Tom Shively, a teacher at Holy Trinity High School in Chicago, knew just how busy he would be teaching physics remotely when his school closed more than a week ago.
Well before COVID-19, Shively tried out remote teaching two years ago when he broke his hip. His school, near the Wicker Park neighborhood, has developed e-learning for all staff over the past three years.
“You [have to] have it all planned out and have it be kind of self explanatory,” Shively said. “And you also have to give up some degree of control.”
Holy Trinity High School closed its doors indefinitely just as Gov. JB Pritzker ordered all public and private schools in Illinois closed for two weeks. Then, on Friday, the governor announced a new stay at home order that will keep schools closed until at least April 7. Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered Chicago Public Schools closed for an additional three weeks, through April 20.
As many schools across the state are still figuring out how to teach online, Shively and other teachers at Holy Trinity are implementing the e-learning strategy they already had in place.
On the first day after Holy Trinity closed, teachers started using a digital management system to input lessons, grades, create online quizzes and discussion posts to educate its 350 mostly Latino and African American students.Teachers also rely on Google hangouts to communicate.
The school also surveyed students about whether or not they had internet access. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors have been getting Chromebooks over the last two years. Before closing the school and making a full transition to remote learning, seniors who needed a Chromebook also were able to get one.
Teaching online at Holy Trinity has mostly been tested during snow days or other emergencies — like the time Shively broke his hip. But now, it’s full-time all the time.
Shively had to quickly figure out how to convert all his classes online and change his overall routine for the days to come. One big challenge for him is not always seeing students’ reactions after he has explained a complicated subject.
“If I am in front of the classroom and I am looking out, I am asking a question: ‘Did you understand this?’ ” Shively said. “I can look around and see if I am getting a generally nodding look.”
That’s harder to do now as he toggles between his live video with students and the screen with his lesson.
Shively said as other teachers venture out into this new way of lecturing, they need to make sure instruction is clear. Technical issues and random interruptions are also part of the overall experience, he said.
It’s only been a little more than a week since their school closed and Shively students are trying to stay positive, though it’s also been hard for some of them.
“I kind of expect there to be background noise, so I kind of just like to tune it out,” said senior Jessica Roman during a recent lesson.
“It’s kind of an adjustment because some of our assignments can be a little hard to understand,” added senior Ashley Willis. “I miss that support from our teachers and [them] being there physically, walking me through certain things.”
This small, private Catholic school is managing for now. But, there are many unknowns and frustrations with online learning in public schools — where some students have limited or no internet access, many are low-income, don’t speak English or have disabilities.
To prevent students from lagging behind, Shively and other teachers schedule one-on-one sessions throughout the week.
Angela Miceli, a business and technology teacher at Holy Trinity, scheduled 30 minute meetings with 23 of her students last week to help them prepare for a business pitch competition. “It was good because each student got individual attention, and I think that’s very important, especially in a time like this when everything seems very disconnected,” Miceli said.
She also has advice for teachers who are starting to teach online. “I learned that I have to build some type of a break for myself,” Miceli said. “I was going from 9 a.m to 3 p.m without a food break, a bathroom break. I felt like I had to fit all that in, so that was challenging.”
As teachers find helpful online tools, Miceli said, they need to master one that really works for them. Navigating and using multiple tools at once can overwhelm students.
And even when students are not as responsive, “you are still accomplishing a lot, because you are keeping the students engaged,” Miceli said.
Both Miceli and Shively said it’s scary to think about doing online teaching for more than a couple of weeks.
“I am afraid of two more months doing this,” Shively said, adding that he missed being in the classroom with his students. “I am fine now, and I think another week of [this] my sanity will probably still be intact. But the thought of doing this for a couple of months — it’s not a welcome idea.”
The main challenge for now, Miceli said, is keeping the anxiety and fear students might be feeling in check: “We have to learn how to balance that out and try to get our lessons in place so our students are still getting as much out of the curriculum as they can.”