Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

K-12 Schools Try To Salvage The Term By Teaching Remotely


In just a few weeks, the coronavirus has rewritten the rules of daily life. Roughly, two-thirds of Americans live in states where they have been told to stay home. And now, most of America's K-12 schools are closed. Several states, including Kansas, Arizona and Virginia, have already said this - students will not be coming back to school this school year. So teachers and school leaders who are worried about kids losing months of instruction are trying to salvage the year by teaching remotely. Can it work and what are the costs? To answer that, we talked with three teachers as well as the head of a big city school district. But before we hear from them, I want to bring in NPR education correspondent Cory Turner to set the stage here. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Explain the scope of this challenge, why teaching and learning without an actual school is so, so hard.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, every educator I've spoken with says the same thing. They've just never had to do something this big this fast. So most are trying to move classes online, but obviously, that means every child needs a device, plus Internet access, which is a huge barrier in lots of places all over the country. I mean, most schools, you know, do have some laptops or tablets that kids can use during a normal week but not enough for everyone. Schools are also trying to figure out, you know, how to continue providing support for students with disabilities. Plus, you know, honestly, if you want teachers to teach online, they're going to need training. Many of them don't know how to do this. And districts are racing to do that right now.

MARTIN: So what about those families that don't have a computer or Internet access? What happens to them right now?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, Rachel, this pandemic really like any crisis I think is exposing, again, the deep inequities in this country. You know, lots of big city districts are doing their very best. I know Chicago says it's giving out 100,000 devices to its highest needs kids, but that's still not enough. Plus they need access to Wi-Fi if those devices are going to work. And Wi-Fi itself is not just a problem for urban schools but also for remote rural communities. I have heard lots of stories in places like Texas of rural schools turning their busses into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. But, you know, many districts I think at the end of the day are just not going to be able to guarantee online access to every child. And that means that if schooling is going to happen at all, it'll likely be the old-fashioned way, you know, with phone calls from teachers and paper packets.

MARTIN: Right. OK, Cory, stay with us because your team talked to three teachers about how they are dealing with all this. And I want to play some of what those teachers had to say. Let's listen.

HANNAH KLUMPE: My name is Hannah Klumpe, and I teach at a Title I middle school in Greenville, S.C.

THU NGUYEN: My name is Thu Nguyen (ph). I'm a sixth-grade teacher in Washington, D.C.

JAMIE GORDON: My name is Jamie Gordon, and I am a third-grade teacher at a religious private school in the Richmond, Va., area.


KLUMPE: Everything happened so quickly. When we closed, we had no idea what we were going to do. We - I didn't have lesson plans for e-learning because, again, no one knew that we were about to close.

NGUYEN: Before you leave, you need to make sure that you are also prepared to be out of school for a month. This is while teaching just full time anyway, so nothing about our regular jobs changed except that we were also being asked to create a distance learning plan on top of it.

GORDON: I as a teacher am always thinking about how can I lead by example? And if I don't know how to use these programs, then how can I expect my third graders to do so?


NGUYEN: I thought we had gone over all the important things, but in my first day, one of my students showed up to a video call not wearing a shirt, just, you know, like, didn't think about that at all (laughter).

KLUMPE: Some days, I post, like, videos of myself giving those instructions, like where they're at least seeing my face. One time, I gave them from the middle of Target parking lot just so that they could see what's going on.

KLUMPE: I am a nurse. I am a counselor. I'm a cheerleader. I mean, the list goes on. That is also part of my job that I was hoping I'd be able to do virtually.

KLUMPE: I became a teacher to build relationships with my students and to essentially be, like, a carer. Like, this is a caring profession and that one-on-one, like, face-to-face interaction I think is what I'm really going to miss.

GORDON: We will not be returning to school for the rest of the year, and I'm sorry I get emotional when I say that. It's really hard to say that out loud because I've already had my last day of school with my students, and that is really difficult. And I did not get to properly say goodbye to them and, you know, so I'm trying not to think about June. And I'm just thinking about this week and so really that's what my focus is on.

KLUMPE: I think just show yourself some grace. Keep your head above water. And when it's not perfect, you really just have to just breathe and relax and know that sometimes surviving is enough.

MARTIN: Voices of just a handful of the millions of teachers in this country trying to find their way through this moment. To understand the challenges right now for the public education system as a whole, we reached out to Sonja Santelises. She is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

SONJA SANTELISES: I think part of what we're experiencing is some of the divides that were already evident in education are being exacerbated during this crisis. And I think what we're seeing is quite frankly up close and personal just what schools have been asked to do. A lot of school districts provide medical assistance. We provide food. And I think that has been a concern for my colleagues not only across the state but across the country and particularly those of us who serve large numbers of low-income families in under-resourced neighborhoods.

MARTIN: You've got 80,000 students roughly that you're responsible for. Is that about right?

SANTELISES: Yes, like, closer to 79, but yes.

MARTIN: Closer to 79. How many of them rely on school to get fed?

SANTELISES: I would say easily, you know, three-quarters of our families right now are very dependent on at least what schools are providing if for no other reason to supplement what the family has and is able to have and then others who are fully dependent. And we have a number of young people that we know already that the two to three meals they receive in school every day is about 85% of what they will eat that day. We knew that feeding was one of our primary focus areas - without a doubt. And fortunately, city schools, we actually have a very strong feeding program. Matter of fact, we began years ago providing dinner - so three meals a day - at some of our feeding sites. But it was still challenging even for us.

MARTIN: Let me ask you about another one of these inequities that you say is being exacerbated by the crisis - technology. I mean, we're now in this world where kids as young as kindergarten are expected to get on a computer and engage in some kind of class meeting with their teacher or, you know, have storytime or some kind of digital instruction. What do you do with the kids who just don't have that technology in their house?

SANTELISES: No. Without a doubt, we know we don't have one-to-one laptop programs. I have some of my colleagues that do. Even they are needing to go to a different level of virtual learning and then, you know, addressing the needs of a variety of learners. So the very first week, we made sure there were paper packets for everyone - right? - getting that kind of pencil/paper access in place. We have had to hunt down, like a lot of school districts, additional devices. But, you know, the reality is, Rachel - and I've said this to my board and my community - you cannot make up a 1-4 device-to-student ratio in the matter of a week or two in a pandemic.

MARTIN: Let me ask you - last year's testing data showed that roughly 1 in 3 kids in Baltimore was not performing close to grade level. What happens to those kids, the students who were already struggling?

SANTELISES: The goal right now is to maintain as much of a continuity of learning as possible. That will not replace time lost. It just won't. And so we are actually planning on two tracks. We're planning on continuity of learning for now, right? How do we give as many families as possible access? But the other piece that we are doing is what I call educational recovery planning. You know, there are different ways we're going to have to use summer. Are we going to have to adjust time in the school year? We know that young people who have interruptions in their early reading instruction are more vulnerable for gaps later on.

MARTIN: Where does your mind settle when you think about those who might be falling through the cracks right now?

SANTELISES: That's the hardest part, to be really honest. I know from some of the stories that our young people tell that, for a lot of them, school is their safe space. And so my mind goes there. But what it usually translates into is greater determination to be creative and focused and committed to making sure our young people know that we have not forgotten them and that we will still work incredibly hard to connect them in ways that keep them safe and keep them whole.

MARTIN: That was my conversation with the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, Sonja Santelises. And NPR's education correspondent Cory Turner is still with us. Cory, I was really struck by how she did not try to sugarcoat this situation. She's trying to be positive, but she was also really forthright about the challenges that she and other district leaders are facing right now.

TURNER: Yeah, especially with closures, I mean, we know lasting months, not weeks now. And, you know, I think we just need to be honest at this point that, you know, lots of kids are going to be fine. Obviously, they have support at home even if they don't see another Chromebook or a teacher until September. But I have heard from so many educators who are worried about their most vulnerable kids, the kids with disabilities or who are already academically at risk or those for whom school was a social, emotional lifeline. And they worry that this will have lasting consequences.

MARTIN: NPR's Cory Turner, we appreciate it.

TURNER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAIGO HANADA'S "WEAK ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.