Mekuria Huluka, an accountant and a dad of 3, wakes up at 6 am and starts to prepare for the day. An hour later, Betanya Assefa, a 7th grader at Austin Academy of Excellence, wakes up at 7 am to wake up her younger sister and prepare for school. Around the same time, Chelsey Sheckells, a chemistry teacher at North Garland High School, arrives at her school at 7:10 am and prepares her lesson plans for her classes.
The virtual learning environment has affected each one of them due to the new changes in education. Instead of leaving the house at 7 am to drop his kids off at school, Huluka stays home for work and makes sure his kids are in class. Instead of going to school and spending her 7th-grade year in the classroom, Betanya has to log in to a Google Meet for class. Instead of experimenting with chemical reactions in the classroom, Sheckells has to plan out lab experiments virtually.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virtual learning classroom has been one of the most major outcomes. The virtual classroom has undergone significant changes that have affected students, teachers, and parents across the country since the beginning of it all.
Almost nearing the COVID-19 outbreak anniversary, the question is: How has the virtual learning environment changed since spring of 2020?
When schools were first shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it left many people wondering how schools were going to be teaching their students. Many agree that the way virtual learning was structured in March of 2020 was not effective but schools were trying the best they could with the limited resources they had.
“I don’t feel like we were learning in March,” Sheckells said. “I feel like we were surviving and we were just trying to make it through something that was incredibly unknown.”
After the 2019-2020 school year ended, the summer gave schools the time to find out what parts of virtual learning worked and what parts didn’t. Due to the ineffectiveness of the virtual learning structure in the Spring, schools learned from their mistakes and errors and came up with better ways to improve the students’ learning experience.
“By the time we got to August and we actually started looking at it,” Sheckells said. “We knew what was engaging and what wasn’t. What made kids come to class, and what made them not.”
Schools researched and tried to find the best resources to make sure that students are learning more and engaging in class. However, some of the features of virtual learning that schools use may not be helpful for students or could be frustrating to use. That is what Betanya experienced when she learned her school switched from using Google Classroom to using Canvas.
“I don’t really like Canvas because there are many features of it that are really annoying and confusing,” Betanya said. “It doesn’t really work very well and Google Classroom was much more simpler.”
When the next school year neared by, schools gave their students the option to continue school online and the option to go to school in person. Though some parents were confident in allowing their children to attend school in person, many parents were concerned about their child’s chances of catching the virus and bringing it home. Huluka decided for his children to learn from home rather than go to school in-person.
“I have mixed feelings because I want my kids to stay home and be safe,” Huluka said. “The other side also, I want them to go to school and interact with their peers.”
59% of teens say that online learning is worse than face to face learning, according to a Common Sense/Survey Monkey poll. Some students felt that at the beginning of the year they did not have enough resources to participate in class and found it difficult to concentrate in class. Other students felt like learning from home is more comfortable than learning at school.
“Sometimes I feel like I can’t concentrate due to outside distractions,” Betanya said. “Sometimes I feel more relaxed because I can always just ask my teacher a question through email or the chat.”
Though some of the troubles from the beginning of the year have disappeared, active participation has remained a main issue of virtual learning. Sheckells teaches 3 classes a day and sees about 60-70% of engagement in the classes. Many teachers question how they can keep students engaged in class and increase participation.
“I’d love to say that playing games gets us there but I’m not the one who isn’t engaged,” Sheckells said. “That would be a question for the students: What can I do to help you stay engaged?”
Though learning from home has had a major impact on students, most teachers are required to go to school where COVID protocols are placed for the staff and students. At the beginning of the school year, according to a national poll of teachers from NPR/Ipsos, 77% of teachers were worried about risking their health if they returned back to school. Though the poll was taken at the beginning of the school year, some teachers still feel worried about going to school but others feel safe going to school. Sheckells feels safe going to school because she feels the students and staff take the virus seriously.
“Our kids[students] are respectful of each other,” Sheckells said. “Some people are extremely afraid of this, and some people just want to be in their own safe space because they know that they have family members and they have people that they care about that they don’t want to take it[the virus] home to.”
The events that have taken place in education for the past year has led to questions of whether or not virtual learning should be pursued more. Seventy-six percent of parents are supportive of virtual learning and say they support more online education at home even after the threat of COVID-19 passes, according to a research released by the Center of Democracy and Technology. But Huluka doesn’t agree with going online 100%.
“I don’t agree with 100% virtual learning,” Huluka said. “They[students] need hands-on experience and participating in exercises. But yes, I would support some sort of online learning but it won’t be 100% online.”