies under the belt, it’s not a huge impact.

And for the younger students, “they have much more time in front of them to acquire those knowledge and skills,” he said.

Also at a disadvantage are more than 200 Gilbert vo-tech juniors and seniors who split their class days between their GPS school and the East Valley Institute of Technology and had been working toward earning a certificate that qualifies them to work in their chosen trade.

EVIT spokeswoman CeCe Todd said they’ll have to wait to get that certification.

“For those who wish to enter the workforce and need industry certifications to do that, EVIT will provide additional hands-on training once students are allowed back on campus to help ensure they can pass industry certification exams,” she said, adding:

“While it’s not our ideal way of training students, EVIT administrators and faculty believe the online learning opportunities they have created for students during the campus shutdown will enhance, rather than supplant, the quality hands-on learning we offer on campus.”

Distance learning could become a norm for K-12 students in the future.

“The medical establishment is talking about another wave of the coronarivrus that could happen in the fall,” Supovitz said.  

Right now, school districts are in crisis mode with online learning but they will have the summer to prepare for a possible second wave of COVID-19 outbreak, the severity of which depends on herd immunity and if there is a vaccine, according to Supovitz.

According to an education expert with the Rand Corporation, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to push schools to get serious about the use of online learning.

“There’s lots of brick-and-mortar schools, which before the COVID crisis offered online courses – in other words, they took a hybrid approach of offering both face-to-face and online instruction,” said Heather Schwartz, Rand’s director of Pre-K to 12 educational systems program.

 “I expect that this will be far more common post-pandemic. Does that mean that brick-and-mortar schools go away? No. But I could imagine that online learning will be a much bigger feature in both the pre-K through 12th-grade span as well as in higher education.”

For the time being, student Dayley says he spends about an hour a day on remote learning.

 “You still learn a lot,” he said. “But in a classroom there’s definitely a big difference. There’s a lot more interacting in the classroom.”

Dayley said he can see some students falling behind their peers when they start the next school year.

“Teachers are going to realize that and dumb it down a bit and review what we’ve missed,” he said.