GREENSBORO — A few months ago, math and science teacher Stacy De Witte could never have guessed she would spend afternoons tutoring her Southeast Middle School students from a laptop on her patio.
She could not have anticipated she would remind them to turn off their video feeds before heading to the bathroom. Or that they would joke with her as she pushed the wrong button during an online videoconferencing session.
“You have a chance to see your teacher in a different light,” she said. “You have to have a little more sense of humor, working with the tech.”
When Gov. Roy Cooper closed North Carolina public schools in mid-March due to the threat of novel coronavirus, public and private schools in Guilford County responded by switching from classroom lessons to distance learning.
That change sent teachers, parents and students on a weird and unexpected journey together.
Educators and families are adapting to new technology and figuring out how to balance their time. They are discovering benefits to online learning, as well as downsides, with many of them missing aspects of in-person school.
“I always knew teachers were important,” said parent Amy Holdren, “but man does this really drive that point home.”
The rush to begin online learning in the face of COVID-19 has meant adapting to a variety of online learning platforms.
Guilford County Schools uses a learning management system called Canvas. Teachers can use it for various purposes: to post assignments, materials, and videos, communicate with students, give quizzes and hold live video conferencing.
The district was already using Canvas before the pandemic and some students were familiar with it.
Parents like Meosha Whitsett, however, had to learn the platform while helping their now homebound students finish the academic year. Whitsett, whose 11-year-old son attends Wiley Elementary School in Greensboro, had never heard of Canvas before the schools shut down.
She was laid off from her job due to the COVID-19 crisis, so she has been home to work with her son on his lessons.
“It’s kind of hard, a little bit, because I’m not as technology savvy,” she said.
Whitsett said she’s constantly trying to contact the school or the teacher to figure out what her son needs to be doing and how to get his work completed. She thought maybe district-led online seminars could help parents better understand what they need to do.
Holdren, who has a ninth grader at Cornerstone Charter Academy and a fourth grade son at Shadybrook Elementary, has been getting to see different systems in play.
“I know there’s mixed opinions, but I think Canvas has been really great,” she said. Her daughter’s charter school, she said, had been using a lot of Google Classroom, but dealing with variations between her classes has been a struggle.
Across the county, some educators are making a lot of their own teaching videos, doing video conferencing with students, or both. Others have focused on written instructions and assignments and sharing pre-made materials from the internet.
De Witte said last month she had been using two online video conferencing platforms and Facebook Live, a video streaming option, for question and answer sessions with students about their lessons and assignments.
The conferencing function on Canvas worked fine for her, but some of her students didn’t like it. So she also used Zoom for video conferencing.
On Facebook Live, students can type comments and questions in real time on her live video, but they are not on video or audio. She thinks some students prefer that.
Her philosophy was to meet the students where they are, on the platforms where they feel most comfortable to ask their questions. If they cannot or will not use one platform, there is another platform to meet their needs.
The flipside to that flexibility, of course, is a lack of consistency.
“I’ve had parents asking me to stop switching platforms … from a parent standpoint, I completely understand the frustration,” De Witte said.
Setting a schedule
Northwest High senior Nathan Phelps has been trying out a nocturnal life.
He wakes up about 8 p.m. and does school work until around midnight, the time he said most assignments are due. Then he plays games until about 6 in the morning, before sleeping through the day.
He said his parents don’t care, so long as he gets his work done. And he emphasized this is his choice — the schedule he would rather be on.
With schools closed, teachers, students and parents suddenly have a different set of choices to make about how they spend their time, and sometimes different pressures, as they try to find a new balance.
Their experiences range from everything “going just fine,” to “not fine at all.”
Take Southeast High School sophomore Elizabeth Carmichael.
“I usually get ready and then I spend about two hours on school work, and then the rest of the day watch TV, play outside, just do whatever I feel like,” she said.
Now consider a typical day for Pam Newman, the grandmother and guardian of a district fourth grader — and a full-time student at N.C. A&T.
Her work day starts about 7:30 or 8 a.m. and runs into the evening on weekdays, Newman said last month. She also works some on the weekend for her salaried job.
Her hours had increased because other staff were laid off in the pandemic, so even though she is working from home, there is just not enough time in the day for her to walk her granddaughter through what she needs to accomplish for school, Newman said.
“My grandchild is not getting the best opportunity to learn,” she said.
A variety of factors play a role in how challenging scheduling and time management are for families.
Those factors include how many parents are in the house and the extent and flexibility of their work.
There’s also the number and ages of the children, the ability of the children to self-manage their work, the school workload, and the support teachers are providing directly to students.
Liddy Hall is the parent of two daughters, one in third grade and one in sixth, at Canterbury School, a private school in Greensboro.
She and her husband both work full time from home, Hall said. They have been able to make it work, with each member of her family often heading off with their computer or tablet to a different room so they don’t distract each other.
The teachers are posting videos and doing zoom conferences with the students to help make sure they understand the lessons, she said, and her daughters are doing well at working independently. In a typical day, she said, the girls finish in the late morning or the early afternoon — 2 or 3 at the latest — and then there is time for family board games and walks later in the day.
“I would say that they are more resilient and resourceful than I would have guessed,” Hall said.
De Witte, who is a single parent as well as a teacher, said she spends her mornings supervising her own sons’ distance learning.
She is calling their impromptu homeschool the B&G Academy, after the boys’ first initials, and making jokes with her children about their “undefeated” soccer and baseball teams.
It is a tricky balance though, because she has to be in communication for her job at the same time she is teaching her sons.
“Those morning hours are exhausting because I feel like I need to be there for my kids,” she said, “and I know I need to be online for my students.”
Pros and cons
Pandemic-driven distance learning, as it is taking place in Guilford County, is working better for some students than others.
Phelps, the Northwest senior on a nighttime schedule, is seeing distance learning as a benefit to his education.
“It’s better because you can go at your own pace and the instructions are fairly clear and easy to understand,” he said.
Julie Pequigney, a junior who also attends Northwest High School, feels the opposite.
“It’s actually so much work and it’s kind of difficult,” she said earlier this month. “I’m not learning anything, to be honest.”
She said math, where she has been learning about “something with Pi and radius and volume, I’m not too sure,” has especially been a challenge.
In class, with the math teacher giving notes and answering questions from her and other students, she just understands better.
Now, she tries watching the videos her teacher got off the internet and posted along with the assignments, but it is making less sense.
She said she knows that she could, and should, reach out to her teacher when she doesn’t understand. It just does not feel easy or natural.
District leaders are especially worried that students will see steep learning losses in math from the pandemic closure, and they have started to put some extra measures into place, such as airing hourly math lessons from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday on their public TV channel, GCSTV.
At a school board meeting last month, Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said they expect an average student is likely to retain less than 50% of what they would have learned in math this year.
“We know the instruction they are getting is as good as it can be, but is absolutely not the same as face-to-face,” she said.
In a recent opinion piece for Education Week, education researcher and Brown University professor Susanna Loeb said limited research on elementary and high school students has found online learning to be less effective than in-person learning.
“Some students do as well in online courses as in in-person courses, some may actually do better, but, on average, students do worse in the online setting, and this is particularly true for students with weaker academic backgrounds,” she wrote. She said there are likely ways to make online learning work better for less-engaged students.
De Witte sees good and bad in the online instruction so far.
She discovered she enjoys teaching over video conferencing.
The students who do show up, she said, are the ones who want to be there. They have real questions or points they want to discuss or understand.
“I am finding it’s easier to hold their attention on the video,” she said. “There’s kind of a joke going around that you can mute the kids that are talking too much.”
The darker side, for De Witte, was wondering about the students who are not showing up.
Out of the roughly 100 students she teaches, she said in April she had not been able to reach up to about a dozen of them in any way.
“I think that’s the hardest part about teaching right now, the kids you can’t get in touch with at all,” she said.
On average, 83% of Guilford County Schools students have logged on each week since the start of remote learning, district officials said. About 96% have logged on at some point .
De Witte ideally wants everyone to do their math and science homework, but it is far down the list of her concerns for these students.
“I’d much rather hear that you are OK and you are taking care of yourself, before you have any time to do any school work,” she said. “It’s unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented grace.”
Contact Jessie Pounds at
336-373-7002 and follow
@JessiePounds on Twitter.