Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is still trying to get 16,000 students connected to the internet for remote classes. But other families say they have the opposite problem: Their kids are spending way too much time in front of a screen.
Take Charlotte Barber’s three children, who have the ideal remote learning setup. Each has a laptop or an iPad. Their Wi-Fi connection is good. Their dad is home to help them, and they get extra support from a neighborhood learning pod. Plus, Barber says their teachers at McAlpine Elementary are great at connecting with the kids.
"On the weekdays they’re on the screen the entire time, from 8 until 2:30. They have a few small breaks in between," Barber says.
And when the school day is over, there’s often work left unfinished. So that creates a family dilemma: Let it slide or spend even more time online?
"Do we all kind of get back around the table at 8 o’clock and check things off the list, where it’s back on Canvas after the end of the day?" Barber says.
The Barbers are among a chorus of CMS families saying the burden of screen time is just too much.
"We're getting bombarded with complaints on an hourly basis," school board member Rhonda Cheek said this week.
Where's The Offline Time?
CMS, like most districts, is using a mix of what officials call synchronous and asynchronous lessons. “Synchronous” means the whole class is together online while the teacher delivers a lesson. Students do the asynchronous lessons separately.
CMS leaders say asynchronous time is supposed to get students away from their screens. But most of those lessons involve using an app or watching a video. And Barber says even when her kids do offline work, they have to upload it for grading. She’d like to see CMS ease up on that.
"For art, for example, let’s not upload anything," she says. "How about just get out a piece of paper and we’re going to draw some things together and then show me what you’ve drawn?"
When the pandemic closed schools in March, the governor and state lawmakers waived many of the normal requirements. There were no grades for most students, no state exams at the end of the year and no instructional time requirements for districts to meet.
Now, with the nation settling in for a long haul with COVID-19, North Carolina is trying make online learning a more normal education experience. That means grades, attendance records and required instruction time are back.
Seeking State Help
Charles Jeter, the government relations coordinator for CMS, told the school board that the state’s requirements for instructional time demand that students be logged on for the entire school day, even if they’re away from the screen part of that time.
"We do not believe we’re currently permitted to have children log on at 8 o’clock in the morning and be done at noon and then spend the next four hours in asynchronous learning. We do not believe that’s permissible under the statute," Jeter told a board committee last week.
The CMS board has asked the General Assembly to grant school districts the same flexibility charter schools have. Jeter has a son in a charter school and a daughter in CMS.
"My son is in remote learning for three-and-a-half hours a day. My daughter is in remote learning for six hours and 45 minutes a day. That’s not equitable or fair," Jeter said.
But that concern isn’t universal. At Iredell-Statesville Schools, where students attend in-person class two days a week and learn remotely for three, complaints about screen time haven’t surfaced. Communications Director Boen Nutting says her own son is spending about as much time on the computer from home as he always did in high school -- which is quite a lot.
Melissa Merrell, who chairs the Union County school board, says she hasn’t heard about state requirements locking students into all-day screen time. But she says parents are complaining about too much computer time on the four days a week their kids learn from home.
"Because that goes against everything parents have been told for years about screen time and children, and now it is almost being required," Merrell said.
The Union County board voted Tuesday night to revise its schedule, bringing students back for two days a week starting Sept. 29. Merrell says that's partly because of dissatisfaction with remote learning.
Additionally, Union County has about 4,000 confirmed coronavirus cases while Mecklenburg County has nearly 26,000.
Concern About Youngest Kids
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that school-age children be limited to two hours of screen time per day. The academy backed off a firm limit a few years ago, recognizing that things like Skyping with relatives and learning online were becoming part of life, even before the pandemic.
Still, there’s concern about young students doing online classes all day, every day.
"The K-2 especially, it is totally not the way we would want them to start their learning phase," says CMS board member Lenora Shipp, a former elementary school principal.
Mary Louise Wilson agrees.
"It’s nearly impossible, and especially for parents with young kids who are working at the same time," she says.
Wilson has two children at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, and says her 6-year-old son, Worth, struggles with Canvas, the platform used for online lessons. She says he does best with the live sessions where he interacts with his teacher.
Wilson says the teacher keeps the children’s hands and minds engaged, even if they’re looking at a screen. For a math lesson, she had the students get out their blocks.
"They were kind of working in unison with her, so she’s holding up, you know, 'Show me your five blocks. Now take away the two blocks,'" Wilson said.
But when it’s time to go on Canvas to do an independent lesson – even if it’s something like music or yoga – Worth loses interest while his mom gets frustrated trying to set things up.
"It’s painful," Wilson says. "It’s a lot of just unnecessary clicking, a lot of refreshing."
Tough For Older Students, Too
Too much screen time isn’t just a problem for little kids, says Gina Navarrete, a neuropsychologist and mother of a high school senior. She says her son would normally be at Myers Park High, where he’d dash across a college-size campus between classes and interact with classmates during school time.
Now, she says, he’s glued to two monitors in the family bonus room. And she worries about whether he’s ever fully engaged, between his computers and his phone.
"They’re constantly multitasking. Research studies show that the kids think that they’re great multitaskers, but they’re terrible multitaskers," Navarrete says.
She worries that her son is playing video games on one screen while attending online classes on the other. Alex Rambo-Navarrete says she's wrong. In fact, he says, spending so much school time online makes gaming less attractive after hours.
But she's right about distractions, he says. He's constantly flitting among tabs and screens. He might chat on social media with friends, but even classes compete for his attention.
"During English class I got a notification on my computer saying 'Physics assignment due today,' " he says. "I said, 'Oh, I need to do that before the school day ends,' so I cranked that out and I realized that I missed 10 or 15 minutes of English class because I got distracted by that."
CMS hopes to bring students back soon for socially distanced in-person classes. But that doesn’t eliminate remote learning. The current plan is for CMS students to alternate one week at school with two weeks at home.
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