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As coronavirus closes schools, teachers and families brace for massive experiment in online education

Teachers at Washington state's Northshore school district spent the past week figuring out how to teach students to do science experiments at their kitchen tables, or jumping jacks in their home basements instead of gym class.

After the area saw some of the nation's first confirmed coronavirus infections, Northshore teachers learned two weeks ago that — ready or not — they'd have to lead the way on what's likely to become the largest experiment in online instruction this country has seen.

"It's been a tremendous lift," said Tim Brittell, the president of the Northshore Education Association, the district's teachers union.

Teachers, administrators and parents leaned on each other as they tried to figure things out on the fly.

"It takes a tremendous amount of trust, a tremendous amount of understanding," Brittell said.

As of Monday afternoon, 35 states, including Washington, had mandated school closures in an effort to slow the spread of the virus; at least 35.9 million children are now displaced from their classrooms, according to a tally by Education Week.

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As school leaders look for ways to minimize the disruption to children's learning — and try to avoid extending the school year through the summer — teachers at thousands of schools all across the country are scrambling for ways to teach children who are holed up at home.

Preparing schools to move instruction online is a massive undertaking, said Keith Krueger, who heads the Consortium for School Networking, a membership organization for school technology leaders.

"Even those of us who are strong advocates of having this option have to believe that it will not be done well or smoothly in many — perhaps most — places," he said. "You can't simply snap your fingers and say, 'Tomorrow you're going fully virtual.' It takes planning and training, and we don't have time for that."

Many teachers and their students are likely to learn — as teachers in Northshore did last week — that there are creative and effective ways to teach and learn remotely.

Brittell, the district's union leader, said he watched a middle school art teacher livestream a still-life drawing class using paper and pencils that kids had at home. He watched a kindergarten teacher read a story aloud on video, then upload it to a website for students.

But he also saw many ways that this approach was deeply inequitable, squeezing out students without access to computers. Not every child has a parent or a caregiver available to keep them on task, and the online approach wasn't able to meet the needs of all students, especially those with disabilities or who aren't fluent in English, he said.

"This shows the inequities in a glaring light," Brittell said.

YOU HAVE TO ADJUST YOUR LIFE

Like most educators who work in traditional K-12 schools, teachers in the 23,000-student Northshore district had very little training in online instruction.

Most had largely used curriculums designed for the classroom, where a teacher can see which kids are struggling by glancing around the room.

But when a number of people who had contact with district schools tested positive for the coronavirus, the teachers didn't have much time to figure it out. They got some quick training, mostly in tools like Google Docs and the videoconference platform Zoom, Brittell said.

That's more than many of their peers in other areas received. In many of the states where governors mandated school closures, the order went into effect immediately or with just a day's notice — not even enough time to learn how many students have access to technology at home.

Her son's teacher decided not to livestream her classes but rather to post 15-minute videos that showed her, for example, teaching a math lesson. Her son wrote his assignments in Google Docs that his teacher reviewed.

Takumi Ohno's third-grade son practices his typing skills.Takumi Ohno's third-grade son practices his typing skills.Takumi Ohno
"It's fun," said Ohno's son, whose name she asked not to be published for privacy reasons. "I get to see my mom the whole day."

Ohno is luckier than most. She can do her job running a Japanese language website for the Pacific Northwest from home, and she said her son doesn't need much direction.

"Sometimes I have to remind him that his break time is up," she said.

It was a different story for Northshore father Aaron Keck, who said online education for his two children — a kindergartner and a third grader — was a full-time job. He also has a preschooler who had to be watched.

"I have not sat down much this week," Keck said Friday. "I'm bouncing between the two of them, helping with this or that."

IT'S A LITTLE CHAOTIC

As districts have shifted to online education, parents and teachers have been sharing stories online about kids using apps to make it look like they're attending a class by videoconference, when really they're out of the room. Some students put their pets in front of the camera or invite their friends from other schools to stop by the video classrooms.

"It's pretty funny to watch. It's a little chaotic," said Brian Kleinhaus, who has an eighth grader and a fifth grader in a private Jewish school in Westchester County, New York, that switched to online instruction two weeks ago after someone in the community tested positive for the virus.

"It's difficult for the teacher," he said. "They have to constantly tell the kids to mute their microphones so the teacher can be heard over the chorus of kids."

Challenges aside, some teachers who are used to teaching online say they're hopeful that this national experiment in online education will encourage schools to use more digital tools and figure out which students lack access to technology.

"This is certainly a stress test," said Bob Harrison, 42, a biology and physiology teacher in the Dearborn school district in Michigan, which started online instruction Monday. "I think it's going to expose a lot of the things that we have been doing in education for better or worse."

Krueger, from the Consortium for School Networking, said the nation's schools are more ready for this experiment than ever before.

Nearly half of U.S. school districts have at least one computer for every student, he said, and they've made strides in getting students access to the internet at home, though issues remain. As schools have closed this week, many districts are working with computer and telecom companies to buy equipment and improve student access.

But getting students online doesn't mean teachers are ready, Krueger said.

"Going to an online environment isn't simply turning on the video camera and doing everything you were doing in a traditional class," he said. "We're in completely uncharted territory with what's being asked of school systems."

His organization is among those providing resources and guidance, but he said, "even for districts that we work with who are leaders of virtual learning, this is still a huge mountain to climb."