After retweeting an important and articulate thread, SOS Alberta reached out to Marie Perry to see if she would string those thoughts together for a guest blog. We are honoured she obliged; these are her valuable thoughts as a teacher in Alberta during this COVID-19 crisis.
I started writing because I’ve been reading the expectations that some school boards, teachers, parents and members of the public have about what students should be doing for the rest of the school year. In particular, discussions about how students need to be completing the same course requirements on-line as they were in the classroom, and if they can’t, they should fail, or have to repeat the year.
I work in a high school, part-time as a teacher and part-time with the Inclusive Learning team. This means that I’m in the classroom as well as help set up accommodations for students who need them. What I’m thinking about is: how are we supporting students right now? Schools provide way more than instruction and assessment and even in those areas, such a wide range of programming for a wide range of learners.
So far, what I’ve seen from governments and school boards (all over Canada and the US) has revolved around moving classroom teaching online, with some modification, so that students can still get a grade at the end of the year. The first thing I should say is that I believe students are more than their grades. The second thing is, I am not objecting to the efforts to move instruction and assessment online. There are many students who benefit from structure, tasks and goals. For some, this will create something familiar in a time that is anything but. For some students and caregivers this will be a comforting and manageable end to the school year. However, I’m not writing this for those students and families.
I’m writing about the other students. I’m thinking of the students that can only access the internet while sitting in public places, that live in group homes, that live in homes with domestic violence, that may use shelters or be street involved. I’m thinking of all the students who are recent immigrants, or refugees, or who don’t speak English; those that are neurodivergent or have coded or uncoded learning disabilities, or mood and personality disorders. And this is not a small minority, this is a lot of students. What is the plan for the students who, for a lot of different reasons, will not be successful at this sudden transition to online learning?
Some specific things that I have been thinking about:
A) Students without access to technology: As many people have already been discussing, there are students that don’t have computers at home, or internet; no data plan, no wifi. Some have phones, but they are old or broken or don’t have space to download apps. Some don’t even have phones. How will these students access the work that teachers are putting online? How will they stay socially connected and more importantly, safe?
B) Executive Functioning: Work that is online is often in one or more platforms--Google Classroom, YouTube, Flipgrid, Screencastify, Zoom, etc. Students who have problems with executive functioning may find these difficult to navigate. Are there multiple steps to access? Are the steps clear? Are there other things they can do on those pages that are distracting? Do they have to remember steps? Or go back and forth between programs to access information and complete tasks?
C) Parental support: This is not always there. Some parents, at all income levels, still have to work. Some parents did not complete high school themselves. Some parents will try, but are struggling themselves. Some are simply not able to help because the last time they did Grade 6 science was when they were in Grade 6--which might have also been in another country, in another language.
D) Assistive Technology: There are students that require material to be adapted for visual or hearing impairments or learning differences or processing problems. Does text need to be Brailled? Do slides and videos need closed captioning? Does audio need to be moved into text or vise versa? Do students need coloured paper or large print books or special technology that is available at the school but not at home?
E) EAs and Routine: Some students require predictable routines and visual stories which they may not have access to at home. Some students get a lot of social interaction and nurturing from EAs who also help regulate them. At home, without that social interaction and missing their EAs, with different routines and stimulation, students can become disregulated and act out. And because some students are adult-sized people, this can put them, and others, at risk of harm.
F) Food: There are students whose reliable access to food is through the school. How do they get food? Instead of providing food for only the student, what is the responsibility to provide for the whole family? How is this delivered? For how long?
G) Mental Health: School counsellors build therapeutic relationships with students, community counsellors and services meet students at school, teachers provide mentorship. For some, this is their only access to personal counselling or emotional support. Suddenly not having access to this can impact the mental health of many students and especially those who are neurodivergent or have diagnosed or undiagnosed mood or personality disorders.
H) Home Expectations: Some students will be required to take care of younger siblings or family members that are elderly or sick. Some will be responsible for household errands and chores. Some students will be working to save money for school or to help support their families during a tough economic time.
The reality is that many students are faced with not just one of these things, but multiple, and in some cases--maybe all of them.
Of course, there are people already thinking about these things and working on this because they know and care about students. As governments and school boards are working to create something that is familiar and resembles traditional school, I’m hoping they are also working in the best interest of all students--there needs to be a plan for students that are unable to successfully make the sudden transition to online learning. Parents and members of the public, please be aware of the challenges that some students face and the need for us to support all students. Teachers and support staff making this transition, how can we be accommodating and advocating for our students? What can we all be doing to make sure that all our kids are okay and that we aren’t leaving anyone behind.