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Video conferencing decision pits need for student contact against equity and privacy concerns
Estacada School District used its virtual school snow days plan to launch distance learning. The district uses video conferencing extensively, but worksheets still play a part. (Photo courtesy of Estacada Superintendent Ryan Carpenter)
Live video conferencing options such as Zoom or Google Meet offer desperately missed personal connections among teachers and students. They also create a sometimes invasive window into people’s lives.
Oregon school leaders have struggled with questions of equity and expectations as they have laid down procedures for teacher contact during school closures. Some school districts, seeing the need for social and emotional interactions, are loosening their video conferencing guidelines as they get a better handle on distance learning.
West Linn-Wilsonville initially prohibited teacher video conferencing. Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Aaron Downs said the district wanted to be careful around issues of equity and privacy, for students and teachers.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We wanted to get our bearings and be thoughtful and cautious about this.”
Equity issues, the biggest concern since the start of distance learning, run much deeper than internet and computer access. Home environments and available adult support affect students’ ability to learn.
Live video conferencing invites everyone into classmates’ and teachers’ homes. Living conditions and inappropriate or disruptive housemates are suddenly on display.
The district south of Portland consulted area districts, studied technology options and provided training before allowing teachers last week to begin using Zoom – if two staff members are present.
Zoom meetings still can’t be used for instruction. Not every student can be in front of a computer at a set time each day for classes, especially younger students who have working parents. At the primary level, students have to opt-in.
The district wants to make sure that students and families can work through instruction at times and paces that fit their circumstances.
Zoom meetings are optional for teachers. Equity questions also apply to teachers, who might have children in their home or other challenges to being present. The district did not want teachers stigmatized for not offering video conferencing.
Jennifer Cerasin, president of the West Linn-Wilsonville teachers union, said the option is important to teachers already stressed by the leap to unfamiliar distance learning. She said some teachers wanted video conferencing from the beginning and others have discovered it less useful than they had expected.
Cerasin, a high school teacher, says video conferencing is just another tool. It helps with connections and allows teachers to better check on their students’ welfare, but it can frustrate students if a teacher stands there and gives a lecture that could just as easily be notes in an email.
The district continues to reach out to students in other ways, such as principals and teachers visiting packet pick-up sites to talk with families.
Nearby Gladstone School District also has limited video conferencing, but it is developing guidelines and testing live video with secondary students.
Classes based on recorded videos and posted lessons with students choosing the time of their learning don’t work for everything, said Communications Coordinator Leslie Robinette. For example, trying to work through a complicated math problem with back-and-forth email could eat up an entire day when it could be explained in 10 minutes live.
The district is concerned students are feeling really isolated and a check-in with their classmates and teachers would be healthy, Robinette said.
The video conferences would remain optional for students and teachers, and they would be recorded so students who couldn’t watch live wouldn’t be left out.
Estacada School District southeast of Portland is at the other end of the spectrum.
Teachers are providing regular direct instruction through Zoom meetings, with some teachers scheduling more than one a day. The meetings are recorded for families who want to view them later.
School Board Chair Ben Wheeler said the district had already negotiated more detailed virtual learning teacher contract language this summer in expectation of rolling out its snow days plan. That plan has been used to plunge into distance learning.
Administrators, teachers and parents agree that the primary appeal of video conferencing for students is not math lessons or a social studies lecture. It’s talking to their friends.
“It provides a pretty essential interaction opportunity, not only student to teacher but also student to student,” Wheeler said. Plus, it just makes classes livelier and more interesting, a lure to keep students engaged, he said.
Estacada English learner program coordinator Leah Riedel, speaking as a parent of middle schoolers, knows how crucial direct contact can be.
“They can join into the Zoom class and get that help right there when I can’t provide it because I’m also working,” she said
Scheduled class meetings can be a blessing or a curse for working parents.
“I think the teachers who are going above and beyond and reaching out, it feels good to parents,” said Oregon PTA President Kristi Dille. “But I also think that parents like the flexibility of not having to be tied down to a computer at a particular time.”
Dille is a secretary in North Clackamas School District’s Oak Grove Elementary School.
North Clackamas has moved carefully to assess the needs of the community as well as the staff, said Equity and Instructional Services Executive Director Shelly Reggiani.
The district relies on Google Classroom, which was already widely in use, but does not allow video conferencing.
“We wanted to go with what was familiar, what was successful, and build up,” Reggiani said.
The district does most of its direct contact by phone, but video time is possible if the teacher and parents agree.
The district reached out to organizations that were already doing distance learning and one of the important things they said was not to try to replicate classroom teaching online, Reggiani said. They also warned that setting up virtual classrooms requires planning and training, not something to be done on the fly.
The district is trying to view everything through the lens of equity and an understanding for each person’s unique circumstances, Reggiani said.
“None of our kids and families and teachers signed up for this,” Reggiani said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA