kid smiling at computer

When Indianapolis school officials announced in March they were switching to online coursework in response to COVID-19, Tammy Mann hoped it would only be for a week. Her son, Mylan, was a few months shy of finishing his junior year at North Central High School. 

However, Indianapolis students finished out their academic year totally online. Both Tammy and her son found the experience to be “frustrating and poorly organized.” 

“There was no importance put on the e-learning days,” Mylan, 17, said. “It felt like teachers and administration weren’t giving us an incentive to do the assignments, so it felt like I wasn’t really required to do any of the work, so I sort of stopped paying attention to Canvas [online program for classes] notifications.”

E-learning struggles aren’t limited to high school students, however. Abby Thomas, a senior studying public relations at IUPUI, said she and her professors had difficulties with online learning after all of her courses moved to an online format last semester. 

“The transition process was honestly a little rough,” she said. “A few of my professors weren’t great with Canvas in the first place, so having to rely on it totally was a challenge and required several relatively severe syllabus changes. … In all, I would say it took a solid month to iron out the major challenges and to feel like I was actually back in the swing of anything remotely resembling school.”

Despite the struggles Thomas and Tammy and Mylan Mann had with e-learning, all feel the instructors did the best they could under the circumstances.

“They had never prepared for anything like this,” Tammy said.

According to Tammy, teachers at North Central told students that assignments during e-learning would not harm their grades, only raise them. Essentially, then, if a student was passing classes before the transition to e-learning, they would still pass regardless of how they performed on their e-learning assignments. 

“They messed up when they said the work you’re doing can only improve your grades and not hurt it,” Tammy said. “That’s like telling a kid not to do it. He did the work, but he didn’t take it seriously, and it was just a lot of busy work. You don’t get a lecture, you don’t see people, it’s just work to fill up the required number of days. He [Mylan] told me he would have rather been in school, and that about killed me,” Tammy added with a laugh.

Rick Doss, director of secondary education for Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, said schools throughout the township, which includes North Central High School, decided to “hold students harmless” for any assignments throughout the e-learning process. However, Doss said it was not supposed to be public knowledge that students, in theory, could do no e-learning assignments and not have it affect their grades. After a few teachers informed their students of this, Doss said the township was transparent about the plan and encouraged parents to keep their students engaged.

“As diverse socioeconomically as our township is, some students and families aren’t as connected as we would like,” Doss said. “We knew that we had kids that didn’t have devices, so we couldn’t guarantee that all students had access to the content.”

North Central High School hasn’t announced if students will be back in traditional classrooms next academic year, and Tammy said she cringes when she thinks about another semester with e-learning. 

Regardless of whether North Central High School students are back in traditional classrooms next semester, Doss said there will be a period of “catching up” to allow students who didn’t have access to e-learning materials or connectivity to learn any key concepts they may have missed. Throughout summer break, township officials will ensure all students have access to laptops and Wi-Fi, so if e-learning is necessary next school year, students will not be held harmless.

Tom Hayes, a journalism teacher at Ben Davis High School, directs students in creating a student newspaper and a yearbook every year. While he’s ready to be back in the classroom — he said he would be back tomorrow if it was possible — he was somewhat prepared for a transition to e-learning thanks to Google Classroom. 

“Our online product increased in content during that two months,” Hayes said. “Kids still produced stories and took pictures, so we still produced content, it was just all online.”

Hayes said while he was prepared to transition to online classes and grade accordingly, students in other classes or programs may have realized grading wasn’t as strict during the last two months of the school year. 

Hayes is sure that if e-learning continues into next school year, teachers — along with students — will be more prepared for next semester. 

Regardless of the struggles that come with e-learning, questions remain about returning to the classroom without a COVID-19 vaccination readily available. 

 “At this point, even though I know anyone can get it, I’m still very anxious at the thought of spreading it to my at-risk family and close friends,” Thomas said. “As much as I resent the forced online learning we had last semester, I contemplated switching classes [to online only] if they insist we go back in person in the fall if things haven’t really slowed down. It’s not what I want to do, but I’m very, very wary.”

While he doesn’t know when schools will feel comfortable enough to bring children back into classrooms, Hayes is excited to see his students again. 

“I think [the pandemic] reinforced my belief that relationships with your kids are everything,” Hayes said. “I always say that high school teachers are prepared to say goodbye to students when graduation comes, it’s exciting for us to see them go to the next level and celebrate that with them. When that’s taken from you in March, it’s a terrible feeling.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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