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A Parkland 7th-grade teacher and his students try to forge bonds through a screen

screenshot of online class
courtesy of the Franklin Pierce School District
Ryan Davenport teaches 7th grade social studies at Keithley Middle School in Parkland. In online class, most of his students do not turn on their cameras. One student said it's because they're worried about not being presentable.

Being a teacher right now is not easy. Ryan Davenport had to buy a new Ikea chair because teaching online means sitting around a lot, and that makes his neck hurt. During a regular school year, he’s usually on his feet much of the day, moving around. 

Ryan teaches social studies to seventh-graders in the Franklin Pierce School District in Parkland. But even more than that discomfort, this school year of disruption means Ryan has a harder time making the connections with his students that normally bring him joy. KNKX is following one of his classes this year to illustrate what school is like in the middle of a pandemic. 

Here’s one major difference between now and a normal school year — Ryan has no idea what most of his students look like.

During an online class in September, just as the school year got underway, Ryan paused to see who had logged on.

“Normally I take attendance real fast in person because I can just look at people’s faces but because of online, I’m scrolling through your lists of names and comparing it to my roster, which takes a little bit longer,” he told the students. “Sorry about that.”

Students are not required to turn on their cameras, so almost none of them do. But there on the screen, you can see a little box showing their teacher, Mr. Davenport, with his glasses and reddish-brown beard teaching Washington geography from his home in Tacoma. His two cats, Porter and Juniper, make occasional cameos.

“Today we’re going to talk about the last two regions, the Western lowlands and the Cascade range,” he said.

Ryan is 29 years old and originally from New Jersey. He loves getting to know his students at Keithley Middle School, which has about 900 students, almost three-quarters of whom are students of color. Eighty-four percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price meals.


Early into the school year, Ryan reflected on how he’s missing teaching in person.

“You explain the directions and then you release them to work. Then you get to monitor the classroom and watch them work and see the gears turn in their brain and figure out how they can get it done,” he said. “And with online, that is conspicuously missing.”

Teaching online is kind of a slog.

Ryan teaches each lesson eight times because every class is split into two cohorts. The district did that to keep groups small to make it easier to eventually switch to a hybrid in-person model. But that means he teaches the same material twice as many times as he normally would.

He just wants the students to learn Washington geography and tribal history, but with their cameras off, he can’t see if they’re taking notes and he can’t hear them because they almost never use microphones. The students write in the chat box. Still, Ryan tries to create a class culture. He has students spend five minutes at the start of each class sharing something about their lives. He reads their chat messages and responds.

“I turn 13 in two months, my brother turns 12 in one month. Cool, some celebrations on the horizon,” he said. “And Iese is enjoying remote learning. That’s great, dude, I’m happy for you, I’m glad it works for some people.”

One of Ryan’s students is a petite 13-year-old girl with long brown hair named Kyler. She’s an athletic girl whose soccer season came to a screeching halt in the spring when the pandemic hit.

Kyler's mom, Lissa, and her dad both work outside the home, so Kyler manages her own online schooling and helps her 8-year-old brother get on his classes. KNKX is using their first names to protect their privacy.

“Usually we wake up at 8, so I log him in and set him aside, let him do his things and then he has breaks every now and then,” Kyler said. “Then I make lunch, then I go to my school and he watches TV in the living room while I work in my room.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Thirteen-year-old Kyler (left) and her mom, Lissa

Kyler’s brother has ADHD and it’s not that simple keeping him on task. Her mom said this is not an ideal situation.

“Leaving his education in charge of a 13-year-old is really stressful,” Lissa said. “I know she does the best she can, but still, it’s nothing like having a teacher face to face with you and making sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

As for her own classes, Kyler said Mr. Davenport’s is her favorite because she likes learning history. I asked her why students don’t turn on their cameras. Some of it has to do with being self-conscious, she said.

“Usually because we don’t get ready,” she said. “Usually I just wake up, brush my teeth, brush my hair, so I’m not very presentable.”

Kyler misses seeing her friends, but she’s hesitant to go back to in-person class because of the virus. Lissa, on the other hand, is hoping they’ll be able to return to the classroom.

“I am a little worried about COVID, obviously,” she said. “I think there should be some safety measures in place. Now how well the kids are going to follow those safety measures, I don’t know, but my kids need to get back to seeing other kids and being around other people.”

If the schools opened up for a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, would she send her kids?

“Absolutely, in a heartbeat,” Lissa said.

In early October, the Franklin Pierce district was getting ready to move to a hybrid schedule with some face-to-face instruction. But then COVID cases spiked. Like many districts, Franklin Pierce put the plans on hold.


That was a disappointment for another student in Ryan’s class — Oliviyah.

“I would rather be there. I like walking to school and being there. There’s just something different about being there,” she said. “Also, we could have an actual great bond with our teachers and stuff instead of being over the phone.”

“She likes to have that relationship with her teachers and it kind of helps her succeed,” said her mom, Jordan. “If she feels supported, then she tries harder.”

Jordan has three younger kids in addition to Oliviyah and works from home, so she can oversee their online classes. But she knows remote school is not easy for a lot of families.

“I have friends who are just overwhelmed that they can’t focus on work or can’t focus on the teaching,” she said. “I feel like the kids who we’re losing, who are not on, I feel like maybe the parents are so overwhelmed that they just give up. They don’t check to see if Johnny is on the computer because then that’s going to be a fight all day.”

About a month into the school year, Ryan began to realize that a lot of students were not keeping up. Many of them did not turn in the geography project he’d assigned, even though he talked about it in class for weeks. He brought it up with them in an online class.

“Out of my 120 students, I probably only got 30 projects,” he said. “You might be looking at that number and think, 'Wow, that seems low.’ You’d be right, it is low.”

When the first quarter ended earlier this month, about 40 percent of his social studies students received an incomplete.


It’s not just his students who have fallen behind. The district has now decided to shift to more online classes, with less time devoted to self-directed work, in an effort to keep students on track.

Ryan said the new schedule will be better, but he’s concerned about what the rest of the school year will be like if the state — and the country — can’t control the pandemic.

“At this rate, we’re just going to be doing this all year, and it’s just going to be parents beating their heads against the wall trying to manage it, and teachers sitting on the sidelines being pretty unfulfilled about the skeleton of what their job was,” he said.

He thinks about whether it’s fair to treat school like a normal year when it’s not. Should students get grades when they have to take care of a younger sibling or lack internet access?

For his part, Ryan is trying to connect with students the best he can and keep them engaged in an unprecedented year.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.