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South Florida Teachers Prepare To Start The School Year Remotely

Teacher doing distance learning
Students, teachers and parents are already thinking about what school and learning will be like once fall arrives.

As South Florida remains a hotspot for the coronavirus pandemic, all students in public schools — from Palm Beach to Monroe — will start the school year remotely. 

A national poll conducted by EdWeek last month found nearly 75% of parents believed their children learned less during remote school than they would have in the classroom. 

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Virtual learning presented many challenges this past spring, but with more time to prepare, many parents are hoping the experience in schools will be better this fall. 

We assembled a panel of teachers from across South Florida’s four school districts to discuss some of those challenges, as well as their preparations, experiences and concerns. 

Maribel Pizarro teaches history at Palmetto Senior High School in Miami Dade County. Robert DeGenarro teaches all subjects to fifth-graders at Hayden Road Elementary in Palm Beach County. Melissa Welch teaches history at Coral Shores High School in Monroe County. And Brandon Boswell teaches biology at Cypress Bay High School in Broward County. 

This excerpt of the conversation has been edited for clarity.

WLRN: What did you learn from the last couple of months of the spring? Because when the pandemic hit, all of a sudden, everything stopped.

PIZARRO: I kind of already knew this, but it kind of solidified my theory that teachers are innovative. You give us a problem and we'll figure out how to make it work. Most teachers have developed a relationship with the students by the time we ended the school year last year. So they just trusted us on this journey for the most part. Prior to the pandemic, I used a lot of online formats with my students to supplement the material. So using Google Classroom and even doing virtual calls with kids in other states and other countries is something that we weren't foreign to.

What's your biggest concern as we’re about to start school?

DEGENARRO: My biggest concerns are for students who don't have the availability of the Internet and computers. Palm Beach County is doing a lot of computer purchasing and there are various things you can do about getting students internet access. But in some cases, we have students whose families are undocumented and nobody wants to be the person on the bill. I think probably that's the number one thing that I would worry about for all students.

Credit WLRN Sundial Facebook Live
WLRN host Luis Hernandez speaks with a panel of South Florida teachers about returning to class remotely.

For the time being, you're not going to have that personal connection that comes with an in-person setting, at least not for a little while. How do you overcome that? 

WELCH: I am going to try and do a couple of little things. Certainly, “meet the teacher” online events before we start. I have a goal of writing a welcome letter to all of my students this year, sending them some little goodies in the mail. I know that part of the emphasis at the start of school virtually will be to try to build those relationships. That was the one advantage we did have in the spring, we already knew our students and they knew us. I think a lot of the start of this year is going to be about how we have small group conversations with our kids and how we start to get to know them virtually.

What feedback are you getting from students about learning remotely?

BOSWELL: I definitely heard from students, for a lot of them it was their pivotal year in high school for college admissions. They had all these AP exams that had changed formats and I found that students really did struggle. They were struggling with the situation of the pandemic and social isolation. Normally, when they go to school they get to see all their friends. Now, they didn't get that. And it was even harder for them to sit in front of a computer for six, eight hours a day and stare at a screen. The students who are very vocal, they really had a hard time with it. So I ran live classes last year and I think that's a great thing going forward.

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Leslie Ovalle produces WLRN's daily magazine program, Sundial. She previously produced Morning Edition newscasts at WLRN and anchored the midday news. As a multimedia producer, she also works on visual and digital storytelling.