Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.

With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.

Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.

For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.

These have been an absolute disaster.

Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.

However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.

It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.

I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.

It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.

However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.

The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.

Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.

After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.

You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.

For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.

Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.

And that’s not all bad.

As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.

Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.

It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.

In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.

Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.

True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.

However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.

Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.

If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.

But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.

3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually

There are many reasons for this.

In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.

You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.

All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.

Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.

In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.

When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.

I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.

For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.

Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.

In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.

Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.

If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.

5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace

This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.

Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.

And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.

I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.

I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.

We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.

Cons

1) Student Absences

No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.

For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.

However, there are two important points to be made.

First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.

I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.

Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.

Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.

In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.

That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.

We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.

2) The Camera Conundrum

To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.

Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.

The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.

Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.

Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.

I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.

Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.

There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.

But not always.

3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs

This is related to the previous point.

The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.

This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.

The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.

I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.

4) Technological Issues

Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.

Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.

The list is endless.

Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.

And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.

One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.

For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.

So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.

When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.

I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.

I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.

The pandemic has made that possible to degrees never before imagined.

Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.

When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.

It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.

If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.

I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.

I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.

I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.

I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.

These are all dangers of the new normal.

I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.

We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.


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Steel Valley Schools Will Reopen Fully Remote Rather Than Compromise on Safety

Thursday would have been the first day of in-person classes for hundreds of students at Steel Valley Schools.

But instead, district buildings will be closed and classes will be 100% virtual for all students.

The Western Pennsylvania district just south of Pittsburgh had planned to reopen with a hybrid model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as the start date rapidly approached, it became clear that the district would not have the safety supplies necessary to protect students and staff. So administrators and school directors agreed to start the year with fully remote classes for at least the first month.

According to a letter sent home to parents written by Substitute Superintendent Bryan Macuga:

“…due to factors beyond the district’s control, efforts to upgrade systems at our buildings are not yet complete. In an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff, the administration – in consultation with the district’s board of directors – has decided to begin the school year with four full weeks of remote synchronous instruction. Students will still begin on schedule, but all classes for students will be held virtually for the first four weeks of the school year until October 5th.”

The original plan had students attending classes in one of three ways: enrolled in the district’s existent cyber program, doing 100% virtual assignments from the regular classroom teacher or a mixture of both virtual and in-person instruction.

Those who would have attended in-person were further divided into two groups – one of which would have attended in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would have done virtual lessons when not in the classroom and on Wednesdays while buildings were being deep cleaned.

And this is the plan administrators hope to return to in October if they can install plexiglass barriers, fine tune a new HVAC system to better circulate airflow and other safety measures.

“The choice to move all classes fully online was a very difficult decision to make, and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this change may cause,” Macuga wrote in his letter to parents.

“The safety of our students and staff is our highest priority, and we make this decision out of an abundance of caution.”

As a district teacher, I – for one – am thankful for this sound, rational decision.

COVID-19 is no joke, especially in a community with relatively few cases but a higher than average rate of infection.

Of the three municipalities that make up the district, West Homestead has a case rate of 150.5 per 10K, Homestead has a case rate of 123.2 per 10K and Munhall has a case rate of 84.2 per 10K.

Moreover, an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported at St. Therese Plaza, a senior living apartment in very close proximity to the Steel Valley High School-Middle School complex.

WTAE News reported in August at least three confirmed cases at the facility including a caregiver and two patients.

But it’s not just the elderly who are at risk.

According to a new forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the death toll from COVID-19 is likely to more than double to 410,000 by the end of the year.

The institute, whose previous forecasts have been cited by the White House and state officials, estimates the best case death toll with universal masking and tight safety precautions at more than 288,000, and a worst case death toll throwing care to the wind at more than 620,000.

People of color are most at risk of becoming part of that statistic.

According to the Center for Disease Control, minorities are much more likely to get sick and experience complications from the disease.

This is especially relevant in a district like ours where minority enrollment is 47% of the student body (majority Black). This is more than the state public school average of 34% (majority Black and Hispanic).

At a meeting of the Allegheny County Health Department on Wednesday, board member Joylette Portlock noted this susceptibility gap between Black and White residents throughout the Pittsburgh region. During the last two major spikes in COVID-19 cases, Black residents were much more susceptible than White residents. In April, local Black residents tested positive for the virus twice as often as White residents. But the July outbreak was even worse. Black residents tested positive three times more for the disease than White residents.

It should not be surprising then that Homestead – the district municipality with the highest population of people of color (more than 70%) – has such a high percentage of cases.

West Homestead is populated by mostly white people, but the neighborhood has a high incidence of poverty – another factor linked to susceptibility. Munhall has the highest socioeconomic status and lowest minority population, thus the lowest infection rate.

Opening schools when safety measures are not adequate to protect students and staff would be a recipe for disaster.

County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen cautioned how quickly the virus can be spread – especially by children. The health department had been tracking an infection from a teenager who spread COVID-19 to family members, who subsequently spread it to coworkers, who spread it to other teens, etc.

“It spread to over 40 people from this one outbreak in just two weeks,” Dr. Bogen said.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

Some try to downplay the danger, likening it to the flu.

But there have been 22 times as many COVID-19 deaths this year in Allegheny County, compared to the flu.

Dr. Bogen broke it down like this: There were 330 deaths in Allegheny County from COVID-19 compared to about 15 typically experienced because of influenza. Statewide, there were 7,673 deaths from COVID compared to 102 typical from the flu. Nationwide, there were 183,563 COVID deaths, and between 24,000 – 62,000 from the flu.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

We have to take this virus seriously.

And unfortunately many of us are not doing so.

The health department inspected more than 2,000 restaurants for suspected health infractions. Inspectors found more than 200 restaurants weren’t in compliance with the county’s mask and occupancy guidelines.

And it’s not just restaurants. Several board members complained that they had seen mask infractions at healthcare organizations, salons and other retail establishments.

Schools may be more susceptible than most places.

I am so thankful the community leaders where I work have refused to go ahead with a safety plan that could not be completed in time to reopen.

I’m sure it was difficult to decide at the last minute to pull the plug on the plan, but it shows real concern for students and staff.

Frankly, I don’t think we should open to in-person classes even if we can achieve the level of safety the district has proposed.

The county still has a moderate level of infection according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines.

Though Wolf does not exclude a hybrid model as possible with this level of infection, it seems to me that “an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff” would be to go with the more cautious approach prescribed by Wolf – to remain in fully remote instruction until county infections decrease to a low level for at least two consecutive weeks.

However, I am thankful that district administrators and school directors have remained consistent in their plans and seem to be doing what they believe is in the best interests of everyone involved.

Hopefully when safety measures are ready to be implemented district wide, the level of infection throughout the county will have decreased as well.

I’m not a fan of virtual instruction. I’d rather teach students in-person.

But I’d rather none of us get sick or die even more.

Macuga will be conducting a community Zoom meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 6 pm to answer questions about the change from hybrid to full remote learning.


 

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Parental Choice Won’t Save Us From Unsafe School Reopening Plans

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I am the parent of a public school student.

 

And I have a choice.

 

I get to decide whether my daughter will go back to school in-person or online.

 

That’s the only thing that should matter to me.

 

At least, that’s what the superintendent of my home district told me when I went before school directors last week asking them to reconsider administration’s unsafe reopening plan.

 

At McKeesport Area School District (MASD), Dr. Mark Holtzman and administration propose unlocking the doors for half day in-person classes Mondays through Fridays.

 

Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.

 

However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.

 

Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.

 

The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.

 

But as I stood up there at the podium last week outlining all the ways this scheme was unsafe and asking my duly-elected representatives to instead consider distance learning for all children, Holtzman told me to be happy I could choose whatever I wanted for my own child and sit back down.

 

Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?

 

Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?

 

Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.

 

What else do I want?

 

Plenty.

 

First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.

 

Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.

 

Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.

 

By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.

 

Let’s be honest – both options pale in comparison to face-to-face instruction. But the kind of instruction students will receive in-person during this global pandemic will not be face-to-face. Students will interact behind masks and plexiglass barriers under an ever present shadow of fear and menace. Under the proposed MASD plan, teachers would have a mere 20 minutes a period to try to get something done other than just taking role, attempting to get students to comply with safety precautions and calming their fears.

 

Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.

 

Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?

 

Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?

 

No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.

 

If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.

 

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 just in the last two weeks of July.

 

To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,00 are children.

 

And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.

 

Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.

 

Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and Hawaii, among others. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.

 
I live in Allegheny County – the western Pennsylvania region around Pittsburgh – where Covid cases have spiked.

 

Many local school districts like East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg have passed plans to start the year with classes being conducted 100% online. South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed such plans in the last few days. And the biggest district in this part of the state – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has done the same.

 

If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.

 

But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.

 

That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.

 

And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.

 

When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.

 

I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.

 

After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.

 

MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.

 

This is why issues of public safety are usually decided at the county, state or federal level. These decisions affect all of us, but these days no one wants to take the responsibility.

 

It doesn’t even make sense democratically.

 

Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.

 

For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.

 

I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.

 

I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.

 

This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.

 

As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.

 

But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?

 

If school directors decide to reopen to in-person classes, they’re forcing educators to decide between their employment and their own families. If teachers return to the classroom with their students in a physical setting, they risk not only their own lives but that of their friends and families.

 

That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.

 

I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?

 

Finally, what about people of color? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says African Americans and other minorities are hospitalized from the virus four to five times more often than white people.

 

I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.

 

But that doesn’t overcome my concerns about a bad school reopening strategy.

 

School directors need to make reopening decisions that are in the best interests of everyone because we’re all in this together.

 

That’s what so many folks seem to be forgetting.

 

Yes, even from a completely selfish point of view, unsafe school reopening will affect each of us.

 

But epidemics spread through communities. Only communities can effectively combat them.

 

Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms only empowers the virus. If we all try to fight Covid-19 individually, we will lose.

 

We have to understand that what’s good for our friends and neighbors is in our individual interest, too.

 

We have to care about our fellow human beings.

 

That’s why I will continue to fight these unsafe plans and ask school directors to reopen schools virtually.

 

That’s the path I’ve chosen.


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.

 

These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.

 

With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.

 

There are three main options:

 

  • (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
  • (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
  • (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.

 

In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.

 

In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.

 

Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.

 

It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.

 

For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.

 

However, let’s be real.

 

Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.

 

Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.

 

The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.

 

Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.

 

There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.

 

In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.

 

So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.

 

How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.

 

Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 11.34.44 AM
Source: PA Department of Health

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 11.34.56 AM
Source: PA Department of Health

 

That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.

 

I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.

 

Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”

 

No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.

 

Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.

 

That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.

 
The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.

 
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.

 
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.

 

Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.

 

Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.

 

Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.

 

During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.

 

And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.

 

Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.

 

However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.

 

A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.

 

“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.

 

Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

 

However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!

 
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?

 
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.

 
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.

 
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.

 

The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.

 

According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.

 

Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 1.24.46 PM
SOURCE: the CDC

 

In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.

 

So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.

 

A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.

 

Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.

 

From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.

 

In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.

 

In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.

 

Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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Why High Stakes Testing Was Cancelled This Year (and Probably Will Be Next Year, Too)

Screen Shot 2020-05-16 at 10.22.26 AM

 
There are at least two silver linings to the current Coronavirus catastrophe for education.

 

One – with nearly all public schools closed, March was the first month since 2002 without a school shooting.

 

Two – districts nationwide cancelled high stakes standardized tests in April and May.

 

Taken together, these are two victories that no one could have predicted before November.

 

Gun safety restrictions remain laughably lax in the US compared to the rest of the world. And our system’s reliance on high stakes testing to hold schools and teachers accountable for economic inequalities and racially biased standards has been thoroughly criticized for nearly a century.

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

 
The pandemic’s other effects have been more damaging as students, parents and teachers have struggled to move education online at home.

 

Teachers are seeing high absences especially among poor, underprivileged and special needs children. Not to mention worries about the quality and depth of education provided virtually and the stress it places on families.

 

To make matters worse, the situation seems likely to continue in some form when next school year begins in the fall.

 

With the COVID-19 virus likely to endure spreading unchecked due to a lack of adequate health screenings, the time it takes to make a vaccine, and an unwillingness by the government to save everyday people from the economic consequences of a nearly stopped economy, not to mention an increasing unwillingness among people to continue thorough social distancing procedures, schools may be left to solve the crisis themselves.

 

There’s been talk that when schools start up in August and September they may simply continue with cyber curriculum. Or they may open the physical buildings with safety protocols including half day classes of smaller size to keep students a safe distance apart.

 

In any case, the question of standardized testing arises again with a vengeance.

 

While there is some wiggle room, federal law (The Every Student Succeeds Act) requires all public school students be given standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

The U.S. Department of Education waived that mandate this year because of the virus.

 

That was great news – a sound decision from a government agency known more for market solutions than rationality.

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

Whether staffed by Democrats or Republicans, this doesn’t sound like them.

 

Why was this exception made and will it be extended again given that the circumstances may be little different in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20?

 

The answer seems to be rooted in the tests, themselves, and the economic circumstances which create and sustains them.

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

 
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

 

How did we get here?

 

Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.

 

Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.

 

If the federal government hadn’t answered these requests in the affirmative, it would have had to engage in an open power struggle with the states over control of public schooling.

 

This would be especially damaging for a Republican administration because of the party’s stance on state’s rights.

 

However, even if we put aside this power dynamic, the decision was inevitable.

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

All of these assessments are the property of private corporations. These include Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

 

States purchase the right to use these tests but assessment material is the ideological property of the parent corporation. And so they want it guarded from theft.

 

That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.

 

This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.

 

I know because I’ve spent every year of my teaching career employed as a proctor throughout most of April as my students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. But also when I got my degree I had to go to a designated testing center where I could be monitored as I took a series of assessments necessary to get my certification.

 

I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.

 

With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.

 

The College Board tried anyway with an abbreviated Advanced Placement test taken online from home this month to disastrous results – glitches, server issues and a failure by the organization to take responsibility.

 

However, the problem isn’t essentially technological. These assessments could be given online. Many districts do exactly that, but with teachers in the room acting as proctors.

 

The technological infrastructure may not yet be in place for widespread virtual testing, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

 

Test security is a much stickier issue – without real, live people policing the environment, testing information would be at risk.

 

Rival companies could get access to trade secrets. The value of scores could come under scrutiny due to concerns of student cheating. And the tests, themselves, would for the first time be visible to parents and the general public.

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

As a classroom teacher, I get to see these infernal tests. I get to see the questions.

 

They are not good. They are not well-written, well considered, developmentally appropriate or even good at evaluating student understanding of the knowledge they claim to be assessing.

 

But up to this point, anyone who gets to see the tests is sworn to secrecy including the students.

 

The kids taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

 

At the start of these tests, they are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

 

THE PSSAS

 
In particular,the PSSAs require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

 

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq

 

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

 

In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.

 

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

 

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

 

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

 

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.

 

Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.

 

As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

 

DO NOT:

 
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

 

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

 

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

 

And according to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

 

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

It wasn’t because anyone rethought the value of high stakes tests – though they should have. It wasn’t because anyone had considered standardized testing’s history in the eugenics movement – which they should have. It wasn’t because anyone was worried that giving these tests would take away precious academic time – though they should have.

 

It was to protect the business interests that would be at risk otherwise.

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

The need for proctors is a problem that the testing companies know about and are working to eliminate.

 

In fact, they’ve been trying to line things up in their favor for years.

 

Their answer is something called Competency Based Education (CBE) or Proficiency Based Education (PBE). But don’t let these names fool you. It has nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.

 
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.

 

This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”

 

Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

But that’s just how it is used in schools today.

 

The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.

 

It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many ed tech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

One thing they need is a pet policy of DeVos and the Trump administration – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

 

However, ESAs would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school like a traditional school voucher.

 

 

Or it could be used for discrete education services provided by the ed tech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without a parent or guardian in charge.

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

 
But it’s just a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!

 

 

Make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to the rubes as innovation.

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.

 

On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.

 

However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.

 

A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.

 

“As the coronavirus pandemic evolves on a daily basis, it would be premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law. Thus, case-by-case consideration of each state’s needs is, at this time, most appropriate,” said a letter signed by testing industry lobbyists including John King, the former secretary of education and head of the Education Trust.

 
They have the future mapped out – a future with immense earnings for their companies and shareholders.

 

We must be fully aware of what is happening and why if we are to have any chance of opposing the next disaster and coming out of the current crisis with better school policy than we went in.

 

If we are to safeguard an authentic education for our children, we must learn these lessons, ourselves, now.


 

 

 

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Adventures in Online Teaching: Reinventing the Wheel for a Handful of Students

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 8.28.00 PM

 
Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.

 

I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.

 

Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.

 

Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.

 

And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.

 

The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.

 

“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.

 

Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.

 

If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.

 

He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.

 

About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.

 

What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.

 

He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.

 

So I moved on.

 

We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.

 

Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.

 

“Melanie?” I say.

 

No response.

 

“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”

 

Nothing.

 

She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.

 

I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.

 

How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.

 

I had to let her sleep.

 

Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?

 

I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.

 

“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.

 

“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”

 

“Ted, you forget something?”

 

“Wha?”

 

“Ted, your shirt?”

 

He looks down at his naked torso.

 

“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”

 

“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”

 

These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.

 

Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.

 

It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.

 

Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.

 

Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.

 

More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.

 

The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.

 

I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.

 

Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.

 

I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.

 

We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.

 

Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.

 

When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.

 

When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.

 

But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.

 

I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.

 

That’s just life in the age of distance learning.

 

But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.

 

My district doesn’t require me to do all this.

 

I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.

 

That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.

 

But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?

 

My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?

 

So I narrowed it all down to essentials.

 

I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.

 

So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.

 

The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.

 

I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.

 

I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.

 

I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.

 

Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.

 

If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.

 

But there is real life-long learning taking place.

 

It’s my most successful group.

 

My 7th graders are a different story.

 

They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.

 

And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.

 

They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.

 

Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.

 

It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.

 

However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.

 

Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.

 

Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.

 

The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.

 

I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.

 

It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.

 

For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.

 

That kind of thing happens all the time.

 

And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.

 

In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.

 

Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.

 

I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.

 

I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.

 

I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.

 

She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.

 

With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.

 

On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.

 

But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.

 

I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.

 

Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.

 

However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.

 

School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.

 

I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

 
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.

 

There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.

 

But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.

 

Stay safe and stay optimistic.

 

But let’s not stay cyber.


 

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Virtual Learning Through Quarantine Will Leave Poor and Disabled Students Behind

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In the wake of the coronavirus crisis with most people self quarantined at home, schools across the country are shut down.

 

Some offer (or are considering offering) distance learning over the Internet.

 

However, this poses problems.

 

Not all student services can be provided via computer.

 

And not all students even have a computer, online compatible device or Internet access.

 

Should our nation’s public schools soldier on anyway and provide some kind of learning experience for those not thus encumbered at the expense of those who will be left behind?

 
The U.S. Senate’s proposed coronavirus aid package includes a provision to waive existing federal law that requires all schools to provide services to special education students. Removing this specification would allow districts to move forward with virtual learning without having to worry about meeting the needs of their special education students.

 

Advocates worry that even a temporary suspension of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could have devastating long term effects on students with disabilities and ultimately remove the requirement upheld for the last 45 years that they receive a free public education.

 
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a gleeful statement in favor of dispensing with protections for students with autism, cerebral palsy, learning disorders and other special needs:

 

“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids. This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.

 

“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the Department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”

 

The Department of Education issued a Fact Sheet that went even further:

 

“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

 

This is tantamount to prioritizing the education of some students over others. In short, if we follow DeVos’ guidelines, we will be saying that regular education students are more important than students with special needs.

 

It is a dangerous precedent.

 

However, perhaps even more dangerous is the abdication of any responsibility for, even complete erasure of any mention of poor students without Internet access.

 

This just underlines the importance of legislation. Special education students have IDEA. Poor students have nothing. There is no right to education for them at all.

 

If there had been some legislation specifically enshrining the rights of the underprivileged, however, it is clear this administration would be likewise proposing measures to dispense with it.

 

I understand that we are in a crisis. I understand that some think it is better to take half measures so that something gets done rather than nothing.

 

However, the coronavirus outbreak is expected to be a temporary situation. It may last weeks or months, but it will not last forever.

 

We want to do things in the best interests of children now, but we also must be aware of later. And trying to meet some kids needs now while writing off a large chunk of the rest would have a huge negative impact later.

 

If we educate just the privileged kids, we will be worsening the socioeconomic gap between students – a gap that is already too wide.

 

According to the most recent federal data, nearly 7 million students in the United States do not have Internet access at home. That is about 14 percent of all U.S. students. And of those with online access at home, 18 percent do not have home access to broadband Internet so they would also have difficulty retrieving lessons or participating in Zoom meetings online.

 
Moving to distance learning on the Internet would leave tens of millions of children behind.

 
Is this really what we want to do?

 

In addition, there is the question of quality.

 

Few teachers are trained or have experience with distance learning. They will probably be able to provide some kind of learning – but it will almost certainly not be the best they could be providing.

 

Moreover, there are real questions about the quality of learning that CAN be provided in a virtual environment even under the best of circumstances.

 

Cyber schools are a perfect fit for some students. Older and more mature students would probably have an easier time adjusting to it.

 

However, many students – especially younger ones – need the face-to-face interactions of school to get the most out of the experience. Forcing them into a mold that may at best be unsuited to them individually and at worst developmentally inappropriate will only cause them undo trauma.

 

I understand that everyone wants to appear like they’re doing something to meet the challenges provided by this crisis. However, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

 

One day the quarantine will be lifted. At that point, we can reopen the schools.

 

This may mean a few months of summer school. Or we could extend the 2020-21 school year to make up the difference.

 
Neither are perfect solutions. But they’re both better than virtual learning.

 

Neither require us to write off our poor and special education students.

 

And THAT is the most important thing.

 

Public schools don’t have to settle for whatever fad is offered from disaster capitalists.

 

We can still do what’s right for our kids.

 

All of our kids.

 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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