CHARLOTTE – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ decision to begin the school year fully remote has been difficult for everyone, but the challenges that distance learning pose for families with very young children can seem insurmountable.
Take Gina*, a kindergartener at Charlotte East Language Academy, whose day consists of over six hours of Zoom meetings and worksheets. “Her last class was from 3:20 – 3:40, so her day went back and forth like that from 9:15 – 3:40,” says mom Leia. “It’s not feasible or appropriate for kindergarteners to be subjected to this.”
Virtual school is not a new concept, but the widespread application we’re seeing this fall – especially for elementary school students – is so new that there aren’t clear answers on how long a virtual school day should be or what it should look like. However, Educational Psychologist Erin Turner Carson agrees that Gina’s day sounds like too much for a five-year-old.
“I think that the optimal virtual school day for younger children should involve approximately 60 minutes (not necessarily consecutively) of engaging instruction on core subjects followed up with asynchronous, stimulating, creative learning activities that support teacher instruction,” says Carson. “There are ways to design online instruction that is still highly interactive and stimulating.”
According to Carson, it’s a mistake to attempt to replicate an in-person school day online. “Virtual learning is inherently different from in-person learning,” she says. “We know from research that some instructional approaches are much better at promoting student motivation and learning than others, such as hands-on, interactive lessons; challenging (but not too challenging) tasks; a warm and supportive environment; stimulating activities that pique students’ interests; creativity; lessons that are relevant to students’ lives and needs; and the use of varied instructional methods.”
While all of these can be incorporated into a virtual learning environment, an engaging in-person lesson doesn’t automatically translate well to a virtual lesson. “One of the benefits of virtual learning is that it can be more flexible,” she explains. “The time involved in in-person school is finite. Virtual school can be more fluid. Students who need extra help to understand a lesson should be able to access extra time, support, practice, and activities to increase their understanding. Students who grasp a topic quickly should be able to choose from the activities they need or want to complete.”
Instead of the flexible approach Carson advocates for, most schools seem to have opted for a one-size-fits-all approach that closely replicates a normal, in-person school day. In other words, Gina’s experience is the norm, not the exception. Bain second-grader Sarah, for example, attends numerous zoom meetings per day and completes a large volume of independent work that requires watching (according to her mom) “deeply boring videos.”
“She has six Zoom meetings a day, about 20 minutes each,” says Mom Greta, noting that they’re thinking of adding a seventh. “There’s probably another hour or so of videos on top of that. Her eyes and head hurt by the end of the day. It’s too much.”
Despite an overabundance of screen time, Greta feels teachers still lack the face time necessary to teach important concepts adequately. “I wish they would lower the expectations the children are burdened with and focus on what’s truly important,” says Greta. “Make the screen time count by letting the teacher teach, not poorly narrated avatars.”
Moreover, the ability to complete virtual instruction successfully depends on the level of technological fluency that most young children lack. “The virtual classes were chaotic at best,” says Leia. “The teacher expected kids to know how to mute themselves and switch screens when she would try and show a video.”
“We know that young children are capable of using and even excelling at technology, but only if it is intentionally designed to have a simple interface for children,” says Carson. “Unfortunately, most of the learning management systems that I’ve used do not have an easy interface, even for adults.”
While this fall’s virtual learning experience is certainly more organized than spring’s “emergency remote learning,” a more robust program brings additional technical issues. For example, Gina often struggled with audio and visual difficulties. “The sound would go off regularly, and oftentimes we couldn’t see the teacher,” says Leia.
The result is an academic experience that is frustrating for young children to navigate without a great deal of parental support. “She’s too young to be 100% responsible for her own education,” says Greta of her seven-year-old daughter. “I trust her tech-savvy to get on and off Zoom meetings (following alarms I set), and once I explain some assignments, I have her do stuff on her own. I’m trying not to hover because I figure they don’t hold their hands all day at school, but she doesn’t understand all the instructions and truly needs us to explain a lot of concepts to her along the way.”
Of course, this puts a burden on parents, who are often tasked with supervising virtual learning for multiple children while also providing childcare for younger siblings and working full time. “The expectation that a parent can simultaneously work, facilitate online learning, and do all the other endless parental responsibilities is definitely unrealistic for most of us,” says Carson. Carson’s own flexible work schedule allows her to take care of her children and supervise online learning during normal working hours; meanwhile, she completes her own work in the evenings and on weekends while her husband takes over childcare duties.
But arrangements like Carson’s aren’t possible for all families. When Gina’s mom approached her daughter’s school about the difficulty of juggling all these responsibilities, she received little sympathy. Although the director of magnet programs admitted that he knew the schedule was not working and mentioned a hardship waiver the school could provide to struggling families, school leadership refused to talk with her about it. Instead, she received suggestions about how to better plan out her day. “The principal refused to address the issues and said this is what it is, and she is required to be in all virtual classes,” says Leia.
There’s also one key ingredient missing from the bulk of virtual instruction: socialization. “Sarah hates the videos and misses interaction with her teacher and friends,” says Greta. “We would like time with teachers on Zoom instead of videos and some opportunity for socializing built-in. Specials would be a good venue, but they cut specials time on Zoom in half, and then they are back to working alone.”
“The lack of socialization is a huge concern to me,” says Carson. “Children by nature are social creatures, and they learn socially, both from their teachers and from their peers. Research has shown that warm, supportive relationships with teachers increase student motivation. In virtual learning, children are spending most of their synchronous time, the only face-time they have with their teachers and classmates, on mute.”
“I personally would like to see fewer whole-class virtual meetings and more small group meetings,” says Carson. “With small groups, each student would be able to participate more and develop more of a sense of camaraderie with their classmates in addition to better-quality, more engaging face-time with the teacher.”
Ultimately, all of these challenges have led some parents to question the benefit of remote learning. After two weeks, Leia chose to pull her daughter from Charlotte East, opting to homeschool instead. “The last straw was Gina sitting at the desk sobbing that she hated it and begging me to make it stop,” she says. “I watched my child go from excited about school and learning to absolutely hating school in less than two weeks.”
A parent to a first grader and a four-year-old, Carson came to the same conclusion. “We attended three weeks of virtual school before I decided to homeschool my daughter,” she says. “As a parent and educational psychologist, my only goal for my children’s education is that they love learning. She wasn’t loving it. She was tearful and having meltdowns multiple times a day. The school day was rife with conflicts between us.”
“Every child develops and matures at their own rate, and they vary in their temperaments,” continues Carson. “I’ve seen other children in the same grade do okay with virtual learning, but for my daughter, virtual learning, as it was being provided, was not benefitting her learning or her well-being. I’m a proponent of public education, so I really wanted virtual learning to work for us, but it wasn’t. I decided it was foolish to keep her in a learning environment where she was not thriving.”
Others, like Greta, are sticking with it. “I have had vague, desperate moments where I’ve thought about homeschooling, but then I remember: I hate teaching,” she confesses. “I will continue to utilize the public school system. I moved to my neighborhood in part because it was in a good school district. I am not abandoning Bain. We just have to grin and bear it right now.”
Carson is slightly more optimistic: “Be flexible, don’t aim for perfection, and just do what you can. Don’t sacrifice your parent-child relationships or your family’s mental wellness over remote learning. Your relationships are primary. They are the foundation upon which your children thrive. School will not always be like this.”
Erin Turner Carson is the founder of The Hovering Parent, a blog on the psychology of learning and motivation. You can read more of her thoughts on parenting and virtual school at https://thehoveringparent.com/ and follow her on social media @TheHoveringParent.
* Student and parent names have been changed to protect students’ privacy