A student’s success with online learning is a mixed bag, depending on a student’s grade level, their own habits and whether there is accountability and help from parents and teachers.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rise in Jackson County, local schools are weighing their options for letting students back into school buildings safely. Four districts that have returned to the classroom are weighing turning to online learning exclusively. While teachers and parents argue it’s best for students to learn in the classroom, both sides can’t help but worry about the risk of transmitting the virus.

Kansas City Public Schools and Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools are among the last schools that are continuing online learning for all their students. Kansas City Public Schools welcomed back 200 special education students for in-person learning Nov. 9, but the district does not have an exact date for bringing back all students. The district said they will continue to analyze COVID-19 data and communicating possible return to hybrid learning in two-week increments.

Kansas City Kansas Public Schools plans to begin hybrid classes for all students Jan. 2021.

Schools in Independence and North Kansas City began the school year hybrid for older students and completely in-person for younger students, but allowed students to learn completely online if they chose to.

Lee’s Summit School District, which began the school year virtual for Grades 4 through 12, began hybrid classes Oct. 5.

LEARNING TIPS:

– Help Students find their own motivation. Motivating a child is one area where parents are (ideally) better than any teacher could be. The idea here is to help them ‘want to’ learn without punishing them psychologically or making all motivation external and independent from the actual value of the knowledge being gleaned.

Provide your child a productive learning environment. Designate a quiet, calm work station, such as their own corner in a shared space. This can help with the transition to “learning mode.” Identify another separate area for breaks or downtime.

– Make pens, pencils, a notebook, or scrap paper available right at their fingertips to avoid the disruption of getting up and looking for them.

– Provide headphones or earbuds to students, if accessible. This can help block out background noise and assist with concentration

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

Tiara Surface

7th Grade Teacher

Surface is teaching both hybrid and remote classes

From dads walking around in the background of their child’s online class in their boxers, to arguments so loud teachers cannot hear their students’ questions, Lee’s Summit 7 Grade world history teacher Tiara Surface would tell you her virtual classroom from earlier this year was not free from distractions or other issues.

Now that Lee’s Summit students have a choice of continuing with remote online learning or moving to a hybrid model of two days in person and three days virtual learning each week, more issues have come up.

“Virtual was hard, but hybrid, if I’m to be frank – I feel like I’m drowning,” Surface said. “In a lot of ways, I feel ill-equipped for this. No one’s ever done this before or taught this way before.”

Not only drowning in the work of putting together her four hybrid classes and two online academy classes, she says she’s drowning in emails from parents and students daily.

While students in the classroom may not need a lot of help since she explained the lesson in person, Surface said those in online academy do need extra help, so they email frequently.

Not only has attendance decreased, but so has in-class participation, said Surface.

“Those nonverbal cues, you’re missing [them] because you don’t know if they’re smiling. You’re only seeing them from their eyes up,” Surface said. “Plus, nobody wants to talk because it’s kind of a lot of work to talk with the mask on so that everyone can hear you.”

For both her hybrid and online academy students, grades are the worst she has seen in her 20 years of teaching.

Surface said her hybrid students, even the more advanced ones, will not do their work on virtual days, putting them behind once they come back to the classroom and some students in online academy are really struggling.

“But I’m not for sure how to change that because what honestly needs to happen is students need to attend a Google Meet or come to class,” Surface said. “A lot of students just need support and in a lot of cases, parents need support. It’s easy to sort of fall through the cracks if not all of that scaffolding is in place.”

For students who signed up to take online academy classes at Lee’s Summit, the student and parent filled out an agreement that the student would be responsible and the parent could help when needed.

Surface said that reveals an inequity that only strong students are able to safely learn at home, even if parents and students who struggle with online learning have valid concerns about the transmission of COVID-19.

“So, some parents are saying yes (to online learning) because they’re worried about their child’s health, even though their child is not a great candidate for online learning,” she said.

While she believes in-person learning is the better method, she says some students do thrive online.

Surface says her daughter, sixth grader Lydia Surface, is one of those students who is successful with online learning, which does make her worry sometimes, since she hasn’t heard of many other students loving it as much as she has.

“She does all of her work independently. She’s incredibly responsible and she contacts the teacher herself,” Surface said. “I do think there’s a way for online learning to work. I see it with my daughter, but I do worry about the social aspect of it, or the lack of socialization.”

Corey Lee

Freshman, Remote Learning

Lee is receiving classes through Lee’s Summit online academy with recorded, not live classes.

Corey Lee, a 9th-grader at Lee’s Summit North High School is learning through the district’s online academy and says he has been doing well, despite other students’ struggles. He keeps up and completes each lesson on the hour like he would if he were in school, which his mother, Laquenna Lee, attributes to his discipline and her supervision.

As far as the structure, Lee says she is not a fan of the high school’s online academy. She said the way it’s organized, students could wait to complete lessons until the end of the week, when the week’s assignments are due.

“There’s just is too much free time on their hands,” Lee said. “I’d like it to be more hands on.”

The online academy at Lee’s Summit for middle school and high school students allows for much more independence. Students do not have to attend mandatory live lectures; instead, they watch videos, read text and have assignments to complete each week. On Wednesdays, teachers have their Google Meets open for students to pop in with questions about their work.

Corey said he feels like his teachers’ attention is focused on hybrid learners more than online academy students like himself and he says he doesn’t have a strong relationship with his teachers.

Evonne Medrano

4th Grade Teacher

Medrano is teaching live online classes

Evonne Medrano’s nearly 20 years teaching experience didn’t prepare her for online teaching. Despite some issues, this 4th-Grade teacher says she has become successful in many ways.

Every day, Medrano teaches her 4th- Graders from her classroom, while all her students are logged on from home. She has two monitors to make sure she sees all their faces.

She begins class with check-ins, just as she would in person to see how each student is feeling.

Medrano asks that everyone turn on their camera for class and she usually has good attendance. She continues class with positive affirmations, songs and engaging mini-lessons.

“You’ve got to hook them,” Medrano said. “So, whether it’s being funny or playing music or having a routine, having structure – they need that, so they want to come back.”

In between each lesson, the students complete independent work, but they can still pop in to Medrano’s Google Meet if they need help. Sometimes they pop in just to chat with her.

“I always work hardest for my bosses that I trust and that I knew had my back and the kids are the same way,” Medrano said. “If you are on them all the time and you are having these unrealistic expectations, or you’re not building a connection, they’re not going to show up. I think that’s why my attendance is pretty good because they know that I do care.”

But she said her class is not free from its problems. There are always technology issues and some students’ Wi-Fi cuts out, causing distractions.

Medrano also has students from other elementary schools, which she said sometimes makes teaching tough to navigate when there are students on different learning levels together.

And, she’s concerned about her six special education students falling through the cracks. She said some of them are managing complicated schedules and she sees them struggle to navigate them all in an online setting. She wonders if they’re truly getting the services, resources and time they need like they would inside the classroom.

“You weigh the immediate need for the long-term effects that this is going to have on kids, and that’s scary,” Medrano said. “Does that outweigh them having these huge holes in their learning? That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Mason Anderson and Myla Lee

4th Graders

Both are learning virtually with a live teacher.

While 4th Graders Mason Anderson and Myla Lee would rather be in the classroom when it’s safe enough, they enjoy going to school virtually.

They’re attending school remotely five days each week and are able to engage with their teachers live every day. Both Anderson and Lee say they are building strong relationships with their teachers.

Joyelle Anderson, Mason’s mother, said he is a pretty independent student and says he has to be since she’s working full time from home and his father is attending law school.

“Of course, if he needs anything, he knows he can always come to us, but he has to be able to take that initiative. We can’t hold his hand every single step through because we told him, ‘when you’re in (regular) school, Mom and Dad are not sitting right next to you.’ So, I think he does a really, really good job,” Anderson said.

The Anderson’s have mastered one of the important traits parents need to encourage in student learning, whether it’s inclass or remote learning, but particularly for remote learning — encourage self direction. The more students own their learning the easier and more fulfilling everything will be for everyone.

While Lee loves learning online, if there was one thing she could change, she said it would be providing better internet for every student.

“Kids like me don’t have the best Wi-Fi, so it glitches,” she said.

Harrison Neal

Elementary Principal 

Working daily to keep his students excited about learning.

Harrison Neal, principal of Banneker Elementary School in the Kansas City Public School District has always been extremely hands-on with his students, and while the pandemic has made his involvement look different, he still finds way to frequently engage with the school’s students.

He spends time each day popping in and out of online classes and interacting with students. Especially while students learning remotely, Neal says engagement is so important.

Since students and teachers have lost physical interactions with each other in the classroom, the school has increased cultural responsiveness in their teaching to build strong relationships at a distance.

Culturally responsive teaching takes into consideration each student’s culture, background and beliefs and incorporates them into lessons and learning plans. When students see themselves and their culture in lessons, they feel valued and it builds their trust with teachers.

Neal has regular “read alouds” with students. This week, Neal read “I Promise” written by LeBron James to classes. It’s a practice that not only builds reading skills, but also cultural responsiveness.

“We have to be creative to build those relationships,” Neal said, and it’s paying off with students at his school excitement for remote learning.

“Our students are resilient. They’re excited about learning and participating in online classes, but of course, who wouldn’t want to come back in school,” said Neal. “But right now, they understand the safety components of it as well and they’re just excited to be online.”

While building positive relationships between students and teachers has gone well at Banneker Elementary School, Internet connectivity is still a concern. Many of the students use hotspots for class, some of the neighborhoods around Banneker don’t have strong cellular towers and service drops quite a bit.

Last month, Kansas City Public Schools invested more than $200,000 to upgrade hotspots provided to students to unlimited plans.

Neal said teachers went above and beyond to help students and families get online at the beginning of the school year and still are dedicated, beyond the classroom, to making sure students have the resources they need.

“The first couple weeks of school, I had teachers that were in front yards with a laptop, trying to make sure their students were able to log in,” Neal said. “I think the strongest teachers that are building those relationships are the teachers that are engaging the students outside of the classroom.”