Online learning gave teachers a glimpse into their students’ lives. Credit: Bob Gremillion

Impressions from the front lines as the school year ended last week with classrooms shut and students trying to learn from home: 

A Buncombe County elementary teacher: “We had some students who looked to me like they hadn’t bathed in a week,” said the teacher, recounting an experience from before the schools shut down. “If the parent isn’t helping them take a bath each week, I know that they aren’t helping them with [on-line] school work.”

A community schools coordinator: “I’m seeing a lot more usage of drugs, mostly marijuana.” These young teen students log-in to the school’s video connection “when they’re high… These kids are smoking an entire blunt – I’ll be honest – and they’ll do it all day.”

A first-grade teacher: “It was like the child had disappeared,” the teacher said recounting the situation of a student. The teacher sent countless electronic messages containing assignments to the student’s computer, to no avail. Then weeks later the teacher encountered the child at a grocery store accompanied by her great-grandmother, who was raising her. The elderly woman had “no idea about computers. She didn’t even know about email or texting. I could see from the look on her face, like she was asking: ‘Oh goodness, [the student] is supposed to be doing this and doing that?’”

An Asheville schools administrator: “We’ve heard from some families that there are students who actually are engaging more in this environment and feel they are getting even more one-on-one attention [through virtual meetings] with their teachers. That’s hard to do when the teacher has 30 students in a class.”

On Friday March 13, by order of the governor, all public schools in North Carolina closed as fears of the novel coronavirus took root. “On the fly,” as one teacher put it, teachers were ordered to transplant everything they were doing in their classrooms to the virtual world of Zoom or Google Classroom or other on-line services. Teachers were to teach from their homes and the students were to learn in theirs. Classes were to continue going forward as before, with the same teachers, the same students, the same subjects. 

But it’s not been the same, for reasons both positive and negative.

“I had no training in any of this,” said a Buncombe County middle-school teacher with an education degree from a prestigious program who was still trying to gain her footing weeks later. “I felt like I had never taught before.”

Equally unprepared were the students and their parents – perhaps especially the parents, according to interviews – who suddenly were thrust into the role of teacher aide. In this new situation, the parent (or grandparent or great-grandparent) was expected to convert some part of the home into a classroom, to impose a school-like schedule and structure onto the family life, and to oversee the student’s learning. 

Although North Carolina has some experience with disruptions caused by hurricanes or other sudden events, never has the entire system been disrupted and never has what is euphemistically called “at-home learning” been the expectation for every teacher and student. The classroom suddenly became only that which could be viewed through a computer or a cell phone’s camera lens.

“The foundation of what we do is build relationships with the students, which comes long before we get to reading, writing and arithmetic,” said middle-school teacher Paula Dinga, president of the Buncombe County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “When you take away the face-to-face experience, you undermine that foundation.

“This has been a complete game changer.”

Winners and losers

As in any game, there are winners and losers. Interviews with administrators and several teachers – most asked to remain anonymous to protect their and their students’ privacy – found profound, even troubling, differences in the way that students adapted. 

This transition to at-home learning was built on many untested assumptions. It assumed the teachers would know how to adapt lesson plans to use on-line technologies. It assumed the teachers and their students would have both the technology to connect and the knowledge to operate the software. And it assumed that the student, especially the young ones, would have an engaged adult ready to help by providing a conducive learning environment in the home and educational support.

The good news, according to school administrators and some teachers, is that these assumptions worked for many, perhaps the great majority, of the nearly 25,000 students in the Buncombe County and Asheville city schools. Computer savvy students in upper grades transitioned seamlessly. Some students who had been reluctant participants in the classroom – they were shy or felt ostracized by peers — found themselves thriving in the one-on-one video chats with their teachers, who delighted in seeing this transformation.

Many parents, also stuck at home, threw themselves vigorously into their children’s work – despite, according to one teacher, not understanding that many subjects, especially math, are taught differently today than in their era.

The school systems’ effort to equip almost every student with a laptop or other device was close to universal, though with some gaps. In rural Buncombe County where internet connections were spotty or absent, the county provided mobile “hot spots” at no cost. “Wellness teams” were created to locate and check on students who weren’t participating. 

School bus drivers fanned out daily to deliver printed lesson plans, mobile phones and tech support – sometimes even lunches made in some school cafeterias – to these remote locations. 

“To see a school bus on the road right now should make you smile because you know that something good is about to happen,” said Sarah Cain, director of the Asheville City elementary schools.

But despite these efforts, the performance of many students lagged and, in an estimated third or more of them, even plummeted as the duration of the shutdown continued, according to several estimates, with unknown long-term consequences. 

Exposing inequities 

The consensus drawn from numerous interviews with teachers, administrators, social workers, parents and university educators, is that the pandemic experience ripped apart more startlingly than ever the social, economic and racial inequities that exist in the Buncombe County and Asheville City schools. And it has highlighted the unanswered question of how – or even if — the school systems will get every student back on track when the crisis passes. 

“In every school you have three tiers of students,” said Bruce Waller, a community schools coordinator at Asheville Middle School, whose position is supported by the United Way. 

“You have high performers who will always do well in and outside of school; then you have the middle ground, the students who are on the fence but [a teacher] can reach them with the right talents,” Waller continued.

“Then you have the low-performing kids. They’ve got it rough. The pandemic has hit them the most [and] they’re slowing down even more.” 

The gap between the tiers has a troubling racial component as measured on state-mandated achievement tests. Even before the pandemic the achievement gap of about 60 percentage points between white students and black students in Asheville city schools was among the highest in both the state and the nation. 

Efforts to address the gap were interrupted by the shutdown, Waller and others conceded in interviews.

 “We already know that over the summer the kids’ performance on reading and math falls,” Waller continued, which educators refer to as the summer slide. “ And this is like a five-month long summer. Think how much more they’ll fall. Kids that already weren’t participating [in classrooms] have lost accountability.”

Bob Gremillion

Online learning gave teachers a glimpse into their students’ lives. Credit: Bob Gremillion

Laura Parks, director of secondary education for the Asheville City schools, said that when the state announced that no student’s grade would count after the March 13 closure, many students simply stopped participating – not only in the class assignments, but entirely. 

 She said that while schools try to contact every student at least weekly, they aren’t able to gather a reliable count on how many students have effectively dropped out because students may have myriad reasons for not connecting at any given time. Waller said that he has been on group chats with teachers who have said they’ve given up on their lessons and only try to lure students to participate by hosting virtual classes where the students do little more than chat with each other.

“Some teachers are missing entire classes of kids,” he said. “They are becoming fatigued. Some newer teachers are just drowning.” 

An unexpected feature of teaching through an unfiltered video connection into a student’s home is that the teacher becomes privy to a home life that is sometimes troubling and unexpected. They see students struggling with issues that rarely enter the classroom.

“Some of these kids are trying to care for their younger brothers or sisters. Some are dealing with levels of abuse in the home – verbal abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse,” Waller, the community outreach specialist, said.

“Some aren’t getting food. They don’t have a private space. The home is loud. People talk loud. Music is loud. People come in and out. There’s no privacy,” he continued. “This isn’t conducive to school.”

In the most extreme situations, some students in unsupervised home settings have turned to drugs. “I’m seeing a lot more usage of drugs, mostly marijuana,” Waller said, something he said he’s witnessed a student doing while on-line. 

“A lot were already doing it [before the closure], but now it’s gone up because they don’t have the barrier to doing it of being in school six, seven, eight hours each day.”

Teachers interviewed for this article say there are exceptions even in the poorest of households. Many parents are strict about their children’s work. And many students log in every school day because it’s their only chance to interact with friends and classmates. Both school systems also try to dispatch social workers to homes where teachers see problems. 

And teachers have created their own support teams to share tips and better adapt lesson plans to include “fun things” along with the learning, said Cain, the Asheville director of elementary education.  

A little-noted aspect of school, the educators said, is the structure that it imposes on the daily lives of students and the support that it offers to them and their families. Until now, that aspect may have been underappreciated. 

The simple act of waking up in the morning to prepare for school, perhaps to catch the bus, imposes a discipline that, when pulled away, opens the way for problems.

Waller said many teenaged students are using their school-issued laptops to stay up late into the night playing video games. They then sleep late into the day missing their classes. For students such as these, schools provide stability, social spaces, meals and for some, a sanctuary from a chaotic home. 

Lessons to be learned 

Returning and adjusting students and teachers to the traditional school-day structure is going to be a significant challenge, according to Kim Brown, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina-Asheville who oversees the teacher-education program. She said the UNCA students who were doing student-teaching assignments in local schools during the change were asked to relate their experiences in a survey.

Their responses will help the UNCA program incorporate into its curriculum some of what these prospective teachers have just learned. One addition, she said, is to fully prepare future teachers for the emotional impact that a crisis such as this can have on both them and their students. Another is to prepare for the likelihood that such crises will exacerbate the achievement gaps, and this will prolong the time needed for repair.

“When we go back to school,” Brown said, “one of the significant things we need to think about is, how do we begin to fill these gaps?”

Brown said she would recommend first that North Carolina set aside, at least for one year and perhaps longer, the requirement for standardized testing. Teachers need to be relieved of the stress they feel to prepare students for these tests so they can focus on meeting the emotional and other needs that students will have as a result of the pandemic’s impact on them and their families, she said.

On one thing everyone interviewed for this story agreed: The pandemic shows that classroom learning matters.

 “This isn’t the world we want to live in,” said Dinga, the middle school teacher, about digital at-home education. “I don’t think parents want to do this. The students don’t want to do this. The teachers don’t want to do this.

“This has been a staggering experience for kids – and for us as well.”

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former university professor who lives in Asheville. Contact us at