Maria Paras and her husband, Rolulo, are both taking a few weeks off work to try to help their three children navigate online schooling. It hasn’t been easy. And, Paras said, it will become much more difficult when neither parent is available to assist. 

Both work outside of the home for Seattle Public Schools — Maria is a kitchen assistant who helps prepare meals, Rolulo a custodian. By mid-September they’ll both be back to work full-time. Aside from what teachers tell them, they won’t know how well, or poorly, 6-year-old Kaycee, 8-year-old Kian or 12-year-old Kyle did during the day. 

This fall, many Washington public school students returned to a virtual version of the school schedule they followed in the spring, before the COVID-19 pandemic. For the Paras family, that means school starts at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2:30 p.m. 

“I wish they [the schools] could work on our schedule,” said Paras, who leaves the house at 8 a.m. and doesn’t return until after 2:30 p.m. “We just need one or two hours, to have a connection with the teacher.”

For many like the Paras family who felt the spring’s sudden coronavirus closures left their children with little opportunity to interact with teachers, live instruction might be an upgrade. But not all families can hew to a strict online learning schedule. Parents who work outside of the home can’t oversee learning. In some households, an older child in charge of younger siblings may struggle to complete their own work. And state experts estimate only half of all households in Washington have robust broadband service, the kind needed to reliably tune into video classes.

Educators fear these issues could exacerbate gaps in learning between different groups of students as the year goes on. 

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School districts urged to be flexible

Classes that are taught live are called synchronous. Every student starts his or her computer up at the same time, and participates in class simultaneously — a mirror of what used to happen in the classroom, offering structure and familiarity to the school day for the approximately 1 million Washington public school students who are going to virtual school this fall.

“So many families cannot follow a stringent schedule like that,” said Mandy Manning, the 2018 Washington state and national teacher of the year, who now works as a digital content specialist for the Washington Education Association union. 

In a webinar last week with the Seattle nonprofit League of Education Voters, state schools chief Chris Reykdal addressed the need for alternative schedules for some students and urged districts to be flexible.

“You don’t have to be in front of a screen for six hours, but there should be guided learning during that time,” he said. And a student who can’t tune into a class on a Wednesday but can get the work done on a Saturday should get credit for that work, he said.

He acknowledged that the message hasn’t caught on with all districts. “We’re figuring out ways to come back to districts and remind them, ‘We meant flexibility, we’re really serious about that,’” he said.

Strict schedules assume that there’s at least one parent at home, and that all students have a computer and internet access, said Sharonne Navas, co-founder and executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition. But access is still an issue across the region, and many working parents must leave their houses to go to a job.

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And when everyone’s trying to do school remotely, computers can crash and networks can fail. 

On Sept. 4, the first day of school for Seattle families, many parents reported having problems getting on the district’s learning platform. Some students were booted out, or could only hear audio. The district acknowledged the high volume of traffic was disrupting service on district-issued laptops.

Synchronous class schedules weren’t as common in the spring, when many schools offered a generous grading policy and didn’t take attendance, a recognition of the challenges families and educators were facing. But fall 2020 is marked by a different set of rules: Schools are marking attendance, giving out grades, counting screen time as a proxy for the 1,000 hours of classroom time required by state statute. 

Manning says she has an ideal setup with her son, who’s in elementary school; he has a desk next to hers, and she can oversee him while she works. But many parents aren’t that fortunate. Some families must rely on day care providers to become de facto teachers.

“We can be reluctant to shift or change,” Manning said. “We have this idea of what school is supposed to be like … because it’s what we experienced.”

How tech can make asynchronous learning easier

Federal Way, for one, is using the ability to record lessons to provide some asynchronous learning, said Kassie Swenson, chief of communications and strategy for the district. Teachers are recording key content from live instruction so students and their families can watch it later, not only for students who are absent but also for those who want to catch up on their learning.

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Elementary students have live lessons with their teachers four days a week, three hours a day, and middle and high school students have lessons four days a week, four hours a day. Wednesday is largely reserved for offline learning, although there is some live instruction for small groups as well, Swenson said via email.

“Students still have the same amount of instructional time as last year, but the delivery is different,” she said. Start and end times have also changed, since they’re not dependent on a bus schedule; all elementary students now start at 9 a.m. and end at 3:30 p.m., and middle and high school students start at 8 a.m. That’s a change for high schools, which used to begin at 7:25 a.m. and end an hour earlier. Many researchers believe teenagers do better academically when they start later in the day, because their growing bodies need more sleep.

The Renton School District has built some flexibility into the school day, although there’s still a traditional bell schedule.

In Teri Barlow’s language arts classes at Renton High School, students only have to tune in for 30 minutes of an hourlong class, Barlow said. The veteran teacher said that nod to flexibility allowed students to turn their cameras off and work independently during each class period, rather than staying “on” all the time. 

Renton High has also tightened up the schedule by adding all the minutes students used to spend in the hallways switching classes to lunch period. Students get a full hour off — a needed break from screen time, she said.

Bellevue schools are following a traditional bell schedule because it wants families to be prepared for the eventual switch to partial in-person learning, said Michael May, director of communications for the district.

The district reserves mornings for live instruction, and afternoons for individual or small-group instruction with the educator, support staff, or a specialist, as well as independent work. Wednesdays are reserved for independent work time, plus some whole group or small group live instruction.

Paras, the Seattle mom whose three kids will be studying at home, will get help from her mom to oversee them. But she’s not adept with the computer, Paras said.

Schooling at home, she said, “is harder than we thought.”