Schools turn to distance learning in the wake of a global pandemic

by Paula Colon and Sarah Perez

LEARNING THROUGH A PANDEMIC: Math teacher Waynewright Malcolm checks an assignment he had created via Canvas. The stay-at-home order has forced schools to undergo distance learning, with teachers now having to use programs such as Canvas and Microsoft Teams. Photo by Waynewright Malcolm

The Coronavirus (COVID-19)  has infected over 3 million people worldwide and has caused the deaths of over 200,000 people. The virus is highly contagious and spreads through person to person contact. To avoid the spread of this deadly virus, the United States has promoted social distancing practices nationwide, which has ultimately lead to the transition into distance learning for thousands of schools in the U.S., including Broward County.

Upholding the state’s stay-at-home order, Broward County public schools have begun incorporating the use of technology as a substitute for an in-person learning establishment. Schools are providing the best possible learning environment for students during this time of distance learning by distributing school-issued laptops to students who are unable to acquire one and even offering at-home internet access. This transition is a very drastic change for many students and teachers in Broward County and involves a multitude of adjustments and adaptation for both parties.

“Some students during the course of the year probably did a lot of work on their phones or on only one computer at home,” said administrator Dianna Hurtado. “Many households have multiple students and only one computer, and while that may have worked before, that wouldn’t work now.”

Teachers across Broward County are now using Canvas and Microsoft teams to communicate with their students. Both of these programs are used as a means of communication for teachers and students and have required them to learn how to operate the program effectively. With these tools, teachers are able to facilitate online learning, through video chats, testing, and distributing assignments. 

“There are a lot of teachers who spent their entire time over spring break learning about Canvas,” said math teacher Waynewright Malcolm. “If teachers want to meet with their students online, they are using Microsoft Teams as the official communication device.”

AT A DISTANCE: Silver Trail Middle School (STMS) student and 7th grader, Angel Figueroa, utilizes his school-issued laptop to complete his online school work. Figueroa visited STMS on Mar. 20 where he was issued a school laptop as part of Broward County’s initiative to transition into online learning following the Coronavirus outbreak. Photo by Paula Colon

With a lack of face-to-face communication between students and teachers, there will inevitably be some challenges. Students have been put in situations where they must be more vigilant than ever with their academic studies. Additionally, It has become much more difficult for teachers to keep track of their students and what their at-home learning environment and challenges consist of.

“I have some students who are not turning material in and you wonder if it is because they do not want to or is it because they are dealing with the virus on a much more personal level,” said math teacher Kimberlee Krueger. “That unknown of not knowing why worries me.”

Fortunately, distance learning has revealed some more possibilities of learning for the future. For example, students will be able to contact teachers for assistance on a more personal level because of the lack of a classroom full of students. Students and teachers have become obligated to learn and understand some of the many learning resources available to them online. 

“I can do a lot more one-on-ones than I would be able to do during the day in the classroom,” Malcolm said. “It provides more opportunities outside of the classroom for interaction on an individual level.”

The new learning environment necessitates having some kind of technological device at all times. This may be seen as a challenge for some students living in low-income households. Many of these students do not have access to properly equipped and functioning computers at home or even enough devices if there are multiple students in the home. As a result of these conditions, on Mar. 20 and Mar. 28,  schools all across Broward County distributed computers for students who are in need of them. 

 “My role was computer distribution,” Krueger said. “Parents/students came to me and we signed them into the computer to make sure everything worked and then the parent signed the property pass and paper from the district.”

A lack of internet access can immensely affect a student in completing the work they are assigned, especially since the need for technology is essential during the process of distance learning. The county has incorporated means of aiding students in the online learning process by partnering with Comcast to provide students in low-income families with internet access.

“Comcast has launched program enhancements to help students access the Internet during the Coronavirus crisis,” according to Broward County Public Schools. “Low-income families in Comcast service areas who sign up as new customers can receive 60 days of complimentary internet, access to more than 200,000 hot spots nationwide, and an increase in internet speeds from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps for all Internet Essentials customers.”

Education remains a driving force in the everyday lives of young citizens as we come upon uncertain times worldwide. It is essential that the transition to distance learning is as smooth and resourceful as it can possibly be. Broward County will continue to monitor and engage online learning practices while keeping obstacles for students and teachers in mind.

“As an administrator, my role is to ensure that students are active and engaged in their education as we all transition through these new norms,” Hurtado said. “Administration is available to answer concerns via phone and email. In addition, we are providing Teacher support who are new to canvas and need assistance.”