This paper aims to understand how elementary school educators who teach subjects that traditionally require hands-on work in schools are rising to the challenge of losing brick-and-mortar facilities in the wake of the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis.
The authors interviewed six elementary school educators and developed iterative grounded codes from the interviews to understand how the teachers are rising to the challenge of teaching online, what supports they need, and how they are viewing their roles and student learning in the present landscape.
In response to losing brick-and-mortar schools, teachers are rising to the challenge by creating creative assignments and communicating with students and parents via multiple platforms. They are learning to use technology to create meaningful, socially distant learning experiences and, in the process, blurring their own boundaries between work and life. They exercise compassion for their students while providing the best education they can in these circumstances.
This work provides administrators, educators, policymakers and technology developers insight into the challenges teachers are facing.
In addition to the timeliness of this study in light of the COVID 19 crisis, the focus on elementary school students, who often need support from parents or guardians to use Web technologies, and subjects traditionally requiring face-to-face interactions and hands-on work contribute to the originality of the study.
Anderson, E. and Hira, A. (2020), "Loss of brick-and-mortar schooling: how elementary educators respond", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 5/6, pp. 411-418. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0085Download as .RIS
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Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited
Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, as well as human-made crises such as war, often lead to a suspension of schooling. Response plans usually focus on aiding students’ return to their brick-and-mortar classrooms by providing counseling and support to ease students’ transition back into schooling (Knox and Roberts, 2005; Lazarus et al., 2002). However, the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) world pandemic is different, in that brick-and-mortar schools are closed, but classrooms remain open through what we refer to here as social distance learning. The loss of physical school facilities has been met with practices including a wide range of technology to mediate learning, for example, video conferencing, home learning packets, text messaging, phone calls and other means of communication.
The confluence of factors surrounding the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a watershed moment as educators have moved to social distance teaching using online technologies, in some cases overnight. There have been trends for several years broader access to the internet and personal computers (Child Trends, 2018) and a burgeoning of online learning management systems and video conferencing platforms (Emmanuel, 2018; Meticulous Research, 2020; Wan, 2019). Given these trends and the unique constraints and affordances of the COVID-19 crisis, educators are crafting entirely new learning experiences while deciding what knowledge is most valuable for their students and how the available technologies lend themselves to teach effectively.
Background: learning during a global pandemic
Social distance learning during COVID-19 varies across the USA for a myriad of reasons. The expectations of students and teachers not only differ from state to state (Reich et al., 2020) but what learning teachers can provide depends on the technology available at home for students and teachers (Warschauer, 2004). This adds another dimension to the parent‐teacher relationship, which is often cited as vital to helping students succeed in school (Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003; Lee and Bowen, 2006). This relationship may be even more critical for social distance learning, as teachers, particularly in elementary school, are relying on parents to help aid both learning and provide support for technology integration, which we know in school-based teaching is already a complex and situated form of knowledge for teachers (Mishra and Koehler, 2006). In these times, parents’ ability to help facilitate learning depends on many factors, such as if they are essential workers, how overwhelmed they are (Harris, 2020), and if they are dealing with grief, health concerns, or other extenuating circumstances. There is little doubt that schooling during a pandemic is profoundly challenging for students, parents and educators alike.
Given these challenges, teachers are caring for their students by listening to them and prioritizing their socioemotional (Noddings, 2015) and academic needs (Gholami, 2011), which they show by their ability “to solve problems and exercise power on the behalf of the student” (Chachage et al., 2019). In this pivotal moment in schooling, we interview six educators from five different schools tasked with the arduous goal of teaching elementary school students, who often need support from parents or guardians to use web technologies, to teach subjects traditionally requiring face-to-face interactions for hands-on work. Our conversations shed light on the strategies they adopt, the supports they use and need and how they view both student learning and their roles as educators in the current learning landscape.
For this paper, we interviewed six veteran elementary school teachers from five different schools across two states. We define a veteran as having over five years of teaching experience. Table 1 provides information on their respective teaching backgrounds.
We interviewed the teachers between April 10 and April 21, 2020, using a semi-structured interview protocol developed to answer the following research questions:
In what ways are teachers rising to the challenge of teaching without a brick-and-mortar classroom?
What supports do teachers need to rise to the challenge of teaching without a brick-and-mortar classroom?
How are teachers viewing student learning and their role as educators in the current educational landscape?
We conducted grounded iterative coding (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Patton, 2014) of the interviews over two rounds between two researchers. Owing to the word limit of this article, we only report the most relevant themes.
Rising to the challenge of social distance learning
Teachers are responding to the challenge of social distance learning through two primary means: designing creative new assignments and maintaining consistent contact with their students using any means of communication necessary.
Creative new assignments: stories of resourcefulness and ingenuity.
In overcoming the challenge of losing access to traditional learning materials, all six teachers spoke about creating new or modifying old activities to be able to use the technology and materials students have access to at home. For example, Chris’s class had just started a science unit on seeds. Typically, his students each plant their own seed and conduct daily observations, but because his students did not take their seeds home, Chris planted seeds for each one of his students in his home office. He “took pictures every day and posted the pictures on [his] Google Classroom site and [the students] would […] go look at the pictures and comment on the pictures.” In this way, he was able to preserve the spirit of an individual project while shifting into a virtual collective space.
While Chris figured out how to turn a hands-on science project virtual, Kim, as a visual arts educator, is trying to find assignments that students can do at home without access to art supplies. She designs her lessons as a “mix of drawing prompts, things with found materials” such as creating a face out of household objects to show a variety of emotions, building a blanket fort and answering a set of questions about artwork the students found in their homes. In sending home such art prompts, Kim is also expanding her students’ understanding of art as more than just painting or drawing, but instead is pushing at the boundaries of students’ notions of what counts as art.
Multiple modes of communication: maintaining consistent contact to listen and mentor.
The second major hurdle of teaching without a physical classroom is the lack of daily face-to-face contact with students. In daily practice, teachers gauge social-emotional health through interstitial conversations with students. In observing students complete in-class assignments or participate in discussions helps teachers to formatively assess their students’ progress. As Joseph points out, the simple physical presence of a teacher near a student is valuable encouragement. Joseph explains for math, once you:
[…] teach it from the front of the room, and then after the lesson, you need to go and sit next to a kid. They just need that support of you being next to them, showing them how to do the problems.
Social distance learning removes many of these traditional touchpoints in the classroom.
Teachers have undertaken various strategies to overcome this loss. Chris set up for each of his students “one-on-one[s] twice a week for 15 minutes.” He uses this time to help with schoolwork, connect with students and to gauge his students’ social-emotional health. Keith, on the other hand, sees a benefit to how Class Dojo gamifies interactions, with students earning points by interacting with the platform, which he believes is a way to motivate student engagement. Jason took a low-tech approach to stay in contact with his students. From the first day of school closing, Jason gave out his phone number and asked his students to email, text or FaceTime him. Merely having access to a phone number to text has created a link for asking questions and checking in with an adult. Jason, as a parent himself, understands the immense stress families are feeling in the wake of the crisis, saying that, “to pile on top of that is the last thing I want to do.” Therefore, he encourages his students to ask him questions and not their parents.
Challenges faced in social distance teaching
In moving to social distance teaching abruptly, teachers face the challenge of learning new technologies and teaching with them within the span of a few days. As teachers make themselves available to their students throughout the day, the boundary between their work and personal lives is blurred.
Teaching with technology: learning together with limited resources.
The rapidness of the transition and a general lack of resources and coordinators for digital learning have led teachers to iterate on the fly while scrambling to gain new skills to create social distance learning environments for their students. When asked about what supports were available to help the transition to social distance learning, teachers spoke of minimal instructional support, from learning how to use Zoom, to district budget cuts having removed e-learning coaches the previous year, and to a need for additional one-on-one guidance. Generally, teachers expressed a desire for more help.
Even with less than ideal support for teaching through technology, educators are figuring out how to do social distance learning. Chris shares how preparing to teach now takes “about six times as much as I would do in a brick-and-mortar school” because of more behind the scenes preparation before class sessions and locating resources that students could access. Teachers are tapping into professional networks to find ideas and resources and figuring out how to navigate the plethora of materials and resources available online. Kayla and her colleagues have been “trying [resources] out for the first time together” and sharing what they learn with each other. School districts are also listening to parents and iterating on how and how often assignments are given out to students.
Blurring the boundary between school and life: being always available to students.
As teachers figure out how to teach during the pandemic, the boundaries between life and work have been blurred. For elementary school teachers, it was typical to bring work home; however, now they are making themselves available to students throughout the day, including early morning, late in the evening and on holidays. They find it imperative to be available for their students when they need them but also recognize how this is not sustainable.
Jason, after giving out his phone number to his students, is fielding FaceTime calls and texts as early as 7 a.m. and often late into the night, noting he’s:
[…] Face Timing kids with [my three-year-old son] climbing on my back. I’ll be lying down in bed at seven o’clock in the morning, and a kid will FaceTime me, and I’ll just answer it.
As Jason considers how this experience will affect how he approaches teaching in the fall, he shares that he is more likely to be “open to providing my time outside of school hours, because I think they’re using it really well. I think it’s really important.” Jason’s students are asking good questions and leaning into the additional access to him to learn.
While teachers see the importance of being always available, they know this is not sustainable in the long term. In trying to limit late evening calls from parents and students, Joseph gave his students an assignment with the goal of submitting it online without needing to call or text him. This turned out not to be possible, and he instead ended up with phone calls from parents late into the evening, “[…] which I didn’t have a problem with, 7:00 or 8:00 […] Well, I’m like, that’s not sustainable.” Teachers are navigating a new and fluid experience with balancing work and life.
Evolving roles and expectations: compassionate teachers and prioritized learning goals
The disruption in traditional schooling and the related needs of students are leading teachers to evolve their roles by foregrounding compassion for students and families, in part by choosing to hone fewer formal learning goals in a highly inequitable landscape.
Teaching as caregiving: compassion for students, families and the world.
Teachers are giving out their phone numbers and working on holidays, because they care deeply about their students’ physical and mental health. As Jason echoed for many of our teachers, his “number one priority is just creating some sense of a normalcy for [his students].” The role of teacher has shifted for many, with Keith noting that “a teacher now is more of a caregiver and more of a facilitator.” To him, the most crucial aspect of education currently is children having a connection with a caring adult. He believes that such relationships lead to students learning–learning that “may not be registered on a standardized test, but the learning will come.” The idea of full support for the student is now coupled with worry for their families. Kim pointed out that many of her students are “[…] not independent enough to just go log into their reading website. They need their families to be healthy.” For a student to thrive and learn in the current world, parents and guardians also need support.
Rethinking learning goals: fewer benchmarks and greater inequities.
In the face of crisis, the teachers are rethinking what counts as essential knowledge and skills. With the constraints on time and teaching medium, teachers have condensed school learning to the minimal knowledge students require for their next grades, life skills and community building activities. Teachers also noted that access to social distance learning and the support to complete assignments is showing a broadening of inequalities on racial and socioeconomic lines.
Teachers spoke about focusing on particular skills, such as long division, or understanding fractions, or being exposed to critical thinking. While other teachers spoke about interpersonal and socio-emotional goals, Joseph believes that in the moment, “teaching life skills and character-building type skills, like patience or contentment, I think perseverance, those are things that we can really try to model for our kids and teach.” Like Joseph, Kim pointed out ways that social distance learning has provided for unexpected opportunities, such as seeing how art and other subjects are not siloed in real life like they are in school.” The goal is shifting toward seeing the interconnectedness of learning, not just mastery of a specific skill or standard.
Teachers also spoke about how distance learning exacerbates inequalities. Learning through technology requires that students have access to technology and internet at home. For elementary school students, social distance learning often requires, for a variety of reasons, an adult on-site to facilitate their learning. Keith pointed out that his students were not receiving equal education before the pandemic because of socioeconomic and racial factors and the pandemic likely exacerbated that. This underscores teachers’ worry about students’ mental and physical health and of the potential greater loss of learning opportunities. All of the teachers spoke about the importance of kindness and understanding in these uncertain times.
In the above findings, we see examples of how teachers are rising to the challenge of losing brick-and-mortar schools, the supports needed for social distance teaching and learning, along with how their roles as educators and learning goals for students have changed. We discuss some pertinent themes from the findings with practical and social implications below.
The teachers find themselves communicating with parents more than before the pandemic and see it as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship and serve as a team to mentor and support students through school. An important factor contributing to student success (Lee and Bowen, 2006) is relied on even more during these times of social distance learning. Teachers are also supporting parents’ caregiving responsibilities by engaging with students as a caring adult in their lives who is interested in more than their performance at school. This dynamic has implications for how parents and teachers work together to support students during social distance learning and beyond.
Teaching with and access to technology
As we hear from teachers, curricular materials need to change or at least be modified to be suitable for teaching using technology. Currently, institutions and organizations are introducing several technological tools specifically to aid social distance teaching (Li and Lalani, 2020; The World Bank IBRD-IDA, 2020). Teachers need support not only in starting to use these tools, but also to understand how to teach with the tools (Mishra and Koehler, 2006). Looking at how students are learning with technology, teachers draw our attention to the digital divide (Van Dijk, 2006; Livingstone and Helsper, 2007) resulting in inequitable access to technology and making it infeasible to provide a high-quality education to all students (Finley, 2020; Holpuch, 2020; Samms, 2020). These needs of access to technology and teacher support must be considered for successful social distance teaching and learning.
Care and pragmatism
Teachers are spending exceptional time and effort to design creative assignments and to make themselves available to students around the clock. This time and effort, comes at a considerable cost, especially considering that teaching as a profession was never a front-runner in enabling work-life balance. However, in the face of the current crisis, teachers are stretching themselves thin to do their best for their students. Teachers and administrators should be mindful of this necessary balance, or else we risk widespread burnout among teachers.
We find it is essential to acknowledge the limitations of our study’s research design. With a limited number of participants and a single interview with each of them, we have been able only to capture a cross-section of their experiences with social distance teaching at one moment in time. Though the participants teach at a range of economically and racially diverse schools, they do not represent the makeup of their respective states. Also, our focus in this study has been to understand the participating teachers’ experiences. So, we were unable to capture the challenges faced by other entities such as school district administrators, parents and students.
Teaching background of teachers
|Name||Years of teaching experience||Grade taught||Type of school||% Free or reduced lunch||% of students who identify as non-white|
|Chris||10||2nd grade teacher||Independent religious – Suburban||N/A||N/A|
|Jason||19||4th grade teacher||Public – Suburban||5.5||35|
|Joseph||12||5th grade math, history and writing teacher||Public – Suburban||27.2||34|
|Kayla||12||4th grade teacher||Public – Suburban||5.5||35|
|Keith||12||4th grade math and science teacher||Public – Urban||93.6||99.5|
|Kim||14||K-8 visual arts teacher||Charter - Urban||72||92|
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This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 towards pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.
The authors would like to thank Mr Alex Hargroder from MIT for his help with language editing and proofreading and Dr James Holly, Jr. from Wayne State University for help with recruiting participants. This work was made possible in part by a gift from the Emerson Collective and XQ Institute.