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Does Teaching Online and In-Person Simultaneously Work?

After starting the school year entirely online, schools in Fort Worth, Texas, have brought in certain groups of students, allowing parents and students to make a choice between in-person or remote classes.

by Silas Allen, Fort Worth Star-Telegram / October 16, 2020
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(TNS) — Cathy Gilbride  thought she had a plan to balance simultaneous work with students in her classroom and online when some Fort Worth, Texas, ISD students returned to campus this month.

Gilbride, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Applied Learning Academy, planned to sit in front of her computer and teach her class largely the way she taught when all students were remote. The students in her classroom could see her in person and look at class materials on Google Classroom, and the students at home could participate the way they have for weeks. But it quickly became obvious her plan wouldn't work, she said.

"That lasted about five minutes," she said.

Her in-person students often need help with Google Classroom. Some of them have trouble connecting to the school's wifi network, which Gilbride said has been a near-constant source of headaches.  So Gilbride  tells her online students to keep working and yell into their computer microphones if they need her, then walks to the students in her classroom who need help to sort out the problems from a safe distance.

During a normal year, walking around the room and keeping an eye on students are among a teacher's best tools for classroom management. But Gilbride said she doesn't feel as comfortable moving around her classroom this year. She worries she could catch COVID-19 or unknowingly spread it to one of her students. And anytime she steps away from her desk, she and her online students can't see each other.

After starting the school year online, Fort Worth ISD brought certain groups of students back to school in person on Oct. 5. The district allowed parents and students to choose between in-person or remote classes. Teachers with in-person students now manage three groups -- those who are at school in person, those who watch live online and those who watch recorded lessons online, do their work and turn it in outside of normal school hours.

That's left teachers with a difficult balance to strike. As a result, teachers say they struggle to teach either group effectively. And outside of school hours, they spend more time than ever recording lessons, answering emails from parents and making sure everything in their virtual classrooms is in place.

"We do the best we can with what we have to work with," Gilbride said. "It's just exhausting."

Simultaneous in-person/online classes a challenge

Teachers already had a complicated job before districts asked them to teach online and in person at once, said Deb Kelt, a professor of practice at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Education. Teachers have to deal with paperwork, get supplies in order and plan lessons. When they're teaching, they have to watch the kids in the room and pivot when students don't understand what they're saying. They have to find ways to work with students who are ahead and students who have fallen behind at the same time and constantly think about how the material they present one day connects with the day before and the day after. And they offer emotional support to students who are having a hard day.

"It's already seven jobs, minimum," Kelt said.

But for all those challenges, good teachers can bring "an ineffable spark" into their students' lives, Kelt said. They can teach students to be enthusiastic and get them to feel brave. They can help them feel like they have something important to say.

When districts introduce online learning into the picture, it makes that process more challenging, Kelt said. Teachers can't see their students as well when they're connected through an online platform like Google Classroom, so it's harder for them to tell if students understand the material. And there will invariably be tech issues to deal with, she said, although younger teachers might be able to manage those issues more easily than their older colleagues, she said.

When districts ask teachers to do online and in-person classes at once, they layer those two sets of challenges on top of each other, Kelt said. That means teachers at every level of experience struggle to teach either group well.

"I think going to both is hard for everybody," she said.

Crowley schools offer another solution

Fort Worth ISD is not alone in asking its teachers to teach in-person and virtual classes simultaneously. But across North Texas and nationwide, other districts have found other solutions. For example, Crowley ISD's elementary school teachers teach only in-person classes or virtual classes, not both. In middle school and high school, the district has tried to minimize the number of teachers balancing both types of classes, said  Nicholas Keith , the district's executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Keith said the district adopted that model because it's critical that teachers be able to connect with their students and understand what they need. That's difficult for teachers who must manage in-person and virtual classes at the same time, Keith said, because their attention is split between the two groups. Having teachers only teach one or the other also allows principals to pick which teachers teach in which format based on those teachers' strengths, he said.

At the middle and high school levels, scheduling sometimes made it impossible for teachers to avoid teaching both in person and online, Keith said. Schools only offer some classes once a day, he said, so any student who enrolls in that class must take it at that time, whether they're online or in person. In those cases, he said, the district has tried to make sure those teachers are as well prepared as they can be.

Although Keith said the plan was the best one for Crowley ISD, it isn't without its drawbacks. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents the opportunity to switch between in-person and online every six weeks. The model that the district selected for this year means that any student who switches from virtual learning to face-to-face classes will have to change teachers, as well. Officials in Crowley decided that was an acceptable compromise, he said, but it might not work for other districts.

"Any choice that you make right now, there's going to be trade-offs," Keith said. "And so I think the choice that public school districts have to make is which of the trade-offs are we most willing to deal with when it comes to virtual and face-to-face?"

Jerry Moore , Fort Worth ISD's chief academic officer, said the need to minimize the number of students who switch teachers in the middle of the year was the main reason the district adopted the simultaneous in-person and virtual model. Besides allowing students the option to switch between in-person and online every six weeks, the district also had to plan for the possibility that students would have to quarantine intermittently after being exposed to COVID-19. That means it's likely that some number of students would have to switch back and forth between teachers more than once within a few months, which disrupts their school year, Moore said. Allowing them to stay in the same class whether they're in person or online gives those students more consistency, he said.

Moore acknowledged the model creates challenges for teachers. The district has held talks with teachers to figure out how to teach to two groups at once, and how to balance students in live classes with students who do their school work during off hours. Moore has talked with teachers about how to use the time that they don't need to be in front of their in-person and virtual classes to work with individual students or smaller groups who need extra help.

But even with the best management techniques, teachers' jobs are hard this year, Moore said. They have to figure out how to manage class time in a way they've never done before, and their attention is divided between two groups of students. It's all the more difficult for longer-tenured teachers, who have been working in the same classroom environment for decades and now must learn how to do their jobs in a radically different situation.

"It's almost like our veteran teachers have become first-year teachers again," he said.

Hybrid model requires change for teachers

When some students returned to school in person this month,  Ernie Moran , a Spanish teacher at Fort Worth ISD's Western Hills High School, explained to his students that his class wouldn't look like it does during a normal year. Normally, Moran would walk around the room and check on students as they do their work. This year, he keeps his distance and wears a path in the tile in front of his classroom so his students at home can see him.

There are other things Moran can't do this year. Normally, he'd divide students into groups and have them work with vocabulary flash cards or go through practice conversations in Spanish. Having students work together and teach each other the material helps them retain it, he said. But he can't have students work in groups this year, partly because it isn't safe for in-person students to sit close together and partly because having students both in person and online makes it unworkable.

Moran is in his 11th year as a teacher. Although he's new to teaching online, he said virtual and in-person classes don't seem to fit well together. When districts ask teachers to do both at once, he said, it's almost guaranteed that they won't be able to do either very well.

"If you're doing both virtual and in-person, you're doing some of both, but I think both are suffering," Moran said.

Although doing both online and in-person isn't ideal, Moran said he didn't think it would be logistically possible for teachers at Western Hills to avoid doing both. Teachers have always had to be flexible and find a way to do their jobs in difficult circumstances, he said. They lean on each other for support, he said, and when they come up with ideas that work, they share them with their colleagues. That's even more critical this year, when it's both more important and more challenging for teachers to find ways to connect with their students.

"We're there for those kids," Moran said. "We're there for the kids that we're greeting every day."

Creative ways to reach students

Gilbride, the Applied Learning Academy teacher, said she tries to find creative ways to connect with her students, as well. This month, one of her virtual students sent her a message to ask if she could give a presentation she'd been assigned at a time when Gilbride was alone instead of in front of the entire class.  So Gilbride  set up a Google Meet call at 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and the girl gave her presentation online. When she was finished, she showed Gilbride a sign she'd made to thank her.

Those moments when she gets to work with students on the material they're learning in class remind Gilbride why she teaches. But moments like that are harder to find this year, she said. During class, most of her attention goes toward making sure both her in-person and virtual students are engaged. Even when she isn't at school, her job has expanded to fill nearly all of her waking hours. And on top of everything else, she worries about the possibility that either she or one of her students will catch COVID-19 at school.

Gilbride said many of her colleagues feel the same frustrations she does about teaching in-person and virtual classes simultaneously. She thinks it would be more effective if the district did all classes in person or online. Until there's a COVID-19 vaccine available and the pandemic is under control, she thinks virtual is the only safe option.

"There's no good answer," she said. "It really does need to be one or the other, and right now, it needs to be the other."

(c)2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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