When Reopening Schools Hybrid Model is not Sustainable is part of an occasional series including educator perspectives on distance learning and reopening schools.
A Hybrid Model of Reopening Schools is Not Sustainable
Let me be clear, distance learning is not ideal. I do not know a single educator who has spent their training or career desiring to teach TK-12 students remotely. (Pre-2020, there were a handful of folks who chose this pathway, often instructing students with medical conditions, or in rural areas I just don’t know any personally, nor are they close to being a majority of educators nationwide.)
In March and April 2020, in the first weeks of at-home learning and pandemic-related lockdowns, social media feeds were filled to the brim with memes and videos advocating for million dollar teacher salaries, and admitting copious day-drinking on the part of a new breed of parent-teachers. Just six months later, teachers are front-line workers, being advised to buy scrubs (news flash: we didn’t choose to attend medical school, nor are we compensated the same as our friends who did), mask up, and get behind plexiglass shields.
Reopening schools prematurely means putting at risk not only staff and students, but also those with whom they all live, creating a much more precarious situation. But “children and teens need social interaction,” you say. True, they do, but short of full school reopening, this interaction can come in the form of affinity groups meeting, with voluntary supervision, to practice debate, or soccer, or music, ideally outdoors. This moment requires creativity and innovation.
Consider this, for grade cohorts with a primary teacher, the hybrid model is only a viable option if staffing permits true “bubble cohorts” of 16 individuals, including the teacher. If a teacher is engaged in in-person instruction of more than one cohort, the bubble is broken from the beginning.
And for secondary schools with students seeing multiple teachers daily, the concerns grow. There are safety concerns if students continue to switch classes, and there are pedagogical ones if they are grouped, or have access to live instruction only once per week per class. As we see more TK-8 campuses opening classes, there will be a cry for secondary schools to return as well. Here is why should hold off.
Common practices (and why they won’t work)
Temperature checks at the door? This is a possibility for self-contained buildings – but an absolute nightmare for campuses with numerous points of access – a reality in many warmer climates, especially in the western US.
Masks: they won’t wear them with fidelity (or can’t) – just ask a science teacher how many times per class period they have to say “goggles on” during a lab – and multiply this times 6-7 classes a day, 180 days a year. (There are also mask concerns for staff: we won’t want to wear them for several hours a day straight – plus how/where will we safely eat/drink? Most of us barely do those things at healthy levels during a typical school day anyway, let alone with our mouths covered much of the day.)
Hand washing: most public schools don’t have enough sinks – for staff or students – and few, if any, have hot water.
Bathrooms: see above.
Hand sanitizer: do we have access to the gallons upon gallons necessary to send millions of youth back to school?
Wipes: If each wipe can wipe one desk, and each classroom has 30 desks and 5 classes per day – you do the math. And with more than 75 millions students in school in the US, not only would the cost would be prohibitive, but I don’t even think that many wipes exist. Not to mention the long-term environmental impact.
Split schedule – in a high school, this still means some level of changing classes (which brings us back to the wipes).
Students stay in one group all day – if anyone can argue that keeping the same group of high school students in the same room all day for in-person instruction ALL subjects would be beneficial for their learning OR their social interaction, then you clearly have not set foot in a typical American high school in quite awhile.
Students change classes not for the exercise of doing so, but to access classes that meet their interest and ability levels – and to not spend all day grating on each other in some sort of endless Breakfast Club scenario.
Parent voices often raise many opinions about the qualifications of their students’ teachers. Which do they want, expertise or babysitting?
Most hybrid models rest on a foundation of one cohort of students learning in person, while the other learns remotely. The other days (or week) depending on the model, the cohorts switch. Which means that teachers must now plan each of their lessons twice- once for students who will learn it in-person, with the ability to ask questions (albeit through masks and plexiglass) AND that exact same lesson must be recorded and posted and provided to students to learn without direct instruction and without the ability to ask in-the-moment questions.
Which means in order for a hybrid model to happen with any sort of pedagogical fidelity, we need at least twice the teaching staff – one teacher for each cohort. Increasing staffing would address both safety concerns (if a teacher is in contact with multiple cohorts, he or she can potentially be a carrier between the groups) and pedagogical ones (teachers are live with their cohort AND available to help when they are at home). However, the financial cost of doubling (or tripling) staffing is untenable, never mind there aren’t enough teachers as it is.
And returning teachers to in-person schools will increase the need for substitutes – already a category of school employee typically in short supply. In many parts of the country, substitute pools are almost entirely comprised of retired teachers, which puts many of them in a higher-risk category for covid. And if a suitable substitute is identified, there is still the issue of introducing a new individual to the cohort. If a teacher is out for 14 days (or more) due to a covid diagnosis or quarantine, then the likelihood of finding a sub willing and able to cover that entire time diminishes even further.
A wake-up call for those of you who are supporting distance learning with your class of one or two or even four kids at home – you may be working hard, but your kids’ teachers are working harder. We are already facing a teacher shortage as a cohort of teachers near retirement age; pressuring staff to return too soon will cause others to choose early retirement.
There are educators with compromised immune systems. There are educators who care for aging parents. There are educators who are juggling their own kids’ complex schedules while trying to do their jobs. And there are our new teachers. A cohort of recent graduates who are launching their careers in a surreal world of Zoom and Loom and Peardeck, without a literal shoulder to cry on – or next door neighbor to have lunch with – which every rookie educator desperately needs. And they are doing this without the benefit of tenure to protect them from sometimes draconian administrative directives. That does nothing to encourage these new teachers into a long-term career.
We have long been in an age of teacher martyrdom – an implicit (or sometimes explicit) competition of who can work longer hours, grade more papers, or be more devoted. This must end. Educators must learn to – and be given grace to – walk the walk with everything we implore our students to do. We preach balance, self-care, and not sweating the small stuff, yet our professional cohort is under-slept, overworked, and mired down in the minutiae of tracking Zoom attendance on multiple platforms. Our current health crisis has pushed our nation’s educators to the brink. There just does not seem to be a pathway to opening American schools without burning out our supply of one our most precious resources: our educators.
The Effects of Distance Learning: What Once Was and is No Longer
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