The platform and tools for virtual learning for Frederick County Public Schools elementary, middle and high-schoolers are the same.
Everyone uses Schoology, the school system’s virtual learning management platform, to access documents and Google Meet to meet face-to-face with their teachers.
But even with the same tools, the look of virtual learning between the youngest and oldest learners in the county varies significantly.
During Lauren Stevenson’s kindergarten class, the entire Google Meet grid lights up with faces. Sometimes the students wiggle in their chairs or look off screen. Sometimes they even disappear for a few minutes. But most of the time, Stevenson sees each and every student in her class.
For Amy Connor, she sees a black grid, with letters representing her students.
Connor teaches Advanced Placement chemistry at Frederick High School and Stevenson is a kindergarten teacher at Middletown Primary School.
Student use of a webcam during synchronous learning is not required by FCPS, and it seems that the older students get, the less they feel inclined to turn on their cameras.
Dialogue poses another challenge. Sometimes Stevenson has to mute students’ mics for them when they are talking out of turn or haven’t realized that the mic is on. Connor defaults to allowing her students to answer questions in the chat box.
“They don’t want to talk on camera, which is something that a lot of teachers are having a hard time with, and I think we just need to realize that this is how they are comfortable. So, how do we shift to have that work for them?” Connor said.
Connection with students has been another difficult area to navigate, especially for Stevenson, who said that there were a lot of tears in the spring when her students were not able to see her. Coming back this year with a brand new group of kids who are all starting school for the first time, Stevenson said she has had to make sure that she is intentional about what she does during their synchronous sessions.
“I always call them by name ,and I always talk to them before the call, — that really helps. And I let anyone come in early...and I let anyone stay late,” she said.
This extra time with Stevenson helps her students feel connected and able to form a relationship with her. And most often, if a student stays late, they don’t have a question about school but rather just want to talk to their teacher, such as one student of Stevenson’s who stayed after class just so she could say that she liked Stevenson’s hair.
She also sent all her students a picture of herself before school started and said she spent a good amount of the first few weeks training her students to not panic or get frustrated if there are technical issues.
Stevenson has also tried to initiate friendships between her students who at this moment do not have a classroom or free time to develop those relationships on their own.
Sometimes she has students call on each other or lets them chat for a few minutes at the beginning or end of class.
Connor, who previously taught in Howard County and is new to FCPS this year, said it took a few weeks for her students to become comfortable with her. Now she has a relationship with each of them, despite being separated by a screen. Even though it’s a different learning environment, they are learning, Connor said.
“I think that my students this year are actually outperforming last year’s students and we are slightly ahead in pace, so we’ve got a lot of wins,” Connor said.
That doesn’t mean Connor’s job has been easy, though. She said she usually puts in around 65 hours a week and has had to rearrange her teaching philosophy three times since the start of the school year.
“This takes intense effort and creativity. This is a totally new beast...this is not easy,” Connor said. “I care about students, so I’ll do whatever I have to do, but I also know that this isn’t sustainable over the course of years.”
To make sure their students are learning, Stevenson and Connor have had to turn to numerous virtual tools.
Stevenson uses videos that teach students numbers or letters and puppets that arrive on screen at the start of class.
Connor uses interactive diagrams and online lab programs that allow students to move through the steps of a lab experiment and record their own data.
Connor, who teaches from her empty classroom at Frederick High most days of the week, said she would give anything to have pre-pandemic times back. She thinks the current health metrics are good and said she feels safe with how the school system is approaching things.
“Based on the metrics, we should be looking to expand, and we are doing that, and I think we’re doing that strategically, and we’re doing it the way that we need to,” Connor said. “I can’t imagine how it would feel for teacher and students, for us to make the wrong call and all be back and then have to leave again. I would be heartbroken.”
Stevenson said, for her, there are still a lot of questions about logistics that need to be answered.
“Hybrid makes me a little nervous...I’m ready, and I will do whatever they ask me to, but I do kind of worry about how everything is going to work...like teaching virtually and in-person at the same time. It just sounds really challenging,” she said.
Regardless of what the learning environment is, both teachers said they will continue to show up every day because in the end, the only thing that matters is their students.
“I’ve never had a student that wasn’t an important part of my life and...I do this because that’s what they deserve,” Connor said.