The Pain of Online School Remains, Even When Kids Are in Classrooms


The return to in-person school brought joy to parents and students alike, who were sick of dealing with Zoom calls, educational games, online homework and all the technical glitches that came with jamming education into the tabs of a web browser.

Yet when kids did make it back to classrooms, they discovered that many of those digital tools weren’t going away.

Even when students are together in person, a teacher might start a lesson in Google Classroom or Canvas, which then splinters off to a half-dozen other websites for math quizzes, science videos or reading. For middle- and high-school students, different teachers might have different approaches, adding to the confusion.

Sometimes students forget to submit their work, or leave a site before finishing an educational game, parents and teachers say. Other times the systems don’t communicate with each other, resulting in assignments being marked as missing. Many students no longer turn in paper assignments at all, and instead are expected to make digital copies. Teachers’ online gradebooks don’t always sync with the digital classrooms, leaving students and parents fretting over failing grades and unsure about what work has been received.

With some districts going back to remote instruction because of the surge in Covid-19 cases, and with many other students in quarantine, digital classrooms have proven to be a continuing necessity. Education experts say that digital classrooms are here to stay and that we all need to get used to them. I have some tips on how to manage this, below.

Bethany Dasko’s ninth-grade daughter struggled with photographing art projects using her Chromebook’s camera. At times, she either turned them in late, for partial credit, or just didn’t submit them at all.

“The expectation is that they should be able to log in, see what needs to be done and do it,” Ms. Dasko said. “These are kids, and they don’t have the maturity to look at this big system and figure out how to break it down.”

The reliance on tech has led some parents to buy their kids phones sooner than they would have liked. The difficulty of taking photos of schoolwork on the Chromebook is one reason Ms. Dasko, a graphic designer in northeastern Washington, recently bought her daughter a phone.


How is your family managing digital classrooms? Join the conversation below.

“Teachers cite the same challenges—it’s not just parents and students,” said Heather Dowd, a former teacher turned instructional coaching consultant and co-author of “Classroom Management in the Digital Age.”

She said she expects digital classrooms to become more streamlined and easier to use. Until then, many parents complain that tech problems are getting in the way of learning and wonder: What’s so bad about paper and pencil, anyway?

Michelle McNally’s eighth-grader has been struggling to keep track of each teacher’s method for showing that work has been done. Some of his teachers require screenshots of physical work; others check students’ computers to see that work has been completed.

“Is the goal to learn the system, or is the goal to learn the content?” said Ms. McNally, a digital-marketing executive in Indianapolis.

Jessica Ortiz, of Vermilion, Ohio, said one of her sixth-grader’s teachers sends parents an email each week to let them know what students should be working on, while another sends updates through an app. Some don’t communicate with parents at all.

Eleven-year-old Isabella Ortiz with her sisters Bridget, 15, and Elliana, 4; her mother said it was easier to track Isabella’s progress at school when she brought home graded assignments on paper.


Victor Ortiz

Ms. Ortiz said she has little visibility into how her sixth-grader, Isabella, is doing in school now that she does all of her work in class on a laptop. When she used to bring home graded papers, Ms. Ortiz said she could see which types of math problems gave her trouble and would print worksheets to help reinforce those skills.

Some of her daughter’s grades aren’t updated online often, so it’s unclear to her whether a zero on an assignment means that her daughter got the answers wrong or didn’t turn it in, or that it just hasn’t been graded yet.

“She’s kind of on her own now,” Ms. Ortiz said.

What you can do

Parents can help manage kids’ digital assignments by following a few organizational tips.

Develop a work-tracking system. Ask your kids how they like to organize their to-dos. If they don’t know, try experimenting. Do they prefer note-taking apps and timers instead of paper notes? Some schools give students a calendar in which to write down homework assignments each day. If your school doesn’t, create your own. You also can sit down with your child and make a paper or electronic list of the sites where each teacher posts assignments. See my previous column on digital to-do lists, reminders and calendar apps.

Teach self-advocacy. Parents say kids often won’t speak up when they run into a tech problem. They could use some encouragement in asking for help or composing an email to a teacher. “Rather than assuming your child knows how to ask their teacher for something, role-play some scenarios with your child,” Ms. Dowd said.

Have backup plans. It’s helpful to remind kids why they shouldn’t wait until the last minute to turn in work, Ms. Dowd said, and to prepare them for that scenario. What if your home internet goes down the night the assignment is due? Is there somewhere else they can go to access the internet? What happens if they leave their laptop at school? Do they know how to log in from another device?

For tips on saving passwords, bookmarking your students’ most commonly used websites and using virtual assistants, see my column on making remote school easier. If a lack of motivation is a factor, I wrote about ways to motivate your teen.

Write to Julie Jargon at [email protected]

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