From ‘ready to go back’ to ‘easier to learn this way,’ Memphians share their virtual learning experiences 5 months in

A student in a mask walks back to his seat at a table with cardboard dividers as students attend online classes via laptops
Students have been logging on to their online classes from Red Door Urban Missions virtual learning center in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

One high school junior said “it’s not really school” and she hasn’t learned much. The parent of a second-grader has been blown away with teachers adapting to virtual school but is itching for a return to classrooms. A sixth-grade English teacher pauses every day to tell her students on the other side of the screen that she loves them.

The 2020-21 school year is now reaching the halfway point — and it’s played out entirely online for the roughly 90,000 students in Shelby County Schools.

District officials are tentatively planning a return to classrooms Feb. 8 for students whose families have taken that option — about a third of the student population. That could change, however, if Superintendent Joris Ray, who has taken a cautious approach to reopening, believes COVID-19 cases in the community are still too high. 

Either way, the majority of Memphis students will continue to be learning online from home. We asked parents, teachers, and community leaders how it was going. 

This is what we heard. 

This story has been lightly edited for clarity and style. 

Khalifa Clark, 11th grade student at White Station High School

Khalifa Clark (Khalifa Clark)

I know COVID-19 is going around and everything so it’s probably best to stay online, but at the same time, it’s draining. It’s nothing fun.

Our teachers talk, we just “listen” and then we log out. I feel like going online took the emotion out of the teachers as well. It took a toll on teachers too.

As far as me learning anything, no I haven’t really learned a lot this year. It’s been a lot more work and assignments than usual and I usually do them during class. It wasn’t the best even in person, but this year, it feels like it’s not really school. It’s just being there, turning stuff in. That’s what I feel like. 

Even if we did reopen now though, I think it’s too late for this year. When they first gave that option I wanted to go back, but now I’m so used to online learning. I wouldn’t be able to keep up if we switched back now. I don’t think it would go well for a lot of folks. 

I don’t know what I would want to be different. I just wish we were back in school. That’s all I can really say.

Kathy Mize, parent of a second grader at Grahamwood Elementary and a seventh grader at White Station Middle

Celia Mize, left, and Molly Mize, right. (Kathy Mize)

My daughter in second grade is ready to go back. She’s mostly able to concentrate during the school day, but that age group needs socializing. We chose in-person learning for her each time the district asked. 

But my daughter in seventh grade is living her best life with virtual school. She’s very motivated and doesn’t mind the social isolation as much. Chatting online with friends is enough.

When the school year started, I cried for weeks because my kids’ teachers were so great. They came prepared. They came with a plan. They didn’t just say it was going to be horrible. They came with their A-game. I was blown away.

Virtual learning has worked for our family. Our internet has survived and my husband, who works for FedEx, has been working from home. I’m a nurse but currently not working so I can stay at home with my daughters. But every day I remind the kids that it’s not working for everybody. 

My kids get how serious this virus is. My father-in-law died from COVID-19 in a nursing home. We watched him die through a window and I got it during the funeral despite our safety precautions. I get Dr. Ray’s conundrum because there doesn’t seem to be a right answer. I know that it’s not as safe for a lot of kids to be at school. But it’s also not safe for them to be at home. You could argue it on either side.

Eric Watkins, virtual learning center coordinator at New Horizons apartment complex, executive director of Red Door Urban Missions

I don’t think students are really retaining the information. The kids are already behind. Now they’re going to be further behind. I know we’re trying, but it’s not working for the majority. 

Eric Hawkins helps a student with his online class at a virtual learning center run by Red Door Urban Missions in an apartment complex in Memphis’ Whitehaven neighborhood. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

The superintendent says virtual learning isn’t broken, but it’s broke, man. The students don’t think it’s school, they think it’s play. Come out to the communities where your students are attending online class and ask questions. If you don’t understand what they’re going through, how can you serve them with excellence? 

If they can’t read the instructions, how can they answer the question? So they go to what they know and play an online game or start acting out.

I’m often the bridge between the school and the parent. I’ve had a principal call me when a student doesn’t show up for class online. Turns out, his mom was in the hospital. Many parents lost their jobs and kids don’t have the necessities they need. They’re just trying to survive.

I don’t know what would make it better, but how can we come together?

Bianca Martinez, sixth grade English teacher at Colonial Middle School

My favorite moment this semester was when we did a virtual field trip to Disneyland where someone had their camera on the whole time they were riding rides. The kids loved it.

Every morning I’m playing music and I’m happy. I start the day with a minute of mindful breathing with my students and I end each day with an affirmation we say together: I am kind, I am powerful, and I am responsible. I also say I love them at the end of every day. The resilience that is required for them to continue to show up each day, that’s why I’m not super hard on them. 

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a kid right now in front of a screen for so long and not being able to play outside with your friends. I just try to be graceful with them.

Bianca Martinez (Bianca Martinez)

Virtual learning has been difficult to navigate. We know that our students have extenuating circumstances, and they’ve always had that. But the pandemic has brought that to light. I have a handful of students who have lost their parents to COVID-19 and some who have to babysit their siblings during class while their parents work.

As with all learning, virtual learning works for some students and doesn’t for others. And I don’t think there’s a way that we can make it work for everyone. Everyone is doing the best they can. Parents can’t stop working. I was really reminded this semester how important it is to really make a loving space for kids. But if it comes with the risk of getting the kids sick or their parents sick, I recognize it’s a difficult choice to make.

I’ve been working from the school building so far because I have my own room by myself. But I plan to work from home when classrooms reopen. Ideally, we would wait until teachers are vaccinated to get back in the classroom. But if they required us to go back, I would go.

There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all and there’s not a perfect way to do it. I’m really grateful for how Dr. Ray has handled this because he aims to protect everybody.

Jalynn Sanders, 10th grader at Central High

Jalynn Sanders (Jalynn Sanders)

The pandemic started a few weeks before my birthday. I was planning on having a big sleepover with my friends, maybe go out to eat and a movie, so it was really disheartening and it hurt a lot not to do it. With people who were in your life every day, it’s hard to be withdrawn from that so suddenly.

When virtual school started, I was devastated. But now I’ve come to enjoy it. I would take this over in-school learning. It’s easier to type out documents and assignments, there’s no paper. I have longer breaks in between classes and can email my teachers to get answers when I need them. There’s the comfort of being at home and not having to worry about lunch and people bothering you.

For people who have speaking anxiety, being able to turn your camera off during class and write down what you’re going to say before you unmute really makes a difference. 

I definitely have learned a lot over virtual. I have seen a positive difference. It’s a lot easier to learn this way. I’m definitely retaining a lot more information than I did last year.

I hope teachers who are struggling with technology will get more help. Those kinds of problems take up a lot of class time and sometimes they ask students to help them. But I’m staying virtual most definitely. I am enjoying the luxury of virtual and 15-minute breaks between classes. But I will miss seeing my friends’ faces.

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