Distance learning has been bumpy ride for county districts

Parents, students and teachers utilizing system meant for temporary closure, not extended block of time

PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – It has been more than a month since schools Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced public schools shuttered beginning March 16 because of coronavirus.

On March 30, Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie closed that county’s schools. Runcie even recently said that he expects the schools will not open for the rest of the school year, and maybe even into the 2020-21 school year.

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Both school districts had to be up and running in no time for students to now stay at home and utilize remote learning. The two stakeholders we are hearing from as distance learning continues is from parents and educators.

It hasn’t been an easy ride.

Vanessa Beltran’s son is a second grader in the Miami-Dade County Public School District. Like so many working parents, she’s juggling working from home with learning how to coach her child through distance learning as COVID-19 school closures sparked a transition from traditional in-person instruction to virtual learning assignments.

"It has been on the challenging side because everyone is trying to balance work and home schooling at the same time. You are trying to ensure they are getting the education he or she needs," said Beltran.

Miami-Dade was a statewide leader in the online learning conversation. Last March, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explained how they already had a comprehensive draft plan, developed for temporary closures in the event of hurricanes, being adapted for COVID-19, while teachers are expected to be available for students a minimum of three hours a day. The district tells us there is no current requirement that they host virtual live classrooms.

"It is my first-time homeschooling, so it is not something I am used to," said Beltran.

A big complaint from parents that we’ve heard is that there isn’t enough time with teachers in live classes; that the new distance learning for some classes involves a lot of self-study and electronic homework. Parents, many who must now work at home, need to put in time to help their children with much of the self-study.

The plan for virtual learning was initially drafted as a temporary fix, something to be used during a short closure, for instance, like a hurricane. Now, the problem is being able to sustain the virtual learning while figuring it out in real time.

We reached out to find out more from each district about the expectations of the distance learning experience and the role of the teacher.

Miami-Dade County Public School District reponse

  • Teachers are required to dedicate three hours a day to “office hours” which can include live classes but don’t it is not required.
  • Teachers are expected to be available for students no less than three hours per day during “office hours,” in which they indicated along with their contact information in the School Closure Student Checklist that was given to students prior to school closures.
  • Teachers are available to engage with their students and, if they choose, that can be part of the three-hour office minimum. Teachers are engaging with their students using multiple age-appropriate platforms.

Jackie Calzadilla, director of media relations for Miami-Dade County Public Schools said, however, that “While a full day of live instruction is not mandated by the District, teachers are encouraged to communicate with their students and families beyond the three office hours they have allotted to specifically assist; this can be in the form of live instruction.students/families. She added: “We have seen teachers across the district who are going beyond the office-hour minimum to ensure that their students are engaged and staying on top of their assignments.”

Educators were provided with two days of extensive online professional development on April 2 and 3, according to MDCPS. “Teachers engaged in more than 40 offerings, covering topics such as navigating their remote classrooms, exploring best practices for distance learning, digital citizenship, and improving communication and collaboration with students and colleagues,” according to the district.

On April 6, MDCPS sent out a news alert, an instructional continuity Plan 2.0, moving to the next phase of distance learning ICP 2.0 defining the roles of students, families and teachers.

[See the ICP 2.0 news announcement here]

This from MDCPS distance learning plan for Teachers:

"ICP 2.0 encourages teachers to develop high-quality distance learning lessons/assignments, addressing course standards/benchmarks while balancing online learning, volume of work assigned, and student/teacher interaction.

"Suggested activities for teachers during office hours during the work day include, but are not limited to, communicating with students and families, facilitating lessons, and answering questions. They are asked to communicate expectations of student progress and contact families if students are not engaged. The role of teachers is also to participate in professional development and virtual learning sessions and to monitor District and school communications for all up-to-date information. In addition to ICP 2.0, FLDOE also encourages frequent online instructional engagement by teachers during distance learning.”

Jackie Calzadilla of MDCPS told us: “This is an evolving process. We continuously engage with our teachers and families, listening to their feedback so we can provide a framework for learning that seamlessly builds in to the communication tools teachers are already utilizing with their students."

[FAQ for Distance Learning from MDCPS]

Now, in some cases, more than a month into distance learning, there is still an opportunity for the districts to evolve a plan, such as MDCPS could discuss evolving their plan and consider perhaps mandating full day, live classes between now and the end of the school year in June.

Broward County Public Schools response

Daniel Gohl, the Chief Academic Officer, responded to questions about the district’s distance learning program.

"Teachers are required to have a minimum of three hours of student interaction each school day. Examples of engaging with students include: video chat with whole class(es), small groups, and/or individual students, live discussions using the Canvas Discussion Boards, Audio Team chats/phone calls with students, and/or other forms of live, direct interaction with students.

"Additionally, teachers are to utilize the remainder of their contract day beyond the time spent in direct student engagement on professional duties. It is important to remember that how this time is utilized is at the staff member’s discretion using their professional judgement. While they are to work a full contract day in terms of the number of hours, the times at which they work may not match school operational hours due to personal circumstances they encounter because they’re working from home.

Gohl said examples of this may include: “Publishing assignments in Canvas, grading student work, taking professional learning opportunities in Canvas, TEAMS, or other relevant topics, collaborating with peers, including grade level or course/departmental meetings, and/or participating in IEP, RtI, ELL, CPST or other student support meetings. Principals are using Canvas Global Announcements to keep their schools informed. Many schools are using this feature for video announcements including the Pledge of Allegiance, mindfulness messages, humor and encouragement on a daily basis. Video chat through Microsoft Teams in Canvas is strongly encouraged, but it is not mandated.”

We wondered if the district would decide to mandate that teachers do live classes for a set period of time if distance learning continues for an extended period of time. Wouldn’t this ensure there is a district-wide uniformity and equitable access to live teacher instruction, we asked?

“Balance is needed to be maintained between the professional needs of each teacher to ensure learning continuity and the personal responsibilities of maintaining their own household with physical distancing, childcare and extended family responsibilities, and other demands,” said Gohl.

Gohl said that parents are encouraged to provide feedback to teachers and principals when it concerns the “quality of the instruction.”

“Technical issues of device operation, internet connectivity, and application functionality are then directed to our Office of Instructional Technology,” Gohl explained. On Monday, April 20, BCPS will launch a systemwide virtual help desk at (754) 321-0569. BCPS will conduct a systemic survey of parents beginning the week of April 20 on many topics, including the successes and challenges of remote instruction," Gohl told Local 10.

[See more of our Q&A with BCPS’s Gohl by clicking here]

[Information for COVID-19 Crisis from BCPS]

“I hear the frustrations from parents,” said Anja Sherry, a learning coach for the pilot program Global Field Academy under the nonprofit of Educate Tomorrow. She explains how educators are also working to find their way in this new online learning landscape,

“We’ve always had the mindset that this is a community process to get through; we are all going through this together. We have to remember this is a huge learning curve you are, (it) doesn’t matter if you are parent or an educator, we are in uncharted territory here, so we really have to be patient with ourselves, our children and the educators,” said Sherry.

About the Authors:

Christina returned to Local 10 in 2019 as a reporter after covering Hurricane Dorian for the station. She is an Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist and previously earned an Emmy Award while at WPLG for her investigative consumer protection segment "Call Christina."

Michelle F. Solomon is the podcast producer/reporter/host of Local 10's original, true-crime podcast The Florida Files and a digital journalist for Local 10.com.