This is what my classroom looks like now: Twenty video squares light up my screen, Brady Bunch style. Each vignette holds a teenage student, encapsulated in their own world. One strokes a golden retriever, one lounges in pink-spotted pajamas, another chases a little brother out of frame.
At the end of our meeting time, the girl in the pink pajamas murmurs, “I don’t feel alone right now.” “I don’t feel alone right now either,” I confess back. Amid a jumble of goodbyes and I’ll-miss-yous, I press “end meeting,” and, all too abruptly, their faces blink away and are replaced with the silence of my kitchen and the knowledge of my distance from them.
In a dash from classroom to website, too many of us are focusing on online curriculum and leaving classroom emotional and social support on the side. Regardless of the curriculum, the closing of school doors and the opening of laptops have caused a universal pain of disconnection. In a time of self-quarantine, e-learning should not be used to solely facilitate the manufacturing of learning outcomes, but the connecting of our communities.
Getting Connected Takes Bandwidth, Not Packets
The first step to rebuilding classroom communities is getting students connected—literally. E-learning disproportionately disconnects low-income students, digitally-quarantining those who need classroom companionship the most. 35% of lower-income students do not have Internet access at home, while 24% of students are “under-connected,” with Internet access only sometimes unaffordable.
We must create effective protocols to reach these students, not simply hand out a packet. If funding is available, schools, like mine, can provide WiFi in the form of mobile hotspots, allowing a daily Internet allowance reasonable for class engagement, not streaming Netflix. If funding is not available, districts can leverage partnerships with Internet providers, with many major networks now offering free services to low-income families. If providing paper-based work is the only solution, teachers can still communicate with students off-the-web. With teacher phones decorating vacant classrooms, home-based educators can professionally call or text families through services like Google Voice and Remind.
Once students are connected, we must quickly enact daily systems of communication. Posting online activities does little to reestablish a classroom’s sense of belonging, safety, and empowerment. Instead, we need to invite our students, plunged into an obscure digital sphere, to re-enter the classroom community. This invitation should require a response. As in the physical classroom, students need to know that their presence is respected and their engagement is valued. Consequently, if a student does not respond, I reach out.
Online Communities Demand Deliberate Effort to Build Connection
Every morning, I message my students a daily agenda and a community-building task like “I’m making a class playlist. Send me your favorite song by 1 pm” or “Find a photo that makes you happy and send it to the class.” The focus is never on standards but on transforming computer screens from walls of separation to doors of unification.
With “hallway” talks and classroom greetings lost, I must re-create a space for relationship-building. Without relationships, learning productivity ceases. In my own practice, I intentionally connect with every student every day. Each afternoon, I ask my students a simple question: What do you want me to know? Answers include course questions, home annoyances, and pandemic fears. I respond to each comment, class-related or not. My goal is not to teach a standard but to honor students’ feelings, experiences, and perspectives—no matter the distance.
Live Class Time Can Reduce Isolation
Lastly, we need to provide synchronous, or “live,” class time. The abrupt end to classroom normalcy has left my students deflated and momentarily shocked. Pandemic or not, students need to see and speak to each other in real-time—not simply learn in isolation. Simply scheduling a video chat during normally-scheduled class time does not ensure class will be available to all.
We should consider students working or babysitting, offering virtual class sessions at a variety of times; for those with weak or non-existent connections, we can leverage platforms like Zoom that can be done solely over cell phones, increasing accessibility. Ultimately, if a class culture diminishes student significance, it will also diminish learning significance.
In the maelstrom of student anxiety, increased family obligations, and pedagogical obstacles, digitally rebuilding classroom communities in the midst of a pandemic may seem impossible. We need to keep mending isolation gaps because we must. In a quarantined world, students must understand that they are not forgotten; they are still worthy, valued, and loved—even in twenty separate boxes.
We may not be in our classroom, but we are still with each other.