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.
Gilbride, a sixth grade social studies teacher at
"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.
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
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
"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.
Fort Worth ISD is not alone in asking its teachers to teach in-person and virtual classes simultaneously. But across
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.
"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?"
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,
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
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."
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