‘Students Are Lonely:’ What Happens When Coronavirus Forces Schools Online

Global Education

‘Students Are Lonely:’ What Happens When Coronavirus Forces Schools Online

By Stephen Noonoo     Mar 2, 2020

‘Students Are Lonely:’ What Happens When Coronavirus Forces Schools Online

This article is part of the collection: Navigating Uncertain Times: How Schools Can Cope With Coronavirus.

It sounds like a drastic measure: moving every school to online learning in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. Here in the U.S. it seems almost unfathomable, despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start preparing.

But for thousands of Asia’s international schools, many of which follow American curriculum and employ American teachers, it’s already daily life.

While the U.S. so far has seen just a handful of school school closures in Oregon and Washington due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, every school in China has been shuttered since the country’s January break. More recently, governments in Japan and South Korea have kept students home. And from Singapore to Vietnam, classes are canceled.

EdSurge is covering the latest updates and developments concerning the impact of coronavirus on education here.

Well, sort of.

Across the region, schools have moved classrooms to the cloud in what’s become a massive experiment in distance learning, impacting local and international schools alike. “Some schools were better prepared. Others were caught with making it up on the fly and relying on other schools,” says Dana Watts, the director of research and development for International Schools Services, a nonprofit that helps international schools manage resources and recruit staff.

International schools, which are located in cities around the world, are private institutions funded by tuition dollars. They mainly serve expat or foreign students and typically follow American or Western curriculum and standards, with some offering AP classes and International Baccalaureate degrees. According to Watts, there are about 11,500 international schools across the globe, with 6,600 of them in Asia.

“In general, teachers and schools are not used to an online environment,” explains Watts, who taught for years in Hong Kong but is now based in Princeton, N.J. “So much of teaching is a relationship—and understanding what that looks like online is a completely new venue to figure out.”

For the past few weeks, Watts has been conferencing with school leaders and sharing resources in response to the outbreak. One enterprising principal she knows created a Google folder for schools to share their virtual learning plans. Another educator started a burgeoning Facebook group for international educators to trade tips and began a detailed list of helpful online tools, including the digital portfolio platform Seesaw and the ebook library Epic.

So far, the digital learning plans have been a boon to educators looking for advice. “Having so many examples being updated and shared made the process easier,” says Warren Apel, the director of technology at the American School in Japan, located in Tokyo. Even before schools closed in Japan, Apel’s school updated its digital learning plan and shared it with faculty to get their feedback before sending it to parents, who appreciated that the plan clearly spelled out responsibilities ahead of time. Currently, Apel’s team is working on creating tutorials and help files—an acknowledgement that navigating the technology may be one of the biggest hurdles in the coming days.

While tuition costs generally make international schools well-resourced in terms of technology, there have been no shortage of challenges in moving online, according to a half dozen teachers and school leaders who recently spoke with EdSurge about their experiences. From managing workloads, and screen time, to keeping a pulse on emotional health, here are some of their biggest pain points.

Time Zone Differences and Odd Hours

When schools in China first closed, Chris Boyle admits he took a more relaxed view of the situation than he should have. Back then, many were speculating that schools would reopen in a few weeks. So Boyle, who is a secondary school principal at Dalian American International School, located on China’s northeastern coast, let teachers email assignments during the first few weeks out and skip most instruction.

While teachers were still required to check in with students during regular class periods, “I wasn’t requiring online classes. I wasn’t requiring teachers to include an instructional video or a voiceover audio for lessons,” says Boyle, who oversees about 450 students in grades 6-12. “No surprise, those first couple of weeks, teachers did email a lot of work and worksheets.” Parents quickly complained and Boyle’s team began moving to something more structured.

Like many schools in China, Dalian American uses Microsoft 365, which includes a suite of communication tools that enable file sharing, videoconferencing and real-time chat. That’s helped ease the burden of teachers, some of whom have returned to North America and must therefore conduct asynchronous, or time-delayed, lessons using recorded video and daily assignment lists. “I would say about 50 percent of our teachers are conducting live lessons now,” Boyle says. “It’s not always possible with the time zones, but there’s no doubt that parents and students prefer it.”

Watts says she’s heard of schools conducting lessons both ways. Some are keeping to their regular bell schedule with teachers responsible for hosting online discussions via their learning management system and assigning peer collaboration work that must be completed in real time before the class period ends. Others, working around time zones and other extenuating circumstances, are entirely asynchronous. One Shanghai school she knows asks teachers to give students their lessons and 48 hours to complete them.

And then there’s Seoul Foreign School in South Korea, which serves about 1,500 students from elementary to high school, and where teachers have been using a hybrid approach for about a week, explains Tanya LeClair, a digital learning coach who is originally from Canada. “They’ve been having calls on Google Hangouts, they’ve been having classes during the time class is in session, as well as asynchronous classes where they give feedback in different ways.”

However, teachers can run the risk of assigning too much work or feeling pressured to spend too much of their time connecting with students. On the international educator Facebook group, teachers cited a need for setting boundaries, describing 12 or 18 hour days that can leave them exhausted.

When asked to describe a typical day, many educators struggled, saying responsibilities and work hours change frequently.

Lee Shawver teaches students in grades 1-9 at Qingdao Amerasia International School and is under a soft quarantine in his northeastern Chinese city, along with his wife Robin and two young kids. He says he’s averaging about five hours of work seven days a week, squeezing in an hour of prep work at night and a few hours in the early morning before breakfast.

His time as a blended learning instructor in Taos, N.M., has served him well, and meant he didn’t require some of the intense professional development that his colleagues needed to get up to speed.

“Some of the teachers we know, who teach first and second grade, for the first couple of weeks were working 18 hour days,” says Robin Shawver, a librarian at the school. “Usually teachers who teach online would have training...but our teachers were training, setting it up and figuring it out all at the same time.”

Issues With Feedback and Testing

The learning curve can mean long days for students as well. To lessen demands on his time, Lee Shawver often has students wrestle with problems alone or in groups, using the distance imposed by virtual learning to get students problem solving or thinking critically. “I’ve been very deliberate about that,” he says. “Sometimes saying to my kids, ‘Hey, I’m not ignoring you. I’m not being rude. I’m trying to build a skill here.”

In general, digital learning plans and school administrators are advising teachers to give less work, conceding that assignments often take longer to complete online than they might in a classroom.

“It's really hard when you can’t read the room and know how well something is going,” says Boyle, the secondary school principal in Dalian, adding that his most successful teachers are supplementing their classes with individual or small group video conferences on a weekly basis.

By far, the biggest question Boyle’s teachers have had is about assessments. In classes like English and History, things are going well. “I often see students responding with videos on Seesaw where they're talking through or explaining things,” he says. “So for courses and content areas that have more conceptual-based standards, it really doesn’t matter what the kid has in front of them.”

But that’s not always the case in subjects such as math and science that require secure environments for test taking. “It’s a struggle for us,” Boyle says. In recent weeks, his teachers have leaned on web tools, including Albert.io and Khan Academy, which allows for timed tests.

At Seoul Foreign, LeClair says elementary teachers are trading a lot of videos with students using Seesaw, with parents helping to upload them. She’s also leaned heavily on edtech companies who are making their paid products available to schools in Asia free of charge. Already she’s reached out to Screencastify, Explain Everything, EdPuzzle and Pear Deck, the latter which is being used to let students draw their understanding and take short quizzes quickly. (A Pear Deck spokesperson says the company is working with 154 schools in the region, offering free access to impacted educators.)

Though LeClair says her teachers are also mindful to assign screen-free activities, such as recording the details of their physical activity and building things out of household materials.

Watts, at International Schools Services, says assessment came up on a recent conference call with school leaders, who expressed concerns that students might cheat during tests. But she questions the wisdom of searching too hard to find workarounds to help with traditional tests.

“Is that really the best way to assess students’ knowledge, in a multiple choice test,” she asks. “I wonder if this is going to help make this shift that’s been needed for quite some time, about rethinking time and place in education.”

‘Students Are Lonely’

In addition to their remote jobs, the Shawvers also spend their days caring for their two young children. They say that has given them a unique perspective about the demands placed on other parents in a similar position.

“Parents can be forgotten in all of this because their kids are home now and they’re having to be like the lead teacher or tutor for their kids,” says Lee Shawver. “It’s just turning families upside down.”

Recently, the Shawvers’ school in Qingdao began a program called Mindfulness Mondays, where students complete writing reflections on a weekly theme—this week it’s superheroes—with podcasts and activities for parents and teachers as well. “We’re trying to think of ways to build community through this,” Robin Shawver says. “Just so people can kind of lighten the load of both the work and the anxiety that everybody’s feeling.”

At Dalian American, which operates as a boarding school, counselors along with administrators like Boyle are checking in regularly with students, particularly trying to identify those who are struggling. Although he noted teachers are the first point of contact for checking in and identifying such students. “For some of them, the school really is their family,” he says. “So we’re trying to fill that void.”

The secondary school’s college advisors are also meeting with students, who, along with their parents, are anxious about upcoming AP exams and other inflexible deadlines.

Among Lee Shawver’s students, those that typically perform well in the classroom are adapting well to the online environment. Other students, however, are struggling. “Students are bored; students are lonely,” he says. “It’s much easier to hide in a digital world. And we have students who are just completely absent.”

It’s particularly an issue for students in younger grades, or for those without strong family support networks. Some students live with grandparents or hired help and don’t have access to parents who can step in as tutors or monitor kids without strong self-learning skills, says Robin Shawver. To keep students accountable, she’s suggesting teachers send a checklist of work at the start of each week and to keep communication lines open. But it can be a daily challenge.

“I can think of a handful of students that I just know this model does not work for, and they are the casualties of this,” Lee Shawver says.

His wife, on the other hand, responds on a more hopeful note. “I want to figure out how to do it.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

Next Up

Navigating Uncertain Times: How Schools Can Cope With Coronavirus

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up