Updated: Sep 20, 2020
Part of an occasional series on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic
Back in July, I wrote about some of my experiences teaching remotely in the spring of 2020. I also considered what the 2020-21 school year might bring and how we might open schools safely. Now that my school district is well into the first month of the school year, I'd like to revisit some of the questions I had, document how things have gone so far, and look ahead to some of the challenges that might still await us.
How we opened
Like all districts in New York, Glens Falls was required to submit a reopening plan at the end of July. This was fleshed out throughout the month of August with details regarding scheduling, safety protocols, and use of remote instruction trickling out as the first day approached. In a series of parent forums, school and district leaders answered questions submitted by families. A similar forum was eventually provided for faculty and staff. Major changes were outlined and gradually digested by our school community: no sports or clubs (at least to start), a new block schedule for the middle and high schools, and a hybrid schedule for most secondary students. Safety protocols would range from the theatrical (a daily health survey for staff, inscessent cleaning of all surfaces) to the more scientifically grounded (masks for everyone almost all of the time).
Some of these changes were so significant that many of us were unsure how they would play out until we had lived with them for a week or so. The hybrid schedule means that the number of people in our buildings is substantially reduced and this, together with the mask mandate, is the change that has contributed the most to making our buildings feel safer. To achieve this, everyone has had to learn a new schedule for in-person attendance in which students attend on certain days based on their last names. This fact, combined with a new block schedule in which students visit all of their classes over the course of two days, means that teachers meet with most students in person only one out of every four school days.
One massive change has been a novel reliance on technology. On days when they are not attending school in-person, students are expected to join their classes remotely as they are being taught. Many of us were unsure how we could provide instruction to both in-person and remote learners simultaneously. Google Meets and G Suite would continue to our primary platform for this. Web cameras were installed in most classrooms and the district also invested in programs such as Nearpod, Kami, and Padlet. I personally spent hours figuring out my approach. I drafted complex diagrams with boxes and arrows representing the various screens, tabs, and connections I would need. The configuration I finally landed on is comically complicated and relies on layers of technology:
Although this has worked surprisingly well, there are plenty of potential pitfalls. For example, two microphones left on can create painful feedback sounds. After such an experience, I've accidentally silenced all my speakers and unintentionally ignored by remote students for part of a lesson. Everything depends on a reliable wifi signal and the stability of Google's servers. My Chromebook's battery used to last for days, despite my habit of handing it off to students to use when theirs was missing or low on charge. These days, it limps through the last period after hours of continuous use. This single device has become more important to my job than would have been previously imaginable. I thought I had misplaced it for a few minutes last week and almost had an anxiety attack.
Surprises and challenges
I've experienced several pleasant surprises as the 2020-21 school year lurched into motion. Students have been patient with us teachers (if a bit bemused by our juggling of an absurd number of new tasks). Compliance with our masking and social distancing rules has been generally good. Nearpod has emerged as an essential platform for engaging with in-person and remote students simultaneously; students seem to appreciate the variety that easy-to-build activities can bring to a Nearpod lesson. Remote learners have mostly joined classes when they are supposed to and some teachers have been impressed by attendance rates that are respectable considering the situation. A more relaxed approach to the start of the year included a greater emphasis on non-academic activities. Part of this was due to our first week's schedule in which no remote instruction took place, thus allowing students and teachers to adapt to some of the new routines before throwing remote learning into the mix. The reduced number of students in the building meant a quieter and less frenetic first few days. Since I'm a nervous wreck during the first few days of a normal school year, I actually appreciated this phased opening.
Despite all this, the "honeymoon period" is a real thing in education and I've always found October to be a month of reckoning. There have already been instances of students misbehaving in Meet chats and I'm uncertain about how to address some of the new ways students might disrupt a lesson that's balanced on layers of technology. While students have been joining classes at decent rates, participation from students at home has been subdued or non-existent. It's easy to imagine participation dropping off a cliff as it did in the spring. Finally, conducting authentic assessments remotely (with the necessary accommodations for students with disabilities) is a looming problem without obvious solutions in some cases. And all of this assumes that the spread of the virus remains under control in our area.
I am fully aware of how privileged I am to work where I do. Although there are better-resourced districts in the area, I have been provided with a satisfactory set of tools for my current job and we seem to have a plan that is working for now. Our school support staff (from custodians to front office professionals) has been amazing and I've learned a lot from our instructional coaches in the last few months, especially regarding our new technological tools. In contrast, local districts such as Albany and Schenectady have been devastated by the inequitable slashing of state aid. The confusion and frustration that these communities are experiencing is completely unacceptable. The damage being exacted in these places will linger in our state for decades. My challenges seem quite minor by comparison.