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Some students (and their parents) like these alternative education options even better.

Doing school on Zoom is not the answer

Jacob’s parents found out about his learning disabilities when he was seven years old. He is dyslexic and struggles in math. Without someone to help him through model sets and to show him how to problem solve, he is lost and falling behind. COVID-19 has impacted students like Jacob and many more. 

Virtual learning clearly has its setbacks and its failures. The main complaint from both students and parents is the Zoom fatigue that students experience—not just daily—but hourly. These observations have raised questions from both students and parents about the type of education they’re receiving both now and before the pandemic and this poorly functioning institution of education is calling for new designs in how we educate our young. 

“Now that I’ve had my kids at home for the normal school hours doing virtual learning, I’ve realized how much sitting time they have. They participate in classes that have them docilely sit in their chairs and learn 8 AM to 3 PM, Monday through Friday. I want more body movement time for my kids, especially Jacob who has learning disabilities.” says Meredith Smith, Jacob’s mother.

Jacob is regressing in his writing and comprehension skills. In his Bay Area elementary school, he had a special education class that was giving him the tools he needed in order to succeed in his regular classes. In efforts to aid and support students like Jacob, breakout rooms are designed for specialized learning classes and to encourage group discussion. 

Breakout rooms are small groups where the students can come together and work on projects or discuss class materials. The breakout rooms that many schools have adopted in their virtual learning environments aren’t engaging enough for the students and it adds more screen time for kids who are already exhausted from staring at the screen from their standard classes.

“After staring at the screen and reading online in my breakout rooms, I get anxious and feel like I need to go run,” Jacob says. When everyone else is taking their 10-minute breaks, Jacob is still logged onto Zoom doing additional work so he can catch up with his classmates.

Is it just Zoom fatigue or the expectation that our students must maintain high levels of productivity for hours on end? Is the new, virtual school system that we have in place in America suitable for all our students’ needs? I believe the answer is no.

Some students (and their parents) like these alternative education options even better.

Moving school to Zoom is not the answer

Now that quarantines have radically changed the nature of our classroom, we see students and parents creating more alternative ways to foster a learning environment. Pods, for one―where small groups of students participate in virtual learning collectively with a shared tutor or accredited teacher―are being created so students aged K-5 can better socialize.   

Independent learning―for another―allows high school students to adopt independent learning schedules in lieu of sitting in on Zoom meetings. Amy, an 8th-grade student who experienced all the downfalls of virtual learning: disinterest, disengagement, fatigue, and an overall lack of material comprehension, is applying for an alternative independent study high school. The curriculum is designed to encourage motivated learning and customized study schedules. 

Much like the distinguished New York college, Sarah Lawrence, where students collaborate with professors one-on-one, independent study high school’s operate in a similar fashion: meetings with their teacher for 1-2 hours, twice a week, where they can discuss their work. This flexibility is more closely aligned with universities, where students oscillate between attending classes throughout the week without being confined to one classroom. 

Independent-study high school also allows for one-on-one time with teachers―giving students more college prep and in-depth learning specifically catered to the learning habits of the student. Closely aligned with homeschooling, independent-study also allows for socialization and bonds to be created with other students participating in the same program. Skills that are not only essential for success in university but also for life as well.

This is the type of education I received in high school because I felt that I couldn’t maintain my focus in the 8 AM to 3 PM classroom environment. I was falling behind in my classes and felt utterly unmotivated by the social benefits of a large school. I thrived in my independent study environment and went on to attend some of the most notable universities in the world. Working so closely with my teacher gave me immense confidence and had prepared me for the self-motivated learning that a university requires of all its students.

Amy is applying to the same alternative high school I attended in Marin County, Tamiscal High. It is students like Amy who are seeking alternative learning practices and it is schools like Tamiscal that are garnering more attention than ever from younger applicants compared with previous years. 

Alternative school environments could be better

The pandemic has no end date, nor are we guaranteed a quick return to “normalcy.” Students are falling through the cracks of our educational foundation sooner than usual and are struggling to receive the individualized help that they need. The fringe benefit that many educators are seeing is that we can use this time to re-evaluate the educational institution as a way to create more alternative learning platforms.

Homeschooling has risen by three percent this year, according to the National Homeschooling Association but not all parents are up for the challenge. After interviewing 20 different parents in the Bay Area on whether they have considered homeschooling, the most common response is no. “Authority is a major issue between my daughter and me,” says Wendy Abrams, a mother of three. “I am their mother and struggle to fit both roles into one.” 

Some students (and their parents) like these alternative education options even better.

Abrams had been struggling with virtual learning with her daughters, not only due to Zoom fatigue but having them view her as an authority that can help with their work. “When your child is constantly complaining to you that their eyes are sore or they can’t look at the screen anymore, your mother instinct kicks in and you let them leave the meeting.”

But when it comes to helping her daughter learn second-grade curriculum material like basic sentence structure, addition and subtraction, grammar, and so on, her children become defiant. “They don’t view me as a teacher,” says Wendy―which is why she banded together with other parents to create a small pod. While keeping COVID protocols in check, the pod meets together and participates in a blend of specialized learning from the pod teacher focusing on the school’s curriculum.

Every parent in the pod pays a small portion to the tutor to design extra course material, walk them through classwork, and help them in the areas that need tending. “Having a tutor has been great. But having a pod has been even better. Having my kids home from 8 AM to 3 PM every day, especially when the shutdowns first started happening, made working from home at my 9-5 job extremely difficult. My kids needed help with their classwork. They need to be let out for recess and lunch and honestly, they just need peers to play with.”

With the challenge of playing mother, provider, and teacher to her children, Wendy clearly finds many benefits from the pod. Moreover, she recognizes how much her children love it too. “The pod has helped our family so much. While our daughter loves school, she prefers pod to school because of the one-on-one time she receives with her pod teacher.”

I am a pod teacher and a tutor and I have witnessed where students are struggling and where they are succeeding. For my second graders who are exceptionally bright, some of them are struggling with basic reading and writing while others struggle with overwhelming anxiety. “I really like the pod,” says Artemis, one of my seven-year-old second graders. “I get more one-on-one time with my tutor and I feel like I’m learning a lot.”

The main developmental area that needs the most attention in elementary school is socialization. K-5 learning is focused on how to interact with others and how to build relationships, which is why many pods and alternative elementary schools focus on the formation of social skills as well as a foundational skill set for academic subjects.

Without a teacher’s encouragement and after-class assistance, kids can find it difficult to stay engaged and work on the areas they need to. Through testing and their peers, many students can recognize the subjects that they are not succeeding in which creates a sense of self-doubt.

In the pod, Artemis will raise her hand on Zoom—which often goes unnoticed—and then she will sit there blankly staring at the screen. It’s easy for her to fall behind in class because her question went unanswered. When her questions go unanswered, it affects her confidence and learning ability. 

There is a clear disparity between students who are in a pod and those who are not. Through tutoring students in various settings, I am seeing students who are struggling to read and who are swamped with pages of busy-work. The love of learning is a dimmed light and teachers rarely talk directly to them, making them feel lost in a sea of Zoom squares.

Some students (and their parents) like these alternative education options even better.

We might not want to return to traditional schooling

Returning to in-person schooling will include engaging in socially distant behaviors with friends who are not within their core class. The fear of contracting the virus is very real. For students who have family members with compromised immune systems or are more susceptible to experiencing the severity of COVID symptoms, the stress of being out in public is exhausting. Children across the spectrum are threatened and fearful of the virus resulting in unusual behavior.

“I have not been eager to go back to class,” explains Elijah, a 16-year-old sophomore in high school. “My community is, in general, at-risk, and I sometimes feel afraid to even go outside on walks since I live in a city. The idea of being back in school is overwhelming.”

Not only is Elijah experiencing the stress of going back to a large high school, but he is also considering enrolling in an alternative high school that would allow him to take his piano lessons more seriously. “Music is one of the only things that has been able to calm my nerves during the pandemic—and my high school doesn’t encourage it. It’s more of an academically driven school with a focus on math and science.”

Students like Elijah recognize the difficulties of traditional schooling as an institutional problem. “The curriculums are designed and the teachers teach them. I’m not sure how much creativity is allowed in that.” Elijah and Amy are protesting the return to school yet both leave their class Zoom meetings early due to lack of engagement.

“Virtual learning has been tough. I often feel that I don’t have a voice or that my raised hand goes unnoticed. It’s this weird space of being there and not being there. Not being able to interact with my teachers and classmates is challenging. I’d be on Zoom all day and then on the phone Facetiming or Instagramming my friends. I’m just fed-up with the screen,” Elijah says. 

Non-traditional schools can help students find their own path and design their interest in and out of academics.

Through all the turmoil that COVID has brought, it has one silver lining: an organic experiment in education. Alternative schools are gaining clout and recognition leading to success in various students. If the past is any measure for the future, many students and parents will continue to reevaluate how our educational system is operating and where they fall into it.

Rebekah Austin is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been published by U.C. Berkeley Scientific Journal for her undergraduate work in Linguistics. She is a former undergraduate research fellow from University of Oxford, Jesus College. Outside of Linguistics, her research has primarily been on political institutions of S.P.Q.R. and Early Modern Monarchical Europe. Her mother is from Guadalajara, Mexico and her father is Irish-American. Raised in a family of seven, excluding the several goldfish and rabbits, she values the importance of public education, civil liberties, and the soul fulfilling happiness of book hoarding. She lives in San Francisco with her tuxedo cat, Puck, who is very much like his name: a hobgoblin spirit from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.