One Quarter Down
Part of an occasional series on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic
The first quarter of our school year ended a few weeks ago. As I enjoy some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday, it's a good moment to reflect on how school has been going. Some things haven't changed since my last post: we are still operating on a hybrid schedule, wearing masks in almost all settings, and wrangling new technologies daily to make teaching and learning possible. We luckily dodged the virus scares that happened in neighboring districts throughout the fall and did not have to close our schools at any point. Infection rates in our county were quite low these past few months and only recently have daily reported cases started to hover around 10 or more.
Personally, this time has a been a period of growth for me. I've been able to work more collaboratively with a colleague I teach with and it's been exciting trying new tools and approaches with him. I've also been experimenting seriously with self-guided instruction after hearing an interview with the founder of the Modern Classrooms Project on an episode of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast. I was wondering recently about which new practices I might continue to utilize after the pandemic danger has subsided and I concluded that most would remain in my toolkit. I enjoy troubleshooting teaching problems and tinkering with how I do things. One of my favorite things about teaching is that I can try novel approaches and know fairly quickly whether or not they worked.
That said, I've had a few memorable challenges to my equanimity this quarter. During a recent class, the program I often use to present notes and math examples (Kami) was on the fritz. That days' glitch was almost comedic: everytime I wrote on a document, the annotation would disappear after about 3 seconds. I got through the lesson by repeatedly re-writing key ideas and examples so students could have a chance to see them. There wasn't much to do but laugh at the situation and my students' reactions made it clear that mine wasn't the first lesson they'd seen derailed by technology in the last few months.
In a possible hint at things to come, we taught all of our classes virtually on election day (several of our school buildings were polling sites). In some ways, it was a relief to not have to split my attention between students in the room and those at home. However, the school building was even more ghostly empty than usual and teaching that way exacerbated the eye-strain I've been struggling with lately. Fortunately, my seventh graders (generally less inhibited and camera-shy than their older peers) brightened my day by introducing me to all of their various pets.
For a time a few weeks ago, it seemed like a move to virtual teaching was on the horizon. In a social media post, my district explained how communities in New York that receive the state's "yellow" designation would have to test a certain percentage of students and staff each week to remain open. The post pleaded with families to reconsider holiday travel as funding for that sort of testing was in doubt and the district would likely need to close in-person instruction if Glens Falls became a "yellow" zone. As we creep closer to that designation, we received news yesterday that the district would in fact be able to provide the necessary testing (provided families grant them permission to do so), meaning that our schools would likely remain operating as they are even as cases continue to rise.
This is great news. There is mounting evidence that remote learning is failing our most vulnerable students in significant ways. As I've written before, my experience so far has been that students who are best positioned to succeed in school already (quiet workplace, stable internet connection, adults able to help with schoolwork, etc.) are doing decently with hybrid and/or remote learning. Students living in poverty, students with unstable home environments, and students with disabilities are not faring nearly as well. Yet as the nation girds itself for another wave of infection this winter, schools are being closed first even while bars, restaurants, and gyms remain open. The reason for this is largely economical. There is real pressure on political leaders to keep businesses open and closing schools has less short-term impact on the local economy (teachers tend to continue to receive normal pay while teaching remotely). But the longer term effects of closing schools could be devastating. Learning loss will continue to impact those who are already most disadvantaged and providing childcare for children learning from home will continue to have a disproportionate effect on women in the workplace. Consider also that schools have not been shown to be high risk environments (the positivity rate in New York City Schools was under 0.2% when they closed this past week even while the rest of the city climbed past 3%). The opposite has been shown to be the case for certain businesses that will remain open even as schools shutter.
I'm grateful that my community will be able to do the testing that will allow my school to remain open even if cases in the community grow. Ideally, those businesses that have the most potential to spread the disease should be closed well in advance of schools as limiting community spread is the key to keeping schools safe. Federal financial assistance should be provided to support business owners when they are forced to close (countries such as Germany have done this). Unfortunately, I have little hope that this will happen. So we must rely on each other to be as safe as possible to limit the spread of the disease as the days get colder and darker.