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Online learning forces parents, teachers and students to adapt

GREENSBORO — A few months ago, math and science teacher Stacy De Witte could never have guessed she would spend afternoons tutoring her Southeast Middle School students from a laptop on her patio.

She could not have anticipated she would remind them to turn off their video feeds before heading to the bathroom. Or that they would joke with her as she pushed the wrong button during an online videoconferencing session.

“You have a chance to see your teacher in a different light,” she said. “You have to have a little more sense of humor, working with the tech.”

When Gov. Roy Cooper closed North Carolina public schools in mid-March due to the threat of novel coronavirus, public and private schools in Guilford County responded by switching from classroom lessons to distance learning.

That change sent teachers, parents and students on a weird and unexpected journey together.

Educators and families are adapting to new technology and figuring out how to balance their time. They are discovering benefits to online learning, as well as downsides, with many of them missing aspects of in-person school.

“I always knew teachers were important,” said parent Amy Holdren, “but man does this really drive that point home.”


The rush to begin online learning in the face of COVID-19 has meant adapting to a variety of online learning platforms.

Guilford County Schools uses a learning management system called Canvas. Teachers can use it for various purposes: to post assignments, materials, and videos, communicate with students, give quizzes and hold live video conferencing.

The district was already using Canvas before the pandemic and some students were familiar with it.

Parents like Meosha Whitsett, however, had to learn the platform while helping their now homebound students finish the academic year. Whitsett, whose 11-year-old son attends Wiley Elementary School in Greensboro, had never heard of Canvas before the schools shut down.

She was laid off from her job due to the COVID-19 crisis, so she has been home to work with her son on his lessons.

“It’s kind of hard, a little bit, because I’m not as technology savvy,” she said.

Whitsett said she’s constantly trying to contact the school or the teacher to figure out what her son needs to be doing and how to get his work completed. She thought maybe district-led online seminars could help parents better understand what they need to do.

Holdren, who has a ninth grader at Cornerstone Charter Academy and a fourth grade son at Shadybrook Elementary, has been getting to see different systems in play.

“I know there’s mixed opinions, but I think Canvas has been really great,” she said. Her daughter’s charter school, she said, had been using a lot of Google Classroom, but dealing with variations between her classes has been a struggle.

Across the county, some educators are making a lot of their own teaching videos, doing video conferencing with students, or both. Others have focused on written instructions and assignments and sharing pre-made materials from the internet.

De Witte said last month she had been using two online video conferencing platforms and Facebook Live, a video streaming option, for question and answer sessions with students about their lessons and assignments.

The conferencing function on Canvas worked fine for her, but some of her students didn’t like it. So she also used Zoom for video conferencing.

On Facebook Live, students can type comments and questions in real time on her live video, but they are not on video or audio. She thinks some students prefer that.

Her philosophy was to meet the students where they are, on the platforms where they feel most comfortable to ask their questions. If they cannot or will not use one platform, there is another platform to meet their needs.

The flipside to that flexibility, of course, is a lack of consistency.

“I’ve had parents asking me to stop switching platforms … from a parent standpoint, I completely understand the frustration,” De Witte said.

Setting a schedule

Northwest High senior Nathan Phelps has been trying out a nocturnal life.

He wakes up about 8 p.m. and does school work until around midnight, the time he said most assignments are due. Then he plays games until about 6 in the morning, before sleeping through the day.

He said his parents don’t care, so long as he gets his work done. And he emphasized this is his choice — the schedule he would rather be on.

With schools closed, teachers, students and parents suddenly have a different set of choices to make about how they spend their time, and sometimes different pressures, as they try to find a new balance.

Their experiences range from everything “going just fine,” to “not fine at all.”

Take Southeast High School sophomore Elizabeth Carmichael.

“I usually get ready and then I spend about two hours on school work, and then the rest of the day watch TV, play outside, just do whatever I feel like,” she said.

Now consider a typical day for Pam Newman, the grandmother and guardian of a district fourth grader — and a full-time student at N.C. A&T.

Her work day starts about 7:30 or 8 a.m. and runs into the evening on weekdays, Newman said last month. She also works some on the weekend for her salaried job.

Her hours had increased because other staff were laid off in the pandemic, so even though she is working from home, there is just not enough time in the day for her to walk her granddaughter through what she needs to accomplish for school, Newman said.

“My grandchild is not getting the best opportunity to learn,” she said.

A variety of factors play a role in how challenging scheduling and time management are for families.

Those factors include how many parents are in the house and the extent and flexibility of their work.

There’s also the number and ages of the children, the ability of the children to self-manage their work, the school workload, and the support teachers are providing directly to students.

Liddy Hall is the parent of two daughters, one in third grade and one in sixth, at Canterbury School, a private school in Greensboro.

She and her husband both work full time from home, Hall said. They have been able to make it work, with each member of her family often heading off with their computer or tablet to a different room so they don’t distract each other.

The teachers are posting videos and doing zoom conferences with the students to help make sure they understand the lessons, she said, and her daughters are doing well at working independently. In a typical day, she said, the girls finish in the late morning or the early afternoon — 2 or 3 at the latest — and then there is time for family board games and walks later in the day.

“I would say that they are more resilient and resourceful than I would have guessed,” Hall said.

De Witte, who is a single parent as well as a teacher, said she spends her mornings supervising her own sons’ distance learning.

She is calling their impromptu homeschool the B&G Academy, after the boys’ first initials, and making jokes with her children about their “undefeated” soccer and baseball teams.

It is a tricky balance though, because she has to be in communication for her job at the same time she is teaching her sons.

“Those morning hours are exhausting because I feel like I need to be there for my kids,” she said, “and I know I need to be online for my students.”

Pros and cons

Pandemic-driven distance learning, as it is taking place in Guilford County, is working better for some students than others.

Phelps, the Northwest senior on a nighttime schedule, is seeing distance learning as a benefit to his education.

“It’s better because you can go at your own pace and the instructions are fairly clear and easy to understand,” he said.

Julie Pequigney, a junior who also attends Northwest High School, feels the opposite.

“It’s actually so much work and it’s kind of difficult,” she said earlier this month. “I’m not learning anything, to be honest.”

She said math, where she has been learning about “something with Pi and radius and volume, I’m not too sure,” has especially been a challenge.

In class, with the math teacher giving notes and answering questions from her and other students, she just understands better.

Now, she tries watching the videos her teacher got off the internet and posted along with the assignments, but it is making less sense.

She said she knows that she could, and should, reach out to her teacher when she doesn’t understand. It just does not feel easy or natural.

District leaders are especially worried that students will see steep learning losses in math from the pandemic closure, and they have started to put some extra measures into place, such as airing hourly math lessons from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday on their public TV channel, GCSTV.

At a school board meeting last month, Chief Academic Officer Whitney Oakley said they expect an average student is likely to retain less than 50% of what they would have learned in math this year.

“We know the instruction they are getting is as good as it can be, but is absolutely not the same as face-to-face,” she said.

In a recent opinion piece for Education Week, education researcher and Brown University professor Susanna Loeb said limited research on elementary and high school students has found online learning to be less effective than in-person learning.

“Some students do as well in online courses as in in-person courses, some may actually do better, but, on average, students do worse in the online setting, and this is particularly true for students with weaker academic backgrounds,” she wrote. She said there are likely ways to make online learning work better for less-engaged students.

De Witte sees good and bad in the online instruction so far.

She discovered she enjoys teaching over video conferencing.

The students who do show up, she said, are the ones who want to be there. They have real questions or points they want to discuss or understand.

“I am finding it’s easier to hold their attention on the video,” she said. “There’s kind of a joke going around that you can mute the kids that are talking too much.”

The darker side, for De Witte, was wondering about the students who are not showing up.

Out of the roughly 100 students she teaches, she said in April she had not been able to reach up to about a dozen of them in any way.

“I think that’s the hardest part about teaching right now, the kids you can’t get in touch with at all,” she said.

On average, 83% of Guilford County Schools students have logged on each week since the start of remote learning, district officials said. About 96% have logged on at some point .

De Witte ideally wants everyone to do their math and science homework, but it is far down the list of her concerns for these students.

“I’d much rather hear that you are OK and you are taking care of yourself, before you have any time to do any school work,” she said. “It’s unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented grace.”

Triad church joins conservative Christian leaders in suing Gov. Cooper over restricting church services amid pandemic

RALEIGH — Conservative Christian leaders sued Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday, asking a court to throw out his restrictions on indoor religious services in North Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic. They argued the limits, initiated by Cooper with health in mind, violate their rights to worship freely.

Two Baptist churches, a minister and a Christian revival group filed the federal lawsuit seeking to immediately block enforcement of rules covering religious services within the Democratic governor’s executive orders. The latest order still largely prevents most faith organizations from holding indoor services attended by more than 10 people.

Cooper’s office has said the newest order stating permitted services may “take place outdoors unless impossible” carries only a narrow exception, such as when religious activities dictate they occur indoors with more people.

Those backing the lawsuit in Greenville federal court said the restrictions violate the First Amendment and treat churches differently from retailers and other secular activities. Under the first step of Cooper’s three-phase plan for reopening now underway, most businesses can open doors provided the number of people inside doesn’t exceed 50% of the building’s fire code capacity.

“Freedoms curbed eventually becomes no freedom at all,” the Rev. Ron Baity, pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, said at a rally of about 500 people next to the Legislative Building. Baity, who is a plaintiff along with Berean Baptist and the Return America group he leads, said the use of church buildings have been an integral part of U.S. history for centuries: ”If there’s ever been a time our communities need the church, it is now.”

Cooper, a routine churchgoer, said later Thursday that he hadn’t read the lawsuit. He said his orders “have been drawn carefully to recognize First Amendment protections” and will ultimately end.

The governor and health department Secretary Mandy Cohen have said that churches and retailers are different: while store patrons walk up and down aisles, churchgoers usually sit down for long periods of time, which make them more susceptible to spread or catch the new coronavirus. Some local sheriffs have said they won’t cite churches for holding indoor services.

“Let’s look at the bottom line here: We don’t want our churches to become hot spots for this virus,” Cooper told reporters, adding he recognizes the importance of faith and fellowship during times of crisis. But “we hope that congregations across North Carolina will talk with their leaders and will make good decisions about what is right to look after each other.”

North Carolina health officials reported more than 16,500 people have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday morning with 615 related deaths. Cohen said the nearly 700-case jump compared to Wednesday is the largest day-over-day increase.

Still, Cohen said Thursday that case and testing trends remain largely stable but that more data is needed in the coming days before deciding whether looser restrictions could begin as soon as May 22. The second phase could allow for more church gatherings and the limited opening of restaurants, barbershops and salons and neighborhood pools. Restaurants can currently offer drive-in food.

Over the last two months, many churches have been holding online services, virtual Bible studies or unusual in-person options to comply with his rules. Based on Cooper’s latest order, Bailey’s Grove Baptist Church in Asheboro held an outdoor service last Sunday with members sitting in chairs adequately separated in the parking lot, said the Rev. Jon Shook, the pastor. Shook said churches can certainly meet sanitation standards of businesses that are open.

“If a 16-year-old gives out a hamburger at McDonald’s and is qualified to give me a Happy Meal, then a pastor can certainly have the wisdom and discretion to give out the Lord’s Supper in a safe manner,” Shook said.

The lawsuit marks the latest dust-up among conservatives and Republican elected officials who are unhappy with the pace of Cooper’s reopening when compared to other Southeastern states. One of Cooper’s loudest critics is Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging him in the fall election.

Senate leader Phil Berger asked Cooper this week to give county governments the power to let restaurants, hair salons and barbers reopen now. Other legislative Republicans have filed bills attempting to keep Cooper’s emergency powers in check.

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Back to school: Alternate days for students? Health screenings? How things could look this fall. Page A5

Burr steps down as chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee amid probe

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr resigned as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a day after federal investigators seized his cellphone from his home and amid calls for him to also resign his Senate seat.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., released a statement: “Senator Burr contacted me this morning to inform me of his decision to step aside as chairman of the Intelligence committee during the pendency of the investigation.”

“We agreed that this decision would be in the best interests of the committee and will be effective at the end of (today).”

Burr’s office did not respond to a Lee Newspapers’ request for comment.

Burr told McClatchy News Service Thursday that he plans to serve out the remaining 2½ years of his term. Burr said during his 2016 campaign he would not seek re-election in 2022.

“It’s a distraction to a committee that’s extremely important to the safety and security of the American people and a distraction to the members of that committee being asked questions about me, so I tried to eliminate that,” Burr told McClatchy.

The FBI’s seizure of Burr’s phone “signals that this controversy likely involves more than just a hit job from left-of-center partisans,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

Seized cellphone

Burr’s committee resignation followed reports late Wednesday that his cellphone had been seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.

Calls have been renewed for the Republican from Winston-Salem to not only step down as chairman of the committee, but also the Senate, amid claims he violated the STOCK Act.

Congress passed the Stock Act in 2012, making it illegal for lawmakers to use inside information for financial benefit. Burr voted against the bill.

The cellphone seizure appears to be tied to U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission investigations into stock sales made in February by Burr and his wife, Brooke. U.S. Senate financial disclosure documents show the couple sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of their stock holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13. The publication Roll Call listed his net worth at $1.7 million as of 2018.

Not done lightly

CNN reported March 30 that Burr faced potential Justice and SEC probes into stock sales made Feb. 13 — just before the stock market began its sharp coronavirus-related decline Feb. 20.

Burr attended a joint Jan. 24 Senate Health and Foreign Relations committee briefing on coronavirus that included the director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

On March 20, Burr requested the U.S. Senate Ethics committee investigate the stock transactions.

He released a statement March 20 saying “I relied solely on public news reports to guide my decision regarding the sale of stocks on Feb. 13. Specifically, I closely followed CNBC’s daily health and science reporting out of its Asia bureaus at the time.

Trading patterns

For most of the past 7½ years, Burr has been a low-volume, modest-value buyer and seller of corporate stocks.

But that changed dramatically over a 14-day period from Jan. 31 to Feb. 13.

That’s when the Burrs conducted two buys and 36 sales, eight of the sells were in the $50,001 to $100,000 range. The sells included shares of three corporations in the hotel and hospitality industry.

“There’s no question it was clearly a market change in strategy” for Burr in the 2020 stock sales, said Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth College economics professor who released a report in April on the STOCK Act’s impact on senators’ stock transactions.

The Burrs’ stock trades are based on quarterly and annual filings required by the act.

Since 2013, the Burrs have bought and sold between $639,500 and $1.1 million of stock in companies that make medical devices, equipment, supplies and drugs, according to a ProPublica analysis of his financial disclosures.

“Senators are prohibited from pushing legislation in order to directly further their own financial interest, but they can own stocks in industries overseen by committees on which they sit and trade in and out of individual stocks,” ProPublica reported.

Public Citizen, a left-leaning think tank, said Richard Burr’s stock trading represents “a scandal that shouldn’t have happened” given the restrictions listed in the STOCK Act.

Heads up?

The Feb. 13 stock sales by the Burrs occurred six days after Burr co-wrote an op-ed piece saying America had tools in place to combat COVID-19. The Jan. 31 to Feb. 13 trading period ended a week before the stock market entered its coronavirus-related roller coaster ride on Feb. 20.

Sacerdote said he believes Richard Burr “is arguing that these were market-driven trades, a big shift based on public information, as opposed to private information.”

“It’s actually hard to infer from the data whether Sen. Burr was trading on publicly available information and/or whether he had very fortunate timing.”

Other Burr issues

Burr has faced bipartisan criticism of his actions over the past three months. Those include:

  • Burr giving a stark warning about COVID-19 at a Feb. 27 private event that he has not repeated publicly.
  • Burr’s 2017 sale of a town house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington to pharmaceutical lobbyist John Green and a business partner of Green.

The sales price was $900,000 — an amount “tens of thousands of dollars above some estimates of the property’s value by tax assessors, a real estate website and a local real estate agent,” according to the report by ProPublica, an investigative news outlet.

“There is no evidence that Green tried to influence Burr’s actions as a senator or discussed any legislation with him specifically,” ProPublica said.

But if the town house was sold for more than fair market value, the transaction could be considered as a gift from a lobbyist, which typically would not be allowed under ethics rules.

  • Burr’s brother-in-law sold a significant share of stocks on the same day — Feb. 13 — that Burr and his wife conducted 33 sell transactions.

According to a federal Public Financial Disclosure Act filing, Gerald Fauth sold six stocks valued between $97,006 and $280,000.