The Washoe County School District officially launched its distance learning program at the start of April in response to Governor Steve Sisolak’s state of emergency declaration to the COVID-19 crisis. Since then the district has provided material to students in both electronic form and also paper materials for those who do not have access to the internet.
The program, however, is seeing mixed results.
Although the WCSD is providing every resource to students, including over “one million pages of printed materials” for their paper packets, parents, students and teachers are finding it challenging to make the unexpected shift to home learning.
According to one teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, the district was ill-prepared for such a drastic shift, especially for art and music programs which are turning out to be some of the most challenging to instruct remotely.
“They just said get everything you think you’ll need. The school district had a certain number of packets designed by a certain number of teachers, and everybody in the district is doing the same project, and we are just facilitating them,” they said.
For Reno mother Jaymie Mitchell, whose young son attends a private school, the transition was fast and efficient.
“We pay. I pay for that school,” she said. “So, they got us together right away. But it’s not ideal.”
Mitchell, who is a local attorney with a full work schedule, cited background noise in peoples’ homes as the biggest problem with her son’s Zoom interaction.
“We go pick up the paperwork at the school on Fridays then we turn it in on Monday so she (the instructor) is able to grade the paperwork and return it,” Mitchell added.
The grading and attendance for the private school appears to be more proactive than it is in WCSD, with some parents claiming their children are not even being held accountable for either checking in or having their work graded. This, too, seems to vary from school to school, especially at the high school level.
Galena High School has implemented Zoom classes for online instruction, and students are required to log in and be present at a specific, pre-determined time each morning. But that procedure isn’t being consistently implemented across the district.
McQueen High School is said to be allowing students to check in at their leisure. According to one McQueen mother, Sally Casas, even though she is picking up the packets from the school, the students aren’t being graded for the work.
“They’re not getting graded. None of them are being graded, which is ridiculous,” Casas said. “So effectively they don’t have to do it and they won’t be penalized. I don’t think the school planned it very well.”
The packets that are being issued to the students have been standardized for each grade, with parents and students having to sort through them to find the specific curricula for each.
“You have to pull out all the classes they do, and that’s the ones they work on. I am kind of torn on the whole thing right now,” said Casas. “Even though I don’t fault the educators at all because they had to come up with this plan very quickly, they’re not being graded or assessed on the work.”
Casas, who said she was grateful to the school district for keeping the students “active and school orientated” also noted that the plan was supposed to be a temporary one, initially designed to run through April 16. The plan has since been extended to April 30, but Casas believes it’ll extend even longer.
“They’re not going to be going back this year. The semester ends in early June,” she said.
Higher ed not immune to challenges
Decreasing participation in online lectures is also affecting the university system, with some departments documenting minimal logins from students. An executive assistant to the dean in one of the major departments at University of Nevada, Reno said the lack of student participation in online coursework is severely impacting the quality of education the students are receiving.
“We had a meeting and we can tell when they are logging in to participate or even just watch something that is pre-recorded, and they are just not bothering with it,” she said.
This observation was actually reflected by students themselves, past and present. Former student Kevin Tubman, who studied public relations from 2008-2013 and is presently taking chemistry classes at UNR, said most students are “just riding it out.”
“They sent us an email on a Monday saying ‘Friday campus is closed don’t come back next week.’ As far as I know, they switched to an all-online platform [you’re supposed to be logging into]. But I haven’t logged in,” Tubman said. “A lot of people are trying to fight for full refunds right now, because we signed up for in-person learning. I’m a terrible online learner. I want to go in to class. So, a lot of people are bailing out.”
His roommate Matthew Dionne, who made the transition to full-time online learning a few semesters ago, agreed with Tubman in regard to the challenges online learning can present for some students.
“As a person who made the switch from in-person to online, my first two months were fucking hell,” Dionne said. “I was sitting there stressing every day on how to get it done, and it was my own choice to do that. These kids that are being forced to do that, I can only imagine the stress they are going through because they had no chance to prepare themselves to do it.”
“I know a lot of the kids in the [journalism] school aren’t super concerned,” Tubman noted. “But the kids that I’ve talked to in like chemistry and math, it’s so unhelpful trying to talk to my professor and get questions answered.”
“It’s mostly rumors, but I heard some teachers are basically doing the whole ‘I’m being very lenient’ on grading. So, some kids are probably going to get free “Bs” just by doing the bare minimum,” Dionne remarked.
The impact on UNR may have ongoing effects for the next several semesters as the students who are refunded will have to repeat the semester’s classes, potentially posing problems for class size and demand over the next several years.
A lesson in uncertainty
While parents, educators and students alike are all scrambling to figure out the best ways to move forward in an educational environment that has no precedence, the one collective issue they share is uncertainty.
Parents are taxed with the sudden complication of home schooling, students are participating in a process that for most is completely foreign to them, and the WCSD and University are feverishly trying to evolve and adjust to continue serving nearly 90,000 students.
“It takes a lot of time, and some assignments take a minimum of three people,” one parent of a Brown Elementary School student pointed out in regard to a math assignment. “I’m supposed to be working. It’s just me and my son. I don’t really have time to play a card game. They’re not grading. Teaching is tough, but there is no instruction or learning. They might be providing activities for them to do, but there is no instruction or learning. And that’s what school is about: learning.”
Born in 1971, Eric Marks was fortunate enough to grow up in a time and family where photography and literature were normal parts of his life. His parents were always enthusiastic and supportive of his photography as a child, and encouraged him to read and write as much as possible. From 2005 to 2012 he owned an award-winning, international, high definition video production company, and has produced video and photography in over 14 different countries on four continents. Eric majored at the University of Nevada, Reno in English/Writing and Art, graduating with English and Photography degrees in 2013, and again with an Art degree in 2018. He teaches all genres of photography at Truckee Meadows Community College, is a freelance photojournalist for several publications, and offers private photography instruction.