Salah-Deen Fouathia, an eighth grader at Voice Charter School in Queens, was struggling in school. It was hard to pay attention. Math was a challenge. His grades in health class weren’t great.
So when the pandemic closed all schools, reducing his classes to the size of a screen, his parents feared Salah-Deen would struggle even more. To their delight, the opposite has happened.
With fewer distractions and the help of his parents and teachers, his schooling has been going better, and his grades reflect that.
“At home, it seems to be a bit easier to focus on all the work I’m getting and it’s almost like we’re one on one with the teacher,” Salah-Deen said. “Everything in general is easier.”
For the vast majority of students, remote learning is a poor substitute for being in the classroom. Not everyone has a laptop or reliable internet at home, and the socialization that happens in school can’t be replicated online. There is widespread concern that many students, especially the most vulnerable, will fall behind.
But one unexpected silver lining of the shutdown has been an improved learning experience for certain students, including some who struggle to pay attention in class and even some high-achieving self-starters. Enough students are benefiting from this crash course in remote learning that parents and educators are wondering if, when buildings reopen, there are aspects that can be continued for these students, as well as lessons that can apply to everyone else.
For some, the avoidance of distractions like disruptive classmates, or simply not being in a room filled with other children, has been a boon. Others have taken advantage of the ability, when offered by their teachers, to work at their own pace and take breaks when they want.
Some students have found it easier to participate in remote classes without the social pressures of a physical classroom. Introverts who are the last to volunteer an answer in class, even when they know it, are now making themselves heard.
“Kids who would not have put a hand up at the end of a lesson are now emailing me,” said Mike Drosos, a seventh-grade math teacher at Voice Charter. He said that it seemed to help those students “when the teacher isn’t making direct eye contact six inches from their desk.”
Miari Roberts, a special education teacher at Brooklyn Academy High School, a transfer school for students who have not been successful elsewhere, said that she had seen something similar. One student in particular had not even been coming to school, Ms. Roberts said. Now she is turning in all her assignments.
“Because her attendance was so poor, some teachers didn’t know her,” Ms. Roberts said. “Now those teachers are like, ‘Wow, who’s this girl?’ It’s this big turnaround.”
And the work she is handing in is good, Ms. Roberts said. When she asked the student why this works better for her, the girl said that her anxiety made going to school difficult.
For motivated students who don’t need a lot of help from their teachers, learning from home means they can set their own pace. Kaleb Stumpenhorst, who is in sixth grade at a public school in suburban Chicago, wakes up every morning around 6:30 or 7 and gets right to work. He tackles one or two classes, usually starting with math, before stopping for breakfast. By 9:30 a.m., he is done for the day.
“I like doing work this way better because I can do it in my own time,” he said, adding that it was by no means heaven. “I like going to school because I can see all my friends.”
His father, Josh Stumpenhorst, a middle school librarian in a nearby district, said that among his students, another group that has found some relief is children who are picked on by their classmates.
“Some of those kids are really liking it at home because they’re not dealing with the social anxiety of being quote-unquote different,” he said.
Educators say behavior issues appear to be less of a problem in general. With many schools not offering “live” instruction, instead sending out assignments to complete each day or week, there is no class to disrupt. Even when a class takes place on Zoom, if a student has a tendency to goof off for attention, there’s only so much attention that child can get while sitting at home, especially when the teacher has the power to mute a student’s microphone.
Of course, those students, and many others, may not be doing well under remote instruction; Ms. Roberts said that a lot of her students are just not completing their work.
Educational consultants at Teaching Matters, an organization focused on increasing teacher effectiveness, say the teachers they work with in New York City public schools each have at least one or two students who are thriving remotely. That leaves another 20-plus students who are not.
For nearly two decades, some education policymakers, tech titans and philanthropists have wanted to integrate computers more fully into education, with hybrid instruction that mixes online and in-person learning, letting students move at their own pace. But given the anxieties about screen time among parents and the potential for job loss among teachers, the idea has been tried in just a few schools.
The current experiment with digital schooling shows the promise of the approach for a subset of students, if by no means the majority.
“I hope if we learn anything from this,” Mr. Stumpenhorst said, “it’s that this does work for some kids and could be a viable option, some kind of hybrid model, when we go back to normal.”
Some of what works for these children about remote learning, however, will not translate well to the schoolhouse, like the freedom from classroom distractions or bullying. Still, Lynette Guastaferro, the chief executive of Teaching Matters, says her organization will counsel teachers to keep using what they have learned remotely — indeed, she expects they are going to have to, because school is unlikely to snap back to normal in September.
The way some teachers are incorporating videos and other multimedia into lessons is encouraging, she said, and could especially benefit so-called visual learners. Teachers could also let students use multiple ways of demonstrating they have mastered material — some are allowing students to make videos or podcasts, for example, to show that they know how to construct an argument.
Teachers could also lay out what they plan to teach, and how the students will be assessed, in a visual manner that students can refer back to, Ms. Guastaferro said.
“Why don’t they give the kids a video they can watch over and over again at their own pace,” she said. “When they’re learning the Pythagorean theorem, why not give them some multimedia that they can go backward and forward and watch over and over?
“There’s no reason for all learning to be built for extroverted, socialized kids.”
Jahaira Santiago, Salah-Deen’s mother, said the way schoolwork is mapped out and sent home allows her and her husband to keep an eye on her son’s assignments.
“I did struggle with, ‘OK, what do you have to do today?’” she said. “Now I can just look at it, I don’t have to wait until he tells me.”
Ms. Santiago said that she and her husband check on Salah-Deen probably once every other hour to see if he needs help, give him encouragement and make sure he’s doing his work.
Remote learning has not just required adjustments for students, but for teachers as well. Administrators say that while some of their most successful teachers have struggled to connect with students this way, other educators have shown surprising results. Some teachers may work better alone. And for younger teachers, learning the technology wasn’t such a stretch.
Susan Enfield, the superintendent of Highline Public Schools near Seattle, said a principal recently told her about a teacher who had a tendency to be silent in meetings with colleagues and had trouble delivering effective lessons.
But as the teacher and her co-workers rewrote their playbook on the fly, she contributed innovative ideas, tutored parents so they could help their children, and reached the students with creative lessons. From her living room, she has blossomed.
The principal was planning to put the teacher on a remediation plan, Ms. Enfield said, “but she’s knocking it out of the park on remote learning.”
Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.