Second graders in Cara Houston’s classroom at Randolph Elementary School begin the day by greeting one another one-by-one. But instead of sitting in a circle, half the students say hello from their desks — spaced 6 feet apart — while their classmates video-chat in from home, their faces projected onto a SmartBoard.
After the greeting (recently, in sign language), what follows is a “community building exercise,” Houston said. Sometimes it’s a few easy yoga exercises. Or an adapted game of 20 Questions.
“So then that way, if we all come back, they won’t feel like two separate classes. They’ll feel like one,” the teacher said.
After about 20 minutes, the students will go their separate ways. That day’s remote learners will log off and work on previously assigned work. Those in class will move on to that day’s lesson.
Hybrid learning has been adopted across Vermont to cut down on the number of people in school buildings and accommodate social distancing guidelines. But the compromise has come with some big downsides, and teachers report feeling that they’re covering just a fraction of the material — and doing twice the work.
“With the amount of stuff we are juggling, it feels like it’s impossible to always kind of keep your head above water. So even if we’re doing our best, we’re still dropping balls left and right,” said Kristine Harootunian, a math teacher at South Burlington High.
Vermont took a local-control approach to reopening schools, and most districts opted for some form of hybrid learning. And while many schools are transitioning back to more in-person instruction in the younger grades, most high schools are likely to keep to a schedule that splits students into separate cohorts and has them alternate between online and face-to-face class. (High schools tend to be bigger, and research suggests teenagers are much more likely to catch and transmit the virus than young children.)
The work assigned to students on remote learning days can look a lot like traditional homework: worksheets, projects, and practice assignments. But teachers are also trying to cover new material with students attending class online by giving them videos to watch and materials to read. And many freely admit that hasn’t been particularly effective.
“Especially for AP Stats, I can’t say, ‘OK, here’s everything that we’re going to cover; you’re going to actually learn three-fifths of it without me,’” Harootunian said.
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At Randolph Union High School, ninth grade English teacher Angela Bauer is in charge of teaching students in a hybrid setting as well as students who have opted into all-remote learning. And she said that, while a few are thriving, the all-remote learners in general are the hardest to reach.
“When they’re at home, there’s so many other distractions, there’s so many other things going on, that you can’t engage them in the same way that you can when you have them in your classroom,” she said. “This is something that comes up grade meeting after grade meeting after grade meeting, just in terms of ‘How can we be better at engaging these kids?’”
Teachers say it’s the logistics of blending online and face-to-face instruction that are the most burdensome. Planning a single lesson often feels like planning two separate units — one for those at home, one for those in class. Technological glitches abound. And routine communication is more complicated.
“Things that previously could have been done with like sidling up to a kid and being like, ‘Hey, sorry, you were out. Can you stop by after school on Wednesday, and we’ll go over what you missed?’ Is now a series of emails and scheduling things in a calendar. The sort of administrative stuff really piles up,” said Keegan Harris, social studies teacher at Springfield High School.
“The planning and grading workload is almost double,” said Stephanie Sleeper, a social studies teacher at Mount Mansfield Union High School in Jericho. Yet Sleeper said she’s grateful she doesn’t have the stressors, like a lack of child care, that many of her colleagues struggle with. Her own children are older and don’t need much supervision. And she had experience teaching online.
“It is great to see students two days a week,” she added. “Students are adjusting better than I thought they would as well.”
But while teachers say it’s been gratifying to once again see students in person, they also say even face-to-face instruction isn’t what it used to be.
Many Vermont educators had jettisoned the seating arrangements of yesteryear — in which students sat in rows facing a whiteboard — in favor of setups that better allowed for discussion and collaboration. But health protocols adopted for the pandemic generally mean students are back in rows, spaced far from one another, all facing in the same direction. (Some classrooms even include plexiglass barriers.)
“The 6-foot distance makes it really hard to teach in the way that we’ve been trying to develop over the last however many years. It feels a little bit like teaching in what I imagine a classroom in 1971 was like,” Harris said.
Harootunian, in South Burlington, agrees. In-person classes are markedly quieter than they were in the past, and generally less lively.
“It’s a lot of, like, me talking and trying to keep them engaged. And it’s just very — it’s very bizarre,” she said.
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