How to do remote learning, explained by teachers and students

It’s 9 am on Tuesday, and at Comp Sci High in the Bronx, that means advisory. Students gather in small groups with their assigned advisers to get academic support as well as a little camaraderie.

Of course, it’s also 2020, so advisory looks a little different than it once did. Instead of sitting at desks in a classroom, the students gather on Zoom, and the first few minutes among this group of 11th graders is spent making sure everyone’s camera is on and everyone’s screen is at the correct angle. There is just enough time for someone to playfully complain that last night’s homework was too long.

Next, it’s time for the groups of eight or nine students to present their “Future Vision” projects. The advisers have asked their students to make presentations to help guide their upcoming parent conferences — complete with pastel backgrounds, inspirational quotes, or Bitmoji-style self-portraits — evaluating their progress so far and laying out their goals for the future.

The kids share their screens so everyone can see their work. One student gives herself high marks for dependability, but says she struggles with procrastination: “I need to learn how to do my work early so I don’t stress about it later.” Another says she’s actually become more responsible during quarantine. A third says his long-term goal is to “go to college and learn more about video game design because that’s my dream job.”

As they present, the other students and advisers listen and give feedback. One teacher, Sherry Mao, tells a student her slideshow could stand to be a little “zhuzhed up.” Another, Eddy Mosley, suggests that one of his advisees include some slides in Spanish, since that’s his mom’s first language.

“I know your story already,” Mosley says. “I’ve been watching you do it for two years. This is for you to explain to Mom.”

Remote learning like what’s happening at Comp Sci got a bad name this spring, with students falling behind in their classes, or in some cases being unable to attend class at all. The problems were especially acute for low-income students and students of color — one analysis of online learning data, for example, found that the move online could put the average student seven months behind academically, while the average Latinx student lost nine months and the average Black student lost 10. And some fear that with many schools at least partially remote this fall, those inequalities will only get worse.

But at Comp Sci High, a charter school and part of the Urban Assembly network in New York, teachers, administrators, and students are doing everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. The school serves a majority Latinx and Black student body, 84 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and many of the kids have experienced severe hardships this year, from food insecurity to losing family members to Covid-19.

But as was clear from Tuesday morning’s advisory, many students have also made great strides, from learning new skills to taking AP exams to working toward their chosen careers. Even in the midst of a pandemic, 73 percent of students got into paid internships or training programs this summer.

While Comp Sci students are slated to return to the building on a hybrid model later this fall, for now, their teachers and administrators — along with others around the country who have been fighting to make remote education work — have lessons for schools struggling to offer a fair, equitable, and effective education to all students during a pandemic that’s nowhere near over.

Those lessons aren’t necessarily complicated — they range from making sure families have food on the table to using small groups like advisory to foster strong relationships with students. “If there’s no physical building, then the relationships and the community are essentially all that’s left,” Comp Sci principal David Noah told Vox.

But putting such strategies into practice across the country will take direction — and money — from states and the federal government. Without that, it will be on schools, often underfunded to begin with, to meet unprecedented challenges in a time of unprecedented need.

First, make sure students have their basic needs met

At Comp Sci, the transition to remote learning in the spring started with meeting some of students’ most basic needs. With the building closed, many students lost what had once been a reliable source of food, threatening their physical and psychological health as well as their ability to focus on school.

So the school started a GoFundMe, raising about $40,000 for groceries, medical supplies, and, for a few families, funeral costs. In late March and early April, the Bronx was one of the hardest-hit parts of the hardest-hit city by Covid-19 in the country.

“We knew right away that there was going to be this tremendous need,” Noah said.

Other schools serving low-income…

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