Rashida Chapman

Rashida Chapman, 36, a fifth grade math teacher at Pamoja Preparatory Academy is overwhelmed. The St. Public Schools teacher is experiencing the psychological scars of educating children during a deadly pandemic. What’s most disconcerting, Chapman said, is trying to teach dozens of students at their homes as part of distance learning.

A St. Louis Public School teacher's frustration with online education

“I have never felt so unproductive in my entire career as a teacher.”

Rashida Chapman, 36, a fifth grade math teacher at Pamoja Preparatory Academy at Cole is overwhelmed. The St. Public Schools teacher is experiencing the psychological scars of educating children during a deadly pandemic.

What’s most disconcerting, Chapman said, is trying to teach dozens of students at their homes through online courses.

“We’re literally learning an evolving platform with our students. And you want me to assist them, monitor them, and effectively distribute information to them? “It’s ridiculous,”  Chapman said, describing her new normal.

Chapman is among the thousands of teachers, superintendents and education officials who were caught off guard by the coronavirus pandemic. Schools throughout the nation shutdown as numbers of infections rose before spring break. Under pressure from President Donald Trump to reopen schools before the fall session, state health officials working with educators rushed to design safe but complicated models for learning. These models included all-virtual, 100 percent in-person classes or hybrid methods that combined both.

Chapman and her siblings are proud products of the St. Louis public school system.

“We all went to underprivileged schools in the district, so I definitely know we have the capacity to produce high quality citizens and high-quality scholars.”

The rush to reopen schools, Chapman believes, has jeopardized the futures of children, especially those in underprivileged urban school districts. She is not alone. Throughout the country, educators are expressing fears that America may be losing a whole generation of children to remote learning.

In May, researchers at Brown University looked at data on learning loss under the extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19. The study projected that students would return to school in the fall with approximately “two-thirds of the reading gains relative to a regular school year and about a third to a half of the learning gains in math.”

Part of the problem is access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, some 20 million Americans do not have access to the internet. And the largest portion of those students, according to the commission, are students of color.

Another problem is classism. For remote learning to really work, parents must be a part of the in-home process.  It’s easier for college-educated parents who can work from home to be a part of their children’s education. But for working-class parents without that option, remote learning can fuel the education gap.

John Rury is a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas and author of a study on racial and socio-economic disparities in schools. In June, the PEW Charitable Trust Foundation published an article that included Rury’s concerns about the advantages and disadvantages that classism brings to in-home education:

“Working-class kids are much more school-dependent to get the skills for a knowledge-based economy,” Rury said. “Take away that interactive [in-person] schooling, that puts them at a disadvantage compared to the kids of the college educated, who can more likely work at home.”

In all fairness, no one was prepared for a nationwide pandemic that altered how we live, earn, and learn. At this point, education leaders have little data on how learning has been impacted by new and complex learning platforms in the era of COVID. As the school year proceeds, national educational organizations and individual districts are compiling data on what’s working and what’s not. What we do know, as reported by the Washington Post in August, is that many teachers have yet to be trained in how to best utilize these new online learning techniques.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, also quoted in the PEW article, said that even the best in-school plans “can’t overcome the virus surge, lack of readiness” or the lack of resources in many school districts. However, Weingarten added, teachers are “fighting hard to have real plans because we know in-school learning is so important for kids.”

Paul Ziegler the CEO of EducationPlus, is one of the soldiers in that fight. His non-profit educational service agency is a collaboration of 53 school districts throughout the region dedicated to support learning, equity, and innovation in public and private schools. EducationPlus, working with a network of the state’s school superintendents and health department officials was instrumental in the “return to school guidelines” released in July. The entire process, Ziegler said, has been emotionally hard on educators. 

“It was almost overwhelming for some of our leaders. When we laid out our plans, you could see the relief on people’s faces. It was like ‘OK, we’re getting this thing under control. We’re going back to school with all these (safety) mitigation practices in place.’  Then, all of a sudden, July hits and things changed so rapidly,” Ziegler explained referring to the surge in Missouri coronavirus cases. “You could see the frustration, fatigue, and anxiousness on our folk’s faces.”

Chapman is a testament to that frustration.

“I’m a little disgusted, frankly. Looking at our response and continued response, I don’t think we (school districts) took the time to access the issue in its totality to form a holistic approach, especially for urban areas,” Chapman explained. “Knowing that our students are already economically disadvantaged, we should have taken the time to better prepare. Now, everybody’s overwhelmed, students, parents and the teachers. We’re like chickens with our heads cut off.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.

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