When Remote Learning Is the Only Option

Melissa Girmscheid Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy

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These past ten months have been quite the decade. (If you’re thinking my math is off, ask any educator how much they feel they’ve aged since March.) When I entered teaching in 2000 we still took attendance on bubble sheets that were clipped outside our doors each hour, and depended on printed memos to deliver the latest district news. The iMac that sat on my desk was orange, in case you were wondering.


Since March, educators everywhere have had to pivot refocus to provide students with instruction outside the classroom. We’ve learned new learning management systems, new interactive lesson delivery platforms, new grading systems, new communication methods, and on and on and on. Most days my brain feels like I’m back in college and trying to read the entire textbook the night before the final exam.


It’s tiring.

She fell asleep while taking a walk with her book. Must be a 2020-21 educator.

She fell asleep while taking a walk with her book. Must be a teacher.

I’ve brought part of this on myself, though. Back in May I joined a project working to address the lack of access to specific subjects in our rural and small town Arizona schools. As part of this program, I teach physics to students in places like Chino Valley, Kearny, and Miami, Arizona. Students work remotely, using Canvas and a class I’ve designed.


Learning remotely requires increased communication, including feedback on assignments and frequent emails. I hold office hours for my students so they can ask questions and we often end up conversing via email several times a day. This isn’t ideal but it’s a large step forward from having no physics instruction at all.


I feel very blessed as my participation in this project has been a boon to my day job as a full-time ninth-grade physics teacher. I started the school year with a wealth of knowledge about remote instruction, converting lessons, creating screencasts, and increasing communication. My daytime students have reaped the rewards of my preparation to teach my remote students, and vice versa.


Ideally, I would love to increase physics enrollment in these schools to the point where they’d have to seek out a full-time physics teacher, or even one who could take on a class or two. I’m not sure where they would find this rare unicorn, however.


The lack of certified physics teachers in Arizona is a problem my colleague Mike Vargas and I have been exploring for years. Mike wrote about this several times during his stint as a Stories from School blogger. In 2017 we had 159 certified, and actively teaching, physics teachers in the entire state of Arizona. In the years since that number has increased slightly but, since I’ve just told you that I teach the students at multiple Arizona schools, not to the level needed to ensure access to physics for each Arizona student.


This year, this maelstrom of a year, is pushing many educators to their breaking point. Arizona already had a severe teaching shortage, and it is now getting even worse. We may be bracing for one of the largest teacher exoduses ever seen in the state of Arizona. Physics teachers may be leaving alongside English, math, and the most revered of them all, special education teachers.


What happens when more students are without access to certified teachers? We may be forced to create more remote instruction programs in which students log on to their classes remotely rather than attending them with a certified teacher. We have all seen the stress our students are facing this year, navigating remote pandemic instruction even when interacting with a teacher in real-time. Now imagine having to learn everything without the benefit of an active classroom community and a dedicated certified teacher.


Our state is facing a dire emergency, even though this has been on a slow creep for more than a decade. What makes this year different are the health concerns being adding to the disrespectful rhetoric. Educators are being made to feel expendable, that they can be easily replaced.


Replaced by whom?

Future school staff meetings

Actual line up of people waiting to apply for Arizona education jobs (just kidding… sort of)

The future of our state’s economy rests on the education of our children. No educators, no education. Though I feel like the world’s worst broken record, I will say it again: Arizona’s policymakers need to prioritize public education.


We are all tired of remote instruction but without intervention, that may be our children’s only post-pandemic option. We have to work together to stem the tide and recoup some of the losses.


What can we do to keep more educators from leaving Arizona? How can we recruit more into the profession?




Melissa is a passionate advocate for physics education. She is currently in her twelfth year of teaching high school students about the world around them through the study of physics and carries this passion to her secondary job developing and leading Computational Modeling in Physics First with Bootstrap workshops. Melissa is a Master Teacher Policy Fellow with the American Institute of Physics and American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2019 worked with a team of Arizona physics superstars to successfully lobby for ongoing education funding for STEM and CTE teachers. Her goal is to ensure every student in Arizona has access to a high quality physics education. She continues to advocate for students as an Ambassador with the American Physical Society’s STEP UP program and a coach in the Arizona Educational Foundation’s teachSTEM program. Melissa achieved National Board certification is 2017 and now serves candidates as a Candidate Support Provider. She believes in the power of Modeling Instruction, student-centered learning, and the Five Core Propositions.

Comments 2

  1. Rachel

    The news and parents will continue to insist that online learning is the worst thing ever for students, but, for some, they are thriving online. There really are some who do prefer the online environment and will want to continue when things return to normal. I think districts who see this will maybe start thinking about their own online option even once things are back in person. The lack of certified teachers around the state is just another reason to keep the online option moving forward.

  2. Leah Clark

    Hi Melissa, I am so glad that you mention the teacher shortage. I am worried about this too. We were short before the pandemic that I can’t imagine what will happen in May. I believe that increased pay and student loan forgiveness are the keys to enticing more young people to enter the profession. But the real problem is how to keep people here. This year certainly hasn’t made staying on the job easier. We need to create more flexibility in teaching. I am lucky because my toddler attends in person preschool. However, if he was home with me, I would absolutely be out of luck. Managing him and online students would be nearly impossible. Could we reimagine what our profession looks like to meet the needs of working professionals? I certainly hope so because we have to… and soon!

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