Distance Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus

By Jessica Salfia

Last week West Virginia teachers (and teachers across the county) in a moment’s notice were asked to leave their schools and transition with no training and little guidance to “distance” learning for up to three weeks.

And we did.

Because teachers and school service personnel are extraordinary.

And we all did our best.

In a few short days—in some cases hours—teachers prepared enrichment work and lessons for students to continue learning at home for up to 2-3 weeks. Cooks and custodians made our schools ready for shut down and formulated a plan for food distribution. Those of us not helping with food distribution hunkered down to flatten the curve and try to keep each other safe while for the first time in our lives our nation is threatened by an actual pandemic. Many of us were told to reach out to our students and continue digital instruction for the duration of the closure all the while information has been changing every day. We don’t know if we’ll be back in our classrooms in two weeks, two months, or until next fall. And despite all this pressure and uncertainty, in the last week and a half I have seen teachers doing what they do best. Being creative. Being selfless. Putting students before their families and themselves to try and create some semblance of normalcy for their students.

And while this effort is heroic, I feel like we all need this reminder: THIS. IS. NOT. NORMAL.

Folks, nothing about this situation is normal.

So take a deep breath and remember: you do not have to try to create business as usual for your students every day.

While many of them probably appreciate it, many more of them are stressed, worried, unable to focus, and feeling overwhelmed by everything that is happening. If you have children of your own, you do not have to magically become the perfect homeschool teacher while digitally instructing 125 students.  If only 12 of your 24 students have returned your first distance learning assignment, you did not fail as an educator. Now is not the time draw a line in the sand with your students or your children and show everyone what a hard ass you are. Now is not the time to really show parents how much you do every day. Now is not the time to make your students appreciate your class time together by loading them up with what would normally take you a school day to do.

No, now is the time for grace–grace for your students, your family, and grace for yourself.

I don’t know how and when this crisis will end, but I do know that the most important thing we need to focus on during this crisis is not grades, but community and relationships. It’s not holding every student accountable for completing assignments, but maintaining flexibility by making sure our students understand that we are available to help and support them during this time.

So to help myself (and my fellow teachers) during this time I am giving you my five rules for teaching in the time of coronavirus.

Rule 1: Be flexible.

In the last week and a half, I have changed assignments for at least 4 kids and facetimed and skyped individual students who were just getting our distance learning materials a week into it. Just this morning, I told a parent on the phone to have his student start with this week’s work and I exempted last week’s task because they had just gotten the work and were so overwhelmed by the total amount of catching up to be done.

Our students have parents who are still working, some of our students are watching younger siblings and cousins, some are being cared for by grandparents or older siblings. A normal school schedule will not work for everyone during this time. Flexibility and understanding is the only way to get through this.

Rule 2: Calm the hell down with the workload.

Folks, we know in West Virginia we do not have reliable broadband or even reliable cell and phone service. A strong wind knocks out my mom’s landline for a few days at a time at least a few times a year. Do not assign work that requires daily uploads, digital check-ins, or daily messaging. This is not feasible for many of our students and families.

Additionally, we live in a state where in some counties 70% of our students are being raised by grandparents who may not be familiar with digital formats, apps, or programs.

Now, is not the time to teach Mamaw how to help her 2nd grade grandson complete a quiz in your Google classroom.  Provide work that is accessible, allows for creativity, and that is easily understandable to both students and parents and grandparents.

And if you do want to involve Mamaw, have your students ask their grandparents to tell them a story, color a picture, or cook something with them. Here is a picture of me doing that very thing with my own Mamaw who is 91 (the conversation in question was about when to plant greens in my garden beds):


Rule 3: Keep track of work completed but don’t write it in stone.

Keep track of who is turning what in and who is completing work, but do not let this work make or break a student. Until you know for sure what is going to happen in your district long term, now is not the time to put in daily zeros for missing grades.

I have been documenting what assignments have been completed in our digital gradebook, Schoology, but I have put the points possible for each assignment in as “0” for right now so that students who have turned in no work yet (and a do have a few) are not yet impacted. The work is labeled as missing for the time being, but no grades have been assigned yet.  I plan to reassess this system at the end of next week. Once we know more about how this situation is going to play out, then you can come up with a grading policy that is suitable and equitable for all your students.

I know other school districts around the country have done everything from “no more grades this year” to “one grade per week” to “daily accountability checks.” I think policy should be determined by your population. What is doable for your students and your community? And speak up if what you’re school is doing is NOT working for your students. You are still their advocate.

Rule 4: Check in with your students but make these check ins about wellbeing and clarifying assignments.

I have offered twice weekly zoom calls to my students, but these calls have not been mandatory. On these calls I have answered questions about assignments, but mostly I have given my students a chance to tell me how they’re doing and how they’re feeling. I have had a little more than half of my students jump on these calls. The ones who I didn’t see, I tried to call or emailed directly to check in. I discovered that with teenagers before noon calls have a lower attendance than late afternoon calls.

If you are looking for a video conferencing platform, I recommend Zoom. It’s super user friendly, you control the call, and your students can join by clicking a link you send them. It’s free to have access to 40 minutes or less per call, and students can join from phones or laptops.

Screen Shot 2020-03-24 at 1.12.56 PM

But again, not every kid has internet. Do not make a conference call or a zoom check in a part of your curriculum until you know for sure every kid has access.

Rule 5: Let them Create! The Arts will get us through this…

Art is the outlet many of our students are using to cope with situation. Let them create. Now, is the time for assignments that ask them to color, paint, draw, sing, play music, act, and design. Give them freedom to use this time at home to really take artistic chances.

Here is a beautiful digital example from one of my students:


And another amazing digital project from WVCTE President, Karla Hilliard’s student:


And we are sharing these digital projects because this blog is on a digital platform, but many of our students are writing, reading, painting, and drawing at home and uploading NOTHING to the Internet. And that’s ok too.

Remember, you are not alone right now. Your WVCTE community is here for you, and if you are struggling with anything, being a teacher during a quarantine or being quarantined in general, please reach out. If you want to see what I assigned to my AP Lang and English 11 students before our shut down you can access those files here and here.

But like many of you, my plan will change if our shut down extends beyond next week.  Remember, be flexible and extend grace to everyone, including yourself.

WVCTE wants to know…how distance learning is going in your county? What’s working? Got a cool lesson you want to share? Let us know!

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