Struggles at home hold some Utah County students back from online learning

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A classroom at Timpview High School sits empty. (Preston Crawley)

Educators and students alike had to make serious adjustments when schools went remote, and adverse home circumstances may be making at-home classrooms a more difficult learning environment for some students.

Provo High School principal Boyd McAffee said though most students are participating in school online, students with additional difficulties at home haven’t been able to keep up.

“There are lots who have limited access to the internet and technology to access the internet. Some are caregivers for younger siblings and others are overwhelmed with life — family members with COVID, family members losing jobs or out of work due to COVID or a thousand other family traumas,” he said.

Schools and teachers have worked hard to accommodate a variety of needs by distributing Chromebooks to families, holding virtual office hours and adapting online learning activities so that even young students can complete them without parental assistance. Some Utah County teachers, however, still said they’ve seen struggling students stop communicating and completing work as the online period has gone on.

Naomi Leighton, a second-grade teacher at Larsen Elementary, said the added stress of completing school work was too much pressure for some families.

“If it was getting between their family relationships and causing more of a stress, it was easier just to kind of stop doing as much,” she said. “As time went on, it did get harder, and parents did get a little bit more frustrated and tired.”

Leighton said she encouraged parents and students to just accomplish what they could in their circumstances rather than giving up.

“It doesn’t replace the in-classroom teaching, but it definitely is better than nothing,” she said.

Leighton said the transition was especially hard for families with multiple children who needed a computer to access schoolwork. Students with other home and family struggles, too, have completed less or no schoolwork since transitioning online and have been difficult to get in contact with.

Hallways in schools across Utah, including this hallway in Timpview High School, have been empty of students. (Preston Crawley)

Other teachers corroborated this experience. Bekah Crawley, a ninth-grade language arts teacher at Timpview High School, said around 20 of her 180 students still haven’t made any contact with her. She attributed the lack of contact and assignment completion to the difficulty of at-home schooling, not an unwillingness to work.

“I think for a lot of the kids that are having trouble with online learning, it’s because they don’t have the same structure and expectations that they would have in the classroom,” she said. “Sometimes parents aren’t home to help them with that. Sometimes they have to work out of the home, or maybe they’re working, too, and they have to be in a separate area.”

Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy teacher Erin Smith also said she “saw kids just drop off the grid” completely, but that she was largely impressed with the students whose circumstances allowed them to participate in the online work.

“The majority of my kids were fantastic,” she said. “I was amazed at how many kids asked for more work and how many kids found things and shared them with me and how many kids responded.”

Crawley and Leighton also acknowledged the success and hard work of their students and the support and patience of students’ parents.

Looking at future semesters, teachers worry that this online period will have repercussions for months or even years to come. Leighton said that by the time school resumes in the fall, students will have been outside of the classroom for six months and will need to get used to the setting again.

Smith agreed that the coming fall will pose interesting new challenges for teachers and students.

“I think students will be behind a little bit across the board,” she said, adding that getting caught up from this could take as long as two or three years. “I’m curious about what enrollment will look like in schools next year, if parents will feel safe sending their kids to school or if parents are deciding to homeschool.”

Leighton also expressed concern for the emotional wellbeing of her students and said that some people are predicting an increased need for counseling for students once they return to the classroom.

“(I’m) just hoping that there wasn’t a lot of emotional trauma from the situation, and we can get our happy students back and really hit the ground running rather than relive the situation,” she said.

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