September in the Rearview
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Part of an occasional series on teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic
The last time I wrote about my experiences teaching in this most unique of school years, I had just completed my first full week of instruction. As we flipped the calendars to October this week, I thought I'd take a few moments to consider how things are going. It wasn't a great week for Warren County with nine new cases of COVID-19 reported this past Friday (the highest single day tally since May). Two neighboring schools were closed for in-person instruction due to reported cases among students. We've been fortunate so far and have had no recent cases in our district. But the disease is clearly present in the community so it's likely that we will be impacted in the near future. I'm grateful for the weeks that I've had with my new students because I understand the value of getting to know them in person. These relationships will pay dividends if fully remote instruction becomes necessary at some point.
I mentioned the major changes we've undertaken in my previous post and most of these (temperature checks, health forms, our new A/B/C/D day block schedule) have become routine at this point. Some students have adapted well to the remote aspects of their schedule and platforms like Nearpod have been essential as we've tried to make the most of our 84 minute periods. I'll admit to a certain amount of screen fatigue: I sometimes feel that I'm spending at least as much time staring at pixels as I am at actual people. The periods can feel quite long, but I've actually heard students say that their days seem to go by faster (usually a positive sign of engaging instruction). I've also heard several teachers comment on the benefits of longer planning periods that allow for more uninterrupted time to prepare lessons, familiarize ourselves with new tools, and reach out to families.
This point in the high school calendar often sees the first major assessments as our five week interim reporting deadline draws near. Because of this, teachers have been working on how to create assessments that can be equitably completed by both in-person and remote students. I personally administered my first major tests this past week. Providing the required testing modifications for my students with disabilities was a major concern. I spent my first period class on Friday coaching a virtual student on how to use a Chrome extension that would allow a video of me reading his test to "float" over his other screens while he used a PDF editing program called Kami. He lost internet connection several times throughout the class, complicating matters further. The kids actually in my classroom were very patient with my somewhat loud discussion with this student between internet outages.
Even while I'm learning to manage my new workflow and am actually improving some of my old routines, significant cracks are beginning to show in our approach. One of these became apparent when we gave our first Algebra 1A assessment and noted that the scores were much lower than in previous years. We attributed some of the drop to our new schedule. We meet with students every other day, a fact that arguably makes learning new math concepts harder. But when the hybrid scheduling is used in conjunction with block scheduling, the result is an in-person meeting with students only once out of any four school days. Understandably, these combined factors are making it difficult for our ninth graders (many of whom have learning disabilities) to be successful in algebra. The effect is less pronounced among our students who are attentive in physical class and engaged during remote learning. As many have observed during this pandemic, deficiencies that were already present tend to become exacerbated and crippling. The playing field is tilted against students whose parents aren't able to supervise learning at home. Some students have unstable internet or noisy work spaces. It was easy enough to "fall through the cracks" before- it's almost the default for certain student populations now.
Legitimate questions about special education have also been raised. We are legally required to execute the education program outlined in a student's Individualized Educational Program (IEP). However, certain modifications and adaptations are difficult to deliver. For example, an accommodation that is frequently included in a student's IEP is the provision of refocusing/redirecting prompts. This is difficult to deliver if a student is working exclusively remotely, has logged into the class Meet, but has been "radio silent" without explanation for 20 minutes. Certain students whose programs were judged too intensive to be delivered within the hybrid model have been allowed to attend every day. This was a prudent decision and several of my students are benefiting from it. However, the majority of our students with disabilities do not qualify for this accommodation.
My experiences last spring with remote/asynchronous instruction have given me a point of comparison when thinking about the hybrid/synchronous model we are currently attempting. Thankfully, many more students are participating this fall than did in the spring. Our switch to an 84 minute block schedule, while probably necessary to limit transitions for students in the building, is a veritable ocean of time for a student seated in front of a Chromebook at home for a virtual math lesson. Unlike our Meets in the spring, where all students were working remotely, students learning from home this fall have teachers who are multitasking between students in school and those learning remotely. Lessons that might be ideal for one of the two groups are often non-starters for the other. We have all noted student participation from home lagging significantly; students join the class but then sit dormant and unresponsive. Platforms like Nearpod, which have interactive elements, help enormously (this is one tool that seems to benefit both in-person and remote learners). Even still, I would challenge any adult to envision sitting in front of a computer for four consecutive 84 minute classes with only five minute breaks between classes and a 40 minute lunch break sometime in the afternoon. Then imagine that your sibling must share the limited broadband or, more likely, a smartphone is vying for your attention. I believe that if I were a learner in this wild time, I would much prefer packaged, asynchronous lessons that I could work through at my convenience with occasional check-ins from teachers. The trouble with that approach (as we saw in the spring) is that uncommon time management and organization on the part of the student is required to unlock the educational value. At least the synchronous format provides a regular structure for students and parents to count on.
With the upswing in local coronavirus cases, I wonder how long our current routine will last. For now, I'll take advantage of every opportunity to get to know my students and will work to puzzle out ways to build a better experience for them within the constraints of our situation.