Thoughts From a Massachusetts Teacher
Across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and around the country, school districts are clinging to a hybrid approach to reopening schools this fall. Superintendents, administrators, and school committee members came to the realization pretty quickly that going back to school with 100% of the student population wasn’t going to be feasible because it is egregiously expensive and wildly unsafe to have hundreds or even thousands of people contained in one building.
What options are left? Hybrid or remote.
When many parents hear “remote,” they cringe. This spring was hard for so many families as schools shut down without notice and parents found themselves managing their child’s emotional, academic, and social needs in the midst of their own crises of working from home, losing work, or having to find someone to care for their children while they still had to report to work. Many parents were caring for sick or elderly family members as well.
It was stressful, it was unmanageable, it was frustrating. Understandably, parents don’t want to go back to that. They want their kids to thrive, to be happy, to learn, to practice interacting with their peers and other adults. We all do.
So if going back full time is off the table and repeating last spring is cringeworthy, what is left? A hybrid approach. And people across the nation are clinging to this approach with all their might. Unfortunately, a hybrid approach is not going to solve our problems.
First, a quick explanation: the hybrid model, generally, has students coming to school two days a week and learning at home on the other three days. The student body is broken into two cohorts so, when one cohort is in school, the other cohort is at home. There is usually one day per week when all students are home and teachers will teach remotely via Zoom or Google Meet. This model allows for schools to facilitate 6 feet of physical distancing and helps solve the issue of bus transportation since only half of the student population might need to ride a bus on a given day.
While it seems like the hybrid model is a good compromise, allowing for some in-person learning, it’s not. It doesn’t solve the problem of what education should look like this fall in the midst of a pandemic.
#1 – Hybrid doesn’t solve the spread of COVID-19.
One of the big issues with schools being closed is that many students need someone to watch them at home and help them get connected to virtual classes, especially elementary-aged students or students with special needs. This is tough for families where parents and caregivers work outside of the home, and inconvenient for parents who are working from home.
In a hybrid approach, parents and caregivers will seek various options for childcare on the three at-home days, potentially sending their children to daycare, having grandparents watch them, or grouping up with other families to reduce the amount of time taken off from work. That means students will be exposed to both their classmates and teachers (on their in-person days), and to a whole different group of caregivers (on their remote days).
If the point of the hybrid model is to reduce exposure, then much of that benefit is erased by having students exposed to a wide variety of other families and children on their remote days. And if a student or staff member does test positive for COVID-19, this widened social interaction makes contact tracing much harder and increases the exposure for everyone involved, according to epidemiologist Dr. William Hanage in a recent WGBH Morning Edition radio show.
To further complicate matters, some schools are having to do away with or limit services like before- and after-school care. This is due to the lack of staffing, available space in the school, and time to properly clean and sanitize these areas before the official start or after the end of school. For many families, this means that the two days that they can actually go into work are now shortened to the length of the school day. They will need to find someone to help get their child to and from school, or their child needs to ride the bus. Again, this is an added complication and a new opportunity for increased exposure.
#2 – Hybrid requires funding for technology and in-person operations.
With some learning taking place at school and some at home, schools are stretched in multiple directions. Schools must make sure all students have the necessary technology and internet capability to access learning on their remote days. They also have to pay for all the safety equipment, cleaning, and increased staff, like bus monitors. Instead of focusing on making one system work well, schools will have to both manage and fund each system.
#3 – Hybrid will put teachers – and students – at risk.
The common phrase repeated in conversations, articles, on social media, and at school committee meetings all over the state is “we think that children don’t get as sick from COVID-19 as adults do.” This statement fails to recognize that schools are staffed by adults, many of whom are older or immunocompromised, putting them in the high risk category.
Students are at risk, too. Even if children often do not get as sick from COVID as adults (and children can get very sick, as studies have shown), there are some students who are immunocompromised, putting them in the high risk category.
Moreover, children and staff alike do not live in a vacuum. There is growing evidence that children can spread the virus as well as adults. Additionally, students and most staff members live with other people who may be older or immunocompromised, also putting them in the high risk category.
As summer schools, camps, and schools have reopened the past few weeks, there have been an increasing number of news articles about students and staff getting infected after returning. In Arizona, one teacher and her brother, who she lived with, died after being exposed in a summer school class with only two other adults, no students, and all the proper safety procedures in place.
How many lives, adult or child, are worth risking for two days a week of in-person learning? The correct answer is none.
#4 – On their remote days, students won’t have the attention of their teacher.
Districts are taking different approaches to the question of who teaches the students on the remote days. Some districts are planning to send students home with projects and assignments to continue independently on their remote days. This leaves students without a teacher to answer questions, provide support, or guide student learning for two days. Some parents will be able to help their child, but many won’t be able to because they will be working.
Other districts are asking teachers to live-stream their class while they teach the in-person students so that the remote students can tune in and follow along. This creates privacy issues as it won’t just be the teacher who is being live streamed, but the students in the classroom as well. Additionally, teachers will now have to manage the students sitting in front of them while also checking their computer to monitor the students at home who may be having technology issues or asking questions. The teacher won’t be able to give their full attention to the students on their in-person day nor provide much support to students on their remote days.
#5 – Safe in-person learning requires students to comply with very strong behavioral restrictions – and requires teachers to try to enforce them.
Try this at home: sit at a desk, facing forward, and wear a mask and goggles all day. Don’t come within six feet of anyone. In a classroom, avoid your classmates, teachers, and friends, don’t share supplies or books and don’t sing songs that are loud. The list of restrictions is long and growing longer each day. What’s being asked of students is not appropriate for their age, developmental stage, and is not sustainable for a 6.5 hour school day, or even longer for students who ride the bus. But the stakes are high and therefore students will have to do these things if returning to school is going to be successful.
Here’s the thing: most students will try SO HARD to do all of this. But when students forget and get too close to another student or get itchy and fiddle with their mask or cough when eating lunch in the classroom, are other parents going to be forgiving of these mistakes when their child is the one who’s sick? The stakes are high. Why put children in this position?
And, teachers will have to enforce these extreme restrictions while they’re managing a class of ~25 students.
Teachers know how hard it is to manage remote learning. We listened to parents’ frustration this spring. We watched our students change. Many teachers saw their own children struggle academically and emotionally. But a majority of teachers in Massachusetts and across the country are advocating for remote learning this fall because we know that the stakes are high and no life is worth losing.
Hybrid is not going to solve our problems.
So instead of pushing for this compromise – this “at least give the kids something” mentality – let’s put our focus on making remote learning work, for all our students.
Let’s get the internet widely accessible.
Let’s find feasible ways to deliver food to families who need it.
Let’s increase the amount of mental health schools provide so students who are struggling socially and emotionally have consistent services.
Let’s improve our teaching pedagogy so that students stay engaged and teachers are better able to track their understanding while not in the classroom.
Let’s provide devices and technology training to students, parents, and staff who need it.
And let’s keep our whole community as safe as possible until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine to facilitate a full return to school.
Teachers want every member of our community to make it through this and returning to school fully remote is the only way to achieve that goal.