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Mendo Lake Family Life

What Do Kids Think about Distance Learning?

By Michelle Hutchins, Mendocino County Superintendent of Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present challenges none of us could have imagined a year ago. As confirmed cases rise in Lake and Mendocino Counties, school boards are forced to choose between unpleasant options: distance learning or a return to the classroom with unprecedented restrictions. Both choices make it harder for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Information about how COVID-19 spreads changes as scientists around the globe share new discoveries. One day, the data suggest we can safely return to the classroom and days later, public health experts tell us we cannot. It’s frustrating for everyone—families, teachers, administrators, and employers. In addition to worrying about everyone’s health and safety, the inability to plan has strained already frayed nerves.

The general consensus of educators, backed by scientific research, tells us that in-classroom education is by far the best for most students—academically, socially, and emotionally—unless being in the classroom puts them at risk of contracting and/or spreading a deadly virus, of course. I thought it would be interesting to hear from the students themselves, so I asked several of them to share their thoughts, to tell me about teachers they appreciated, things they liked about school, and what they would change if they could wave a magic wand. I spoke with inland and coastal students from public and charter schools, boys and girls as young as fourth grade and as old as a junior in high school. Here’s what they told me.

Teachers Do an Amazing Job Every student could quickly name a teacher—often several teachers—who’d had a positive influence on them.

A junior from Redwood Academy said her history teacher, Mr. Cimmiyotti, brought historical figures to life by sharing anecdotes that made them real (and often made her laugh).

A fourth grader from Oak Manor Elementary School said, “I liked Mr. Butler because in kindergarten I was a goofball. I was really funny, and he came in and he was exactly the same….I learned a lot—a lot, a lot. At the end of the school year, he made a treat for us of chocolate pudding. Then he crushed Oreos like dirt, and then he put in gummy worms—so then it looked like soil because [during a class project] we planted a seed and watched it grow.”

A freshman at Ukiah High School appreciated his middle school science teacher, Mr. Percy, who started a band and invited students to practice after school until they were good enough to perform at a school rally. The student also loved Mr. Percy’s hands-on science projects “like rockets and CO2-powered cars.”

I heard example after example of teachers connecting with students, finding ways to engage them through humor, hands-on projects, and common interests. The students I spoke with felt seen, heard, and cared for, and this helped them learn.

Students Miss Being at School Whether students reported liking school or not, every single one wanted to return to “normal” school. They missed their friends; they missed having a distraction-free environment with the tools and technology to do assignments; and many of them missed interacting with their teachers. Yet, when I asked if they wanted to go back to the classroom based on what they knew, they said they felt more comfortable with full distance learning. They worried that returning to the classroom would put them and/or their families at risk.

Kids Happy with School When I asked students what they would change about pre-COVID school, given the option, many said they wouldn’t change a thing. They talked about how their schools made them feel safe and welcome, using examples like Oak Manor Elementary’s Buddy Bench, where students sit if they don’t have someone to play with and other kids immediately invite them to join in. They talked about how much fun they had with their friends and how much they learned from their teachers.

They did, however, have some recommendations to improve distance learning. In a nutshell, they asked for a consistent schedule and more interaction. Many of them said they feel lonely and having a routine with more interaction would help. They also noted that distance learning made it harder to keep track of assignments and that poor Internet connections sometimes made online interactions feel disjointed and frustrating.

Let’s Take a Page from Their Books After speaking with these students, I felt so encouraged. They made no secret of the fact that they were struggling in the midst of this pandemic, but their resilience shined through. They didn’t blame others or point fingers, and they enthusiastically jumped in to brainstorm ways to solve problems. As a society, we often discount the wisdom of children when we shouldn’t. They are listening and learning from us all the time. If we were smart, we’d spend a little more time listening and learning from them.