Sandra Starling was driving by a Subway restaurant in Starke, Florida, when she saw a teenage boy sitting outside the building, on the curb, with a Chromebook in his lap.
“I turned around and went back,” Starling wrote in a now-viral Facebook post. “I asked if he was trying to do schoolwork. He answered ‘yes,’ because he ‘doesn’t want to get behind.’”
The student, who was using Subway’s free Wi-Fi to do his online schoolwork, told Starling his dad does concrete work in Jacksonville and his job was in jeopardy during the coronavirus pandemic, so home internet wasn’t a high priority.
Starling, a teacher in the rural North Florida town, said she wrote the post as a reminder that “school is only a small part of some students’ struggle,” and that internet access isn’t unilateral.
“Some people are unsure of their next paycheck and some kids don’t have all the tools needed to complete school while home,” she told the Florida Times-Union. “We all need to show a little mercy.”
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus forced schools across the country to adjust quickly to a new world of online learning. While every school district's experience is different, each one's story can shed light on the overall experience.
Between technology gaps, new flexible schedules, attendance inconsistencies and the question: ‘How much work is too much?’ distance learning in the Jacksonville area sees pitfalls and bright spots.
For students and their parents, concerns range from an overwhelming amount of assignments to a wide range of platforms to log into depending on the class.
'Every student connected'?
In Jacksonville, the school district's response to the coronavirus pandemic began with laptop and hotspot distribution in March, using surveys to gauge the technology gap for students’ households. Initial survey results indicated about 27,000 students needed a device out of over 68,000 responses, though officials expected the number of students in need to be higher.
By the end of the first week of distance learning, Duval County Public Schools distributed 31,950 laptops, a public records request showed. By the third week of distribution, a spokeswoman said that number rose to 37,000.
“Our goal since we launched this initiative was to have every student connected,” district spokeswoman Laureen Ricks said. “The wide distribution of laptops that still continues was a big step in eliminating the barriers to participation. We are in the process now of delivering laptops and hotspots to families whose medical or other circumstances prevented them from driving to our distribution sites.”
Duval County Public Schools has offered free, high-speed internet for qualifying high school students since October. The district has distributed about 3,500 Sprint hotspots to students who didn’t have internet access, a records clerk said.
Students had the option to opt-out of distance learning and opt for a paper packet instead. The district estimated about 30,000 packets were picked up within the first week. By week three of distance learning, the district said it made some form of academic contact with all but 429 students of its 110,000 students.
“That’s over 99 percent,” district spokesman Tracy Pierce said.
By week five when asked for an update, Pierce said the number of students unaccounted for decreased to 215 students as of April 23.
“Even though that is a very small fraction, 215 is still many children,” Pierce said. “We want to do everything we can under the circumstances to make sure these children are well and productively ‘in school’ just as we would if our buildings were open.”
The district said it is seeking to make contact with “missing” students through social workers and other resources. This is different from schools in Denver, Colorado, which recently caught heat for not tracking the number of students who failed to start distance learning.
'I almost cried today'
For parents, the transition online hasn’t been easy.
With Jacksonville’s stay-at-home order in place, parents and their in-school kids are all trying to get work done — oftentimes, under one roof.
“I am an educated, successful, level-headed woman and I almost cried today trying to help my second and third graders with their schoolwork,” Brittany Anthony, a Jacksonville Beach mom, said. “I finally gave up and let them play. My children are excellent students, but they are not getting what they need from me as a ‘teacher.’ Their teachers call daily, but they miss the actual instruction.”
Anthony considers herself lucky to still have a job and be able to work from home, “but I couldn’t even begin my workday until noon.”
“Pay the teachers all the money,” she said. “Mama is tired.”
Other parents aren’t able to stay home.
A Duval County Public Schools eighth grader — whom the Times-Union isn’t naming for privacy concerns — is home alone daily for distance learning.
Both of his parents work together at a small business. They knew they’d have to leave their 14-year-old at home in order for him to participate in Duval HomeRoom. And they know they’re not alone.
“Our child is very mature and we trust him to do the right things,” the teen’s father told the Times-Union. “We simply talked to him about staying on the school established schedule for classes, logging in on time, staying online for the duration, [and so on]. He could work ahead and probably be done with the week’s work in no time, but we want him stay structured for now.
“Today’s kids are built for this, in my opinion. He even had a video chat with a friend during lunch today. He prepares his lunch and then finishes it while rejoining his online classes — cooking frozen pizza takes a little time.”
The Jacksonville-based father empathizes with parents facing similar decisions.
“I am positive there are many families struggling with the situation who may have younger children who simply cannot be left alone and who have no access to in-home child care for a number of reasons,” he said. “If our child was younger, one of us would have to stay home certainly. There are single parents who are not able to get paid time off — or any time off — right now and that is a problem.”
While every case is different, students who spoke with the Times-Union mostly embraced the idea of online learning, praising being able to work at their own pace — and in their PJ’s.
″[Classes are] going pretty good for me,” Caroline Ferris, a senior at Mandarin High School, said. “I’m able to work from my personal computer in my bed or on my desk. Having a schedule helps me a lot with staying on track and keeping up with my school work. It has released a lot of stress being able to focus on myself and having lots of free time.”
Though scheduling is up to each individual school, and in some cases the individual teacher, multiple schools have adapted four-day workweeks with Fridays counting as a teacher planning or office hours day.
Mandarin senior Alayna Carley said she prefers a classroom setting, but appreciates the new flexibility, including being able to wake up later.
“I do like waking up later than 5 a.m., sitting at my dining room table in pajamas, and having class only Monday through Thursday,” she said.
Still, students say there are drawbacks.
“I don’t like how many platforms we have to use based on the teacher,” Mandarin senior Camryn Davison said. “A lot of my teachers have two or three different sites to use each class and it’s very confusing at times. I do like how we can almost work at our own pace.”
Duval Homeroom — the district’s online schooling initiative — uses Microsoft Teams as a central hub for posting lesson plans and communicating with students, while also using third party platforms, such as the popular Khan Academy and other free online education websites for supplementary lessons.
Burnout can be seen coming from both sides.
Duval County teacher Dana Terre said she’s noticed students taking coursework less seriously week-by-week.
“I have noticed a decline every week in the number of students who are submitting their assignments or checking in during our live daily meetings,” Terre said. “This is pretty shocking because my parents and students are usually highly dedicated to attending and learning. Seeing the weekly decline in interest from my students tells me that they already see this school year as over and are ready to end it.”
Danielle Darling, a senior at Mandarin, is no stranger to schooling-from-home.
“I did home school for a year and loved it,” she said. “But online school this year because of COVID-19 has been very stressful. I am constantly on the computer with being up late or waking up early. Teachers are assigning more work than we would actually do in class.”
Darling’s part of a family of seven — with both parents working from home and little brothers whom she helps with online school. She said some of her classes go on for an hour or longer followed by “hours of work to do after.”
“I’ve gotten more work than ever,” said Ty Jackson, who also attends Mandarin. “I feel like it should be a breeze for seniors [but instead,] we’re grounded ... and we get a load of work.”
Ways to detach
Pierce, the district spokesman, said the shift to virtual education is a learning experience for everyone and said teachers are encouraged to consider screen time impacts of their assignments versus the student’s age.
“We are also encouraging teachers to consider the impact of their plans on their own screen time,” he said. “This is an era of great educational creativity, and teachers have broad autonomy on how to advance learning during this time.”
Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Diana Greene sent a note to teachers praising their innovation, but reminding the educators to be mindful of screen time and to not worry about assigning daily graded work.
“When possible, find ways for both you and your students to detach," she said, adding, "Use computer time for rich conversations with students and to encourage them to connect socially and intellectually.”
Greene has been sending weekly notes to teachers districtwide, with encouragement as well as feedback.
“Similarly, for you, there should be no pressure to assign graded work in every subject, every day,” Greene added. “We are in a unique era where we can use multiple techniques to both construct and assess learning. ... We can still have high rigor and expectations, and in this era, more creativity and freedom than ever.”
Follow Emily Bloch on Twitter: @emdrums