When the coronavirus started, I was in fourth grade in a Berkeley public school. I have one sister, who is three years younger, and we both got free laptops from the school district once everyone had to stay home.
They call it distance learning, but they might as well call it laptop laziness. It’s so easy to just go to another website or watch a video.
Since this started, it’s been more fun and better learning to do my own projects without any teacher. For example, I set up Zoom calls with friends or relatives on my own, and I wrote a bunch of short essays about amazing places in the world. Lately I’ve been working on a podcast with my sister and a friend called “Street Spies,” which anyone can listen to on the internet.
School was not so good, though. My teacher even told us she was not comfortable teaching on the screen. When I thought about it, that made sense because teachers are used to being there with the kids in person. There also always seemed to be problems getting the Zoom code or the sound to work. A lot of kids were constantly leaving and joining the meetings at different times, for various reasons like bad Wi-Fi. Things were even harder for my sister, who was in first grade — she says she couldn’t even see or hear the teacher some of the time.
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I’ve also heard parents say kids from less privileged homes didn’t show up for the virtual classes as much.
Kids can leave the room or turn off their video — and the teacher can’t do anything about it. Students can mute themselves, and they can also mute the teacher by turning off the sound. Then they can do whatever they want — get a cookie or anything else their parents let them do (if a parent is even there). That’s not true in school where kids get sent to the principal’s office if they won’t do what the teacher says.
My teacher used a set-up for doing homework called Google Classroom. It had problems, too. The teacher puts “tasks” up and then students can just ignore them, and the teacher can’t do anything about it. This set-up also made me feel stressed because there were all these tasks with due dates lined up on the screen that I hadn’t done.
Whatever the project, you can’t really do anything social. Only one person can talk at a time on Zoom. You can’t have a separate discussion with a student, teacher or small group. Even to get to a “breakout” room — where you can do a video chat with less than all the people — you have to ask the “host” to do it for you.
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A lot of school is normally about hanging out with friends and being social, and you miss out on that, too. In person, school is longer, and it’s easier to share ideas and finish projects.
One specific area where online learning seemed harder than in-person learning involved paper workbooks. My teacher told students to scan their work and email the scanned pages to turn them in, but that was an extra step and not a lot of the students even had a scanner.
There are also some good parts of online learning, though. For one thing, there’s not as much distraction from the other kids, so you can focus on the subject and learn about it. For example, I wrote some essays about the California Gold Rush for online school last spring. Did you know that Margaret Frank made the equivalent of $400,000 in today’s money by making pies and selling them to miners?
Overall, school online is not as much fun as it would be if everyone were there in person. I guess it’s true that something is better than nothing. But distance learning definitely takes some getting used to. Everyone is still figuring it out.
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Simone Elias is the 10-year-old granddaughter of columnist Thomas Elias. A rising fifth-grader, she is a veteran of California’s first attempt at mass distance learning, which will involve millions of kids this fall.
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