Pandemic Academics: How are students coping with at-home learning?

May 19, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has disrupted daily life in countless ways. For schools, the last two months have been an unplanned experiment in remote learning. In the first part of a WXXI News series on the impacts of the pandemic on education, we explore how students' experiences differ based on their schools, teachers, and even their home environments.

Brennae Johnson, a sixth grader at Greece Athena Middle School, studies in her room.
Credit provided photo

Brennae Johnson lives with her mother and two siblings in what they describe as a tiny, two-bedroom apartment. 

The Greece Athena Middle School sixth-grader said she was on the high honor roll before the pandemic, but her grades have since dropped and she knows she isn't keeping up with her studies.

"The dynamics of my family, it's been hard," she said. "I can't just do this each and every day. It's harder to get just, like, a schedule going."

Brennae's siblings require a lot of their mom’s attention. Her 18-year-old brother is on the autism spectrum and her 3-year-old sister receives speech and occupational therapy.

Brennae doesn't have a desk, so she does her schoolwork on her bed in a room she shares with her sister. She says the toddler often distracts her and it's hard to stay focused.

"What the school gave me was a touch screen, so if she presses one button, it can have the whole entire thing go out of it on the screen or the keyboard," she said with a sigh.

Help is available from teachers by email or the web service Google Classroom, and Brennae said she does ask for it, but she knows her teachers are busy.          

"Other than me they have, like, another hundred students," she said, "so when I do ask for help, I do get a response back, but it's just still not the same because when we’re in the classroom, they knew exactly who we were, they knew what we needed help in, and they were there."

For Molly Kantz, in many ways, it’s like she never left the classroom.

In fact, the sophomore at Our Lady of Mercy in Brighton is required to follow the same schedule at home that she does at school.

Our Lady of Mercy High School sophomore Molly Kantz at her desk at home.
Credit provided photo

"I wake up, go to homeroom at 7:45, email my teacher that I'm awake and then I have all my classes until around 3:00, and then on top of that, we have homework, so it's basically all day I'm sitting at my computer and it gets a little exhausting," she said, describing her typical day.

But Molly doesn't feel like she's falling behind academically and doesn't mind being held to a high standard.

"Another thing we're taught is to push through when obstacles come your way, and this is a perfect example of that."

Younger students, however, often need the help of a parent to navigate at-home learning -- a parent who is sometimes juggling their own work. 

Josie Weber is the mother of 5-year-old Luca, who is in preschool, and 8-year-old Aria, a third-grader at Plank Road South Elementary School in Webster.

"What we pretty much need to be doing all day is what I call hand-holding," Weber said. "We don't have independent learners."

Aria connects with her teachers and classmates in online sessions, where they socialize and read, but Weber said any instruction is left up to the parents.

"If they're going to be on an hour Zoom call for two hours a day anyhow, why can't they teach a math lesson during that time?" Weber asked.

When asked to respond, the Webster school district declined a request for an interview.

Weber said Aria, who has challenges with executive functioning and some cognitive delays, benefits from one-on-one instruction, but not when Weber is the teacher.

"Being a parent and student when we're mom and daughter, that puts a big strain emotionally, and it affects the whole way the house is all day long," she explained. "Now we're fighting. We're arguing over schoolwork, we're getting frustrated with each other, and that's not my role. My role should be Mom."

Tomorrow, in part two of this series: With families facing these challenges and more, what are school districts requiring of students during the shutdown and how are they accurately and fairly measuring their progress?