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Hard and draining: Memphis parents share upsides, but mostly frustrations with virtual school in first weeks

A student sits at a desk waiting for his online class via videoconference to start with a notebook and other school supplies nearby.
More than 50 people responded to Chalkbeat’s survey about how online learning is going so far. Most students in Memphis are doing virtual school.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Everything has changed for Norman Carrick Jr. when it comes to how he cares for his three children. He took leave from his warehouse job in the spring after several employees got COVID and now supervises online learning for his kids in prekindergarten, kindergarten, and second grade.

“I’m the cafeteria lady right now. I’m the teacher right now. I’m the principal. I’ve got to enforce the rules and make sure they focus,” he said. “It’s hard and it’s draining.”

His kids frequently complain that their eyes hurt from looking at their computer screens for most of the school day. But he has enjoyed getting a closer look at what his children are learning and their academic weaknesses and strengths. He also noted his children’s teachers at Brownsville Elementary in northeast Memphis are doing a “good job” helping them navigate the online platforms and lessons.

We asked you to tell us about your online experience and more than 50 Memphis parents responded. Virtual school is the only option available for families in Shelby County Schools, which educates the majority of Memphis students. And state leaders project test scores will drop because of the lost instructional time since schools closed in March because of the coronavirus, although no one knows how much. So, it is crucial that online learning is effective in the meantime, district leaders have said.

Many parents said teachers were doing the best they could, while others said they need more training to meet students’ needs. Some parents said their children have gotten a lot of work done, but most said online learning takes an emotional and mental toll on parents and children alike. The effect has been especially hard on younger students, parents said.

Even some of those who originally chose virtual school for their children are having second thoughts.

“The process is flawed. Parents must now become full-time teachers,” said Marc Jones, who is considering homeschooling his children. “The teachers are becoming obsolete in this setting if the parents have to do more work than them.”

A Shelby County Schools student works remotely from the YMCA’s virtual learning center on the first day of school.
Some day care centers have welcomed students who are in virtual school to log on to class from there.
Jacinthia Jones/Chalkbeat

Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district, is all virtual until the number of new daily coronavirus cases is consistently in the single digits, the superintendent said. Some Memphis charter schools are holding classes in person, but many are online.

The hours in front of a screen have made Victoria Noblett’s granddaughter, who normally loves school at Berclair Elementary, hate it by the afternoon.

“It’s just putting strain on everyone that doesn’t need to be there. It’s just too much,” said Noblett, a retired teacher. She said she would prefer live classes to be over by noon. “We need to regroup if we’re going to do this for a year.”

A Downtown Elementary parent started a petition earlier this month to shorten live instruction via video by 3 hours and have students do other work at their own pace the rest of the day. About 21,000 have signed the online petition.

One Bartlett parent signaled that parents should be careful what they wish for. Her son is taking online classes in the neighboring district that is offering both online and in-person instruction. He only has 40 minutes per class in a week for video conferencing with teachers. That’s not enough, she said. (She withheld her name for fear of retaliation from the schools her children attend and the school she works at.)

“I’m basically having to teach him myself,” she said. “I feel like we’re being forced to choose between getting a good education and staying safe.”

The challenges of online learning for young students was too much for Earnie Fiveash. He took his grandson out of Richland Elementary School to enroll him in kindergarten at a private school holding class in person.

“It’s a waste… Online learning is just a mess for someone in kindergarten,” he said. “Those students don’t have the discipline to stay with that and everyone knows it.”

Concerns from Kimberly Taylor, who has a son in eighth grade at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering charter school, go beyond screen time and online delivery. She noted his teachers are being creative in finding new ways to engage students.

But “how much are they actually learning?”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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