Coronavirus ‘confusion’: Teachers had little training for how to do online classes

Caralee Adams

This story about remote learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

After the Arizona State University Preparatory Academy announced on March 13 that it would shift its 11 schools to online learning because of the coronavirus crisis, teacher Theresa Ordell switched to high gear.

The following Monday, the 51-year-old teacher  assembled bags of books and worksheets for families of her third and fourth grade students to pick up as they were let in, five at a time, to South Phoenix Primary and Intermediate, a public charter school.

Ordell practiced using the videoconferencing platform Zoom, so she’d be ready to lead class online with her students the next day.

Her students laughed Tuesday morning when she played the classroom theme song, “Get Back Up Again,” from the movie “Trolls.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, with COVID-19, we are going to get back up again.’ We made it work.”

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Experts say teachers ideally should receive several days, weeks or – better – months of in-depth preparation before launching an online learning program.

But when schools across the USA closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, district leaders eager to keep students learning pushed teachers to pivot quickly to online learning. Many teachers received a couple of days of training before being asked to overhaul nearly every facet of their job. The lucky ones had a couple weeks.

A computer lab teacher at a Brooklyn school creates a video lesson at the New York City Department of Education's Blended Learning Institute. Teachers across the country are being asked to quickly master the skills involved in creating these kinds of lessons and to deliver material online often with limited training.

The varying amount of training districts provide has created a patchwork of quality and gaps in accessibility. Many teachers improvise, counting on patience from parents and students as they transition to online learning on the fly.

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‘Not enough time’

“The biggest problem is there is not enough time to really do the training that a teacher needs to understand how to teach online,” said Jennifer Mathes, interim chief executive officer of the Boston-based Online Learning Consortium, a nonprofit group that offers webinars and resources on online teaching and learning. “What we are doing right now is more of a Band-Aid to say these are tips and tricks to do remote learning now.”

The consortium offers weeklong workshops, but teachers need about three months of courses to really become effective online, Mathes said.

The International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Virginia, requires teachers who want to be certified as online educators to receive 30 hours of face-to-face and online training that can take up to nine weeks, plus six months to curate a portfolio.

Some colleges ask teachers to complete nine credits to receive a certificate in online teaching. Experts in the area say planning, designing and implementing a high-quality online course can take more than a year; the best training is customized to meet teachers where they are and build on their knowledge.

Instead, many districts are rushing onto the new platform and scanning worksheets for kids to do online – not building engaging, effective online learning, which involves some strategy, said Richard Culatta, chief executive officer of ISTE.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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“The approach is all over the place: schools making good choices, schools making bad choices – a whole lot of confusion,” said Culatta, who formed a COVID-19 Education Coalition, which includes more than 50 organizations, to curate and vet resources for educators to use for online instruction through a free portal. “Our recommendation is for schools to pause for a minute to take a couple days to think about the learning experience they want to create.”

For kids without internet: Quarantined worksheets, learning in parking lots

‘Train to teach’

In an ideal world, schools would adhere to the standards agreed on for K-12 online learning. Experts suggest offering a combination of live instruction and work that students can do on their own time, rather than replicating bell schedules and expecting students to sit in front of a screen all day.

When learning to teach online, educators should receive at least some of their training, if possible, through an online course, so they experience firsthand what it’s like to be a distance-learning student. 

“We learn by doing,” said Lisa Dawley, executive director of the Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego. “You have to train in the way you want them to teach. It has to be modeled.”

The shift has been easier for schools that had embraced technology before the shutdowns, Culatta said, and some have put more thought and time into the rollout of online learning.

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In South Burlington, Vermont, Christie Nold, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Tuttle Middle School, said her district’s information technology expert was available for small group and individual help two weeks before her school’s closure.

The week before schools closed, digital tools were modeled at faculty meetings, and additional virtual training sessions were held. Nold’s team launched its online learning via Google Classroom and other tools they had used before the shutdown. Experts advise that schools use platforms that teachers and students are already familiar with, so they don’t overreach or overload students. 

“Given the circumstances, I feel really well supported by my district. I’m fortunate that we were given really clear guidelines about what remote learning looks like,” said Nold, 35. Still, she has been putting in longer hours than usual doing distance learning and worries about the sustainability of the setup. At the end of the first week of online instruction, the district announced schools would not reopen this spring. “It’s a big puzzle we are all trying to sort out together.”

Veteran teachers attend a Blended Learning Institute workshop in Manhattan in 2014. Experts say teachers need weeks, if not months, of training to develop and implement an online class. Many districts provided teachers a crash course in using online platforms, as fears around the spread of COVID-19 shut down schools.

Before West Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island moved to online learning – during the district’s spring break – the district ran 80-plus virtual training sessions to familiarize teachers with online tools, such as Google Meet and Flipgrid. Professional development coaches hosted a virtual help desk for struggling teachers who needed extra assistance with tutorials. They created a shared document, so others could see the solutions.

“I don’t know how education is going to go back to what it was before this,” said Kristin Tuttle, 42, a fifth grade teacher at Deering Middle School in West Warwick. “People have been thrown into a danger-type zone – this is new to us – but I feel like we are all going to grow to from it, and I see us in a few weeks really being much stronger.”

‘Trying to stay positive’

As the coronavirus threat has extended closures, possibly till the end of the school year in some places, training needs have changed.

Gabriel Serrano, a special education teacher who serves kids from pre-K to third grade, was initially asked to prepare individual paper packets with two weeks of work for his 11 students at Emelita Elementary School in Encino, California, part of the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District. The district suggested several online resources, but Serrano said he was overwhelmed by all the options and wished he had a “cheat sheet” to know which was best to use. 

“The first two weeks were a little chaotic. We were advised to do the best we can,” said Serrano, who has tried to contact all of his students’ families but has yet to connect with some. At the end of the second week of school closures, the district held its first virtual training session for teachers, 90 minutes about how to do distance learning, and gave the teachers until mid-April to complete four more two-hour sessions on their own.

“I’m trying to stay positive. It has been very stressful, but it’s new for the kids as well, and me keeping a level head is important for them,” Serrano said. 

Aric Foster, 41, is one teacher who is comfortable with technology and wasn’t worried personally when the Armada district in rural Michigan did not give teachers formal training for online instruction. His concern was more basic: He knows that all the training in the world won’t help him reach students who don’t have internet access. Just 35 of his 130 students logged in to his first remote learning English class.

“I worry how much this is going to exacerbate the inequity that already exists,” he said. 

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