School in a pandemic: One Lansing teacher’s experience

by Jamilyn Hiskes

LANSING, Ill. (March 29, 2020) – As of the end of March, there are over 100,000 cases of coronavirus in the United States, with over 3,500 in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, nearly every state has closed its schools. In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker first announced on March 13 that all public and private schools in the state would be closed through March 30. On March 27, the closure extended through April 7, with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot saying she expected further extensions “deep into April” depending on new information.

This has left Illinois teachers facing a challenge many of them have never had to face before: finding a way to make sure that dozens, sometimes hundreds, of students are learning what they need to learn—while not being able to help them in person.

Lansing resident Jeff White is a teacher in the Social Studies department at Illiana Christian High School in Dyer, Indiana. He is now remotely teaching 134 students. He said he recognized the importance of e-learning before this pandemic, but he never thought it would need to be implemented for several weeks on end.

Jeff White is now remotely teaching 134 students. (Photo provided)

“E-learning was made, in a sense, for when you have a polar vortex, like we did last year, and you have to be off school for a couple days,” White said. “It wasn’t really meant to be two to three weeks, or, with the way this is all transpiring, possibly five to six weeks.”

As a high school teacher, White faces the task of keeping teenagers motivated to learn outside the classroom. He said what he and his colleagues are experiencing, and how they’re facing the challenge of remote teaching, is different compared to what a college professor might be facing.

“One factor is, I think college students are certainly more disciplined and motivated than 15-year-olds,” White said. “And you sometimes have college professors who receive entire sabbaticals to construct an online course. Well all of a sudden, here are all of our classes we’re turning into online courses, and we’re doing it as we go. Some teachers are getting very creative, but it’s just not the same as having students in your classroom.”
White said programs such as Google Classroom and Zoom are helpful for teaching from home. But there will always be things technology can’t do.

“Many teachers that I know of are being very collaborative, helping each other out, because maybe something that’s worked really well for their class that they’ve developed over 20 years just isn’t conducive to the online setting, no matter how good the technology is,” White said. “Technology doesn’t replace the presence of a teacher. A lot of teachers were using things like Google Classroom already, but it was a supplemental tool.”

The students at Illiana all have Google Chromebook laptops, but White acknowledges that there may be some who don’t have an internet connection at home and need to take tests or listen to lectures using public WiFi. White is also aware of some kids having other responsibilities at home that may come before schoolwork.

“Mom and Dad may still have work duties to perform, so now the older sibling who may be a sophomore in high school has to watch their siblings,” White said. “So they can’t do the schoolwork until Mom and Dad get home. It’s a trying time for everybody.”

Going even further, White knows some kids may even see school as a place to escape from their home life for eight hours a day.

“I have kids who come from rough homes, and school is their safe place where somebody accepts them. You as the adult are the one that fosters a relationship with them and tries to talk with them,” White said. “I have one kid that emails me every day to talk about different things in sports. We did that when we were in class, and now that he’s home, probably alone, he misses that, and that’s sad.”

All these changes have made White feel, to a degree, that he’s no longer teaching a class, but individually tutoring 134 students. In the span of 20 minutes, he can expect to get 20 emails from students asking questions or turning in assignments.

“Just fielding a, ‘Yes, I got your report’ email, times 30, takes up a lot of time,” White said. “It seems like all you’re doing is responding to emails. …The whole landscape of education has really changed.”

In the midst of these changes, though, White still sees an upside.

“I think what’s nice is that teachers have learned how to do new things, despite it being baptism by fire,” White said. “Some teachers might find very useful tools now that maybe they were never aware of. If you’re a teacher who hasn’t used some of the modern technologies, you might find that they’re useful, or you might find that the ‘old-school’ way is the preferred method for you. Not every teacher teaches the same, just like not every coach coaches the same.”

It’s safe to say that White and his colleagues are all looking forward to getting back in their classrooms where they belong, with direct access to their students. Because, according to White, school is—and has always been—more than just schoolwork.

“There’s that interaction with kids that the kids need,” White said. “If we just want to look at education as being only tests, quizzes, assignments, lectures, and content material, we’ve missed the whole boat on education. Education is also people learning social skills, learning to interact with each other.”

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