Sign up to receive a newsletter for The Great Divide, an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and tips.
The global pandemic upended life as we know it, shutting down school campuses across the country, but Zahriana Newson’s schedule at Roxbury Prep charter school barely changed. The high school senior showed up for Mr. Budron’s English class at 8:30 a.m. instead of 8. Then came physics and math: three hourlong online classes back-to-back, followed by three more class blocks after lunch.
During the early days of school closure, Newson was ready to go each morning, even as she sat in her pajamas in her Mattapan bedroom. But as the novelty of the experiment wore off, and her long days staring at a Zoom screen began to blur together, the 18-year-old felt dogged by a new kind of exhaustion.
“It was already a demanding school, so that part wasn’t different,” Newson said. “What was hard was that you’re doing the same thing you do in school — even though you’re at home, in a global pandemic, figuring things out virtually.”
Like Newson, schools across the state, and country, still have a lot to figure out about virtual learning. With very little time — or training — educators throughout Massachusetts tried to transfer all their teaching for more than a million students from the classroom to the Internet this spring. It is a massive, involuntary social experiment, with so much at stake. And having no playbook, schools have been forced to improvise.
Many chose one of two opposite approaches, each with drawbacks: posting assignments for students to complete and submit independently, with limited real-time interaction with teachers; or, like Roxbury Prep, striving to replicate the normal school schedule online.
The best path, experts said, lies somewhere in between: a blend of independent learning and live online meetups, bearing only minimal resemblance to school as we’ve known it.
“Circumstances shifted dramatically, but mindsets and expectations didn’t,” said Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, of the abrupt initial transition. “Learning needs to become more engaging and intrinsically motivating if it’s going to work in a remote environment. ... Moving ahead, I think schools are better off doing something different than what they usually do.”
The urgent question is: What? Schools are under pressure to figure it out fast; students are likely to do at least some of their learning online this fall when the new academic year begins.
At Roxbury Prep, administrators shifted course in April in response to student feedback, curtailing real-time instruction while expanding opportunities for one-on-one contact with teachers. But they, like leaders at most schools, expect to make further refinements as they try to find the right mix of independent work and “synchronous” learning — when students interact online with others, as if sharing a classroom — and as they modify their teaching methods to better meet the Internet on its own terms.
Unexpectedly, and at a mass scale no one could have predicted even a few months ago, this is the challenge of teaching and learning in America right now.
Roxbury Prep’s all-in approach was unusual. In many public school districts, including Boston and most of its suburbs, students attended far fewer Zoom classes — if they had any at all — especially in the first weeks of the shutdown. Officials focused first on basic access questions: Did every student have Internet service and a device to learn on? Could disabled students access online lessons?
In Boston, the baseline needs were staggering. “We had teachers handling tech support, food security, mental health services, housing — and learning,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said. “It’s a lot.”
Some students shared computers with multiple family members, limiting their time online. Others worked to support their families or cared for younger siblings; virtual classes at a set time did not work for them. Some teachers began recording their lessons, posting them for students to watch whenever they could.
Gradually, schools began to add more structured class time. Cathedral High, a private Catholic school in Boston’s South End, placed students in two live online classes each day. Boston Collegiate Charter School set a daily schedule anchored by a one hourlong academic class, followed by optional electives and extracurriculars.
Some students got less than that, and felt disconnected. Ten miles northwest of Boston in suburban Belmont, high school junior Shea Brams spent the spring pining for more live time online with her teachers and classmates. As the weeks went by, the Belmont High junior’s routine stayed mostly the same: pick up her assignments online on Monday and complete them on her own by Friday, with occasional brief drop-ins at one or two of her teachers’ online office hours.
She reveled in the lone exception: an optional weekly discussion with her social justice class, held via video chat. Only recently, Brams said, did her English class add a similar optional discussion group.
“Most of my teachers, I haven’t seen since March,” she said.
Janice Darias, Belmont’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district’s approach was driven by equity concerns. Even if most students were able to access online classes, she said, some could not.
“It’s easy to say that most can do this, and move forward, but it wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” Darias said.
If remote learning continues in the fall, Belmont is likely to include more live, online interaction, she said. The School Committee recently agreed to spend $600,000 to purchase a mix of iPads and Chromebooks for all 5,000 students in the district.
Lauren Choy, a freshman at Boston Latin School, also struggled to stay motivated while doing schoolwork independently this spring. Then, in early May, Boston Public Schools revised its remote learning plan, requiring three hours of live interactive learning each day.
Now Choy attends several mandatory 30-minute classes every morning and said she is more focused and engaged — even if the classes are mostly lectures, and few of her classmates turn on their cameras so they can be seen.
“Lectures aren’t the best way to learn, but compared to nothing — this is better,” she said. “At least I can hear my teachers.”
Boston Latin School headmaster Rachel Skerritt said feedback from students, teachers, and families will be used to continue to improve the school’s virtual instruction.
Studies of the switch to online learning are ongoing, but a review this spring of 82 US school districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found just 17, or 21 percent, provided live instruction to any of their students.
Roxbury Prep, a diverse 20-year-old Boston charter, took an aggressive approach. As schools closed in mid-March, students were entering the home stretch before the May Advanced Placement exams, an intense period of review and preparation. Skipping weeks of school was not seen as an option. (Every student at the school takes AP classes to prepare for college.)
School administrators reached out to students’ families to assess their health and safety, access to food, and WiFi. But that did not delay their move online, and classes resumed March 17 after only one missed day of school.
The push reflected hard realities, said Titciana Barros, the first-year principal of Roxbury Prep’s upper school. “As students of color, our students don’t have the privilege” that might grant them leeway for lost school time, she said. “They have to work harder when other people are getting breaks.”
The most significant schedule change was on Fridays, when, instead of classes, students were given time for tutoring, teacher office hours, and check-ins with advisers.
The schedule was meant to send students a message, said Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, the New York-based nonprofit that runs the Boston charter: “We love you, we need you here, you are part of us.”
“We don’t want it to be optional to join our community,” she said.
It did not take long for Roxbury Prep students to voice concern about the demands of their online schedule. Some talked to teachers; others sent e-mails proclaiming that it was too much.
Administrators scheduled a Zoom meeting in late March to hear student feedback. Newson spoke that day, appealing for compassion in the face of upheaval. Changes were announced soon after: The daily schedule stayed the same, but instruction was curtailed to 20 or 30 minutes within each 60-minute block, with the remaining time left for students to do homework or get extra help.
Some students had asked for a new model, with assignments posted online and completed independently, like what their friends in other Boston schools were doing. Barros, the principal, could not embrace the idea.
“We thought the best thing was to have them in their classrooms, learning from each other, having access to their teachers,” she said.
Still, the feedback reminded her of the unseen challenges some students faced.
Barros knew too well how hard it could be to stay motivated: As the pandemic’s grip on Boston tightened, the principal lost two of her own relatives to COVID-19.
As for Newson, the student from Mattapan said the schedule changes did not go far enough. “We still had every class every day,” said the senior, an honor roll student who had balanced debate team and cheerleading with her part-time job at a pharmacy. “We were basically just holding on.”
For a while, she tried to combat her sense of inertia, sitting in a different room for each class “to change the scenery,” but by May, “I was tired, I was over it,” she said.
Teachers struggled too, overhauling their approaches to keep students from drifting. Lenerick Budron, Newson’s enthusiastic young English teacher, surveyed his students and experimented with options: 20-minute videos; 10-minute videos; written class discussions in a Google doc.
“The students I had a strong connection with stayed strong,” he said. “I lost a little where I had less strong relationships.”
At another charter school, Boston Collegiate, the evolution moved in the opposite direction. Students there began with weekly assignments, but no structured time online. By April, feedback showed a need for more interaction, and administrators devised a new schedule that tried to balance academic time with social needs.
Students now attend a one hourlong class every morning, then have the option of joining an online lunch with an adviser. Afternoons include three optional sessions: teacher office hours; arts and other electives; and extracurricular offerings.
“It’s not remotely close to what we normally do,” said Shannah Varón, the school’s executive director, “but the most important thing now is to keep students engaged and to make sure they’re OK.”
Like many schools, Boston Collegiate has surveyed families to see if their approach is working — with encouraging results. Boston Public Schools also plans continued review. Cassellius said she has gleaned valuable insights from the members of her student advisory council, who prefer small-group Zoom discussions to large online classes.
In Newson’s online Spanish class one afternoon last month, Roxbury Prep teacher Nina Valle divided the two dozen students into four separate Zoom breakout rooms to practice conversation in small groups, their last chance before their AP exam.
Popping in to check on Newson’s group, the teacher asked the senior to describe, in Spanish, how the pandemic has affected her.
“No vamos a escuela,” Newson said — We are not going to school — “o graduation.”
She worries about the fall, and whether she will still be learning online then, as a freshman at Georgia State University. But for now, she focuses on the hurdle she has cleared: Her days of online high school are behind her.
For a few precious weeks at least, she can close her laptop.
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.