Teachers face daunting challenges beyond traditional in-person lesson planning, having to prepare to potentially teach a hybrid version of school, or instruct online only as the first day of school approaches.
(TNS) — Chris Brennan, a Masschusetts English teacher at Worcester Technical High School, doesn’t want to rely on remote learning. It’s impersonal and difficult for the students, Brennan said. But, when thinking about his own health, remote learning may be the best option for the upcoming school year.
“I have type 1 diabetes, I have a heart condition, I have a vascular condition because of the heart issue. I kind of hit all of the risk factors for COVID being dangerous for me, so I personally would prefer if I had the option to do remote teaching,” Brennan said last week, as school districts across the state, including Worcester, struggle with how to structure the new academic year during the coronavirus pandemic.
Teachers are facing daunting challenges this summer. Beyond a traditional in-person lesson plan, they must prepare to potentially teach a hybrid version of school, or instruct online only. The first day of school is approaching and there will inevitably be students who stay home for health reasons and only participate in school online.
Plans for the next school year are in flux. Though state guidelines call for mask-wearing and keeping desks at least 3 feet apart, educators are concerned for their students’ health and their own wellbeing. As one Worcester teacher put it on Twitter, a thought shared by fellow educators, “We are not willing to die for this job.”
It would be nice for teachers with risk factors to have a choice about returning to the classroom, Brennan said.
“My wife was laid off during this and she hasn’t returned to work … I almost feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s either I put myself at risk or I lose my house,” Brennan said in a phone interview.
Superintendent Maureen Binienda told MassLive on Friday that it’s unclear if teachers will have the option to work remotely. Such conversations would involve human resources, Binienda said, noting that the district hasn’t negotiated with the teachers union yet.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education last month issued guidelines and asked districts to work on three plans: One for in-person classes, a hybrid of in-person and online learning, and fully remote education. Worcester’s School Committee on July 2 requested the school administration focus on the latter two choices.
This week, two Worcester School Committee meetings are slated to discuss the reopening plans. So far, the district has assessed capacity with keeping students 3 feet apart versus 6 feet apart, and is looking at several models, one of which has students in schools two days per week and online otherwise.
“We really want to have kids and teachers interacting with each other in as regular a basis as we could,” Binienda said. “We just really want to build a very successful program so we’re going to be starting teacher curriculum teams, to look at standards of curriculum and their resources so that our teachers will have all that.”
While the preliminary plans offer some insight as to what the school year may look like, educators may need to pivot quickly if the pandemic shifts. In Massachusetts, case counts have remained low this summer despite surges in other parts of the country.
Brennan said he would like to see Binienda make time to work with educators as the plan for the year develops.
“I guess I would like at least for the superintendent to engage educators in her decision, really engage us like having meetings with educators to talk about how we can solve some of these problems,” Brennan said. “This is what we do for a living so I can tell you what was successful with remote teaching and what was not. They had us doing some busy work in the spring, like keeping track of how many times we talked to each student, and that wasn’t useful. So those are the kinds of things I’d like her to think about in coming up with a plan.”
For some teachers, there was frustration in seeing a parent survey go online ahead of a staff survey that Binienda sent out Tuesday. The survey was short and focused on educators’ feelings about a physical return to school, teachers told MassLive.
“The district had to look through and match up scheduling and square footage and all that so, no, I don’t think [teachers] should have been involved prior to this,” Binienda said in a phone interview. “However, now that we have the framework and we have to figure it out and make sure it meets the guidelines, now is a great time for them to be involved.”
Worcester is Massachusetts’ second-largest school district with more than 25,000 students. Brennan said his classroom uses tables instead of traditional desks. With tables and 25 to 30 students in a class, he’s unsure how to keep everyone at least 3 feet apart.
“You can’t guarantee me that somebody who is sick isn’t transmitting disease,” he said. “As a teacher, I’ve built up some immunities but there’s always somebody who is sick in my classroom.”
Ashley Alafberg, a paraprofessional at North High School who works one-on-one with a student who is nonverbal, said she’s worried about returning to the classroom and is hoping to have more clarity from school officials soon.
“I’m nervous. I haven’t seen my student since all this stuff happened,” Alafberg said. “It’s a lot of work with a nonverbal, behavioral student, so all the work that we’ve done is kind of like gone now. It’s like starting back from square one.”
In addition to working with her student, Alafberg also helps the other 12 children in her classroom, all of whom have disabilities. The classroom is small and has no windows, Alafberg said, and with some children in wheelchairs, she’s unsure how they will keep everyone at least three feet apart.
“You can’t forget about these kids,” she said. “They shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
Binienda said one model being considered for the school year allows for four days of instruction for special education students.
Maria Ciavola, who teaches science at Worcester East Middle, said she was concerned about ventilation in her school before the pandemic arrived. The Grafton Street school was constructed in 1975, according to city property records, and just has windows as its ventilation system.
The School Committee and administrators are now discussing ventilation in the district buildings, Binienda said.
State data indicates 69.6% of the student population at Worcester East Middle is economically disadvantaged. Ciavola said she fears it will be harder to keep up with coronavirus safety precautions at schools with higher populations of students living at or below the poverty level.
“It’s tough because lots of people are scared. Lots of people are concerned about health and safety. Educators are concerned. Parents are concerned. Administrators are concerned,” she said. “I want to be back in school so much. I miss being in the classroom with students but its got to be safe. It’s not worth our lives if it’s not safe. But I really want to be back.”
Pandemic highlights lack of internet access
Access to technology and the internet was already among issues facing Worcester students, but the pandemic illustrated the problem further.
When the Worcester Public Schools, like all other districts in the state, were forced to switch to online learning in March, there was a roadblock. Not every student has a way to get online from home.
Thousands of students live in homes without internet access, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau noted in a June report titled “Broadening Broadband.”
“This created a hardware problem, since many students did not possess a device that could connect to the internet and allow them to complete schoolwork, and a connection problem, since even after WPS delivered Chromebooks to affected families, many students did not have a Charter subscription, and the company’s proposed rates were expensive enough to create a barrier families could not solve on their own,” the report reads.
The district moved to secure more connectivity. A $500,000 contract was signed with Verizon for WiFi hotspots for 3,500 families, and UMass Medical School donated $80,000 to buy hot spots, computers and other supplies for students in the city’s North Quadrant.
Federal dollars will help address some of the technology concerns, but a longterm solution is not yet known. Worcester is receiving a CARES Act Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Grant in the amount of $9,463,606, according to School Committee documents. Of that funding, $3,905,710 will go to personal protective equipment supplies; $2.2 million to Chromebooks; $1 million to connectivity; $1 million to learning applications; $316,000 for four focused instructional technology coaches; $40,000 to health insurance; and $28,440 to MTRS assessment.
Chromebooks will now be one-to-one for students, Binienda said, and instructional assistants will also receive the devices. Additionally, the district with working with the city, the research bureau and state legislators to try and a better solution than hot spots, which can be spotty if a family has more than one child trying to get online, Binienda said.
A report compiled for this week’s School Committee meeting includes lessons learned from remote learning, following surveys to staff, students and parents/guardians. There were 1,082 staff members who responded, 1,799 students responded and 2,255 parents/guardians responded. The number of staff and students who answered the survey was less than those who took surveys in previous years, however, there was an increased response from parents. Of parents who took the survey, 47% identified as white, which does not reflect the school population of 29% white students.
Asked if it was easy to access schoolwork after the March 13 closure of school buildings, 40% of students and 38% of parents/guardians said it was “very easy,” per the survey results.
While 80% of students reported they did not need help from adults for technology and 81% said they did not need academic help from a teacher for an assignment, parent responses indicated a different experience.
Parents of students with IEP or 504 plans said their children couldn’t finish assignments independently, according to the survey results. About two out of three parents reported at least one elementary-age student in their household needed help with half or more of assignments, and about three out of four parents who have a student with a disability reported they helped their children with half or more of assignments.
One 10th grade student said “It was difficult at the start to keep up with assignments. But after a few weeks it was easy doing work,” according to the report on the surveys.
Some students reported that some of the initial work felt like busywork and that they kept losing interest. Parents also indicated via the survey that some of the assignments felt like busywork and that there was little feedback from teachers.
Of staff members who took the survey, 68% said they gained confidence as a virtual/remote educator after the school closure. Staff members reported communicating with parents and guardians daily (22%), multiple times a week (44%) or once a week (20%).
Language barriers and no access to technology were some challenges reported by staff members. Some positive outcomes listed were increased feedback from families and a chance to check in on well-being and family needs.
Equity in the school system has been an ongoing concern
Issues of access, like having an internet connection or a laptop at home, inordinately affect families of color, Ciavola said.
“A lot of our students, their parents still have to go to work and they still have to act as caretakers for family members and it’s really hard for them to get on a class at 9 a.m. if they’re watching siblings or an elderly grandparent or something like that and even harder if they’re trying to do it on a smartphone that has limited internet access,” she said.
One of the effects of structural racism, in Ciavola’s view, is that only some people are empowered to speak out. That has an impact on where resources are diverted.
“I think that’s something that we have to learn from and fix. That’s an action step we need to take in order to start to dismantle structural racism in the schools,” she said. “We need to be having focused, open discussions with our families. We have to be gracious enough to have spaces where families can feel safe to speak truth to power and recognize that we’re not going to be happy with a lot of what we hear, but we need to hear it and we need to act on it and fix it.”
Since last year, several organizations have led discussions, and made demands of the school district, in regards to how students of color are treated in Worcester.
A group of students rallied outside City Hall in April 2019, calling for Binienda’s contract to not be renewed. They cited a disproportionate suspension rate for Latinx students, who make up more than 40 percent of the district’s more than 25,000 students. Since then, discipline rates have decreased slightly.
The need for more diversity among teachers has also been highlighted.
Now in summer 2020, as a recent poll shows that nearly 30% of Massachusetts residents believe racism is the most serious issue facing the state. And, the coronavirus pandemic itself has illuminated disparities in health care for people of color. In Central Massachusetts, positive tests for coronavirus were more prevalent among Latinx residents.
Alafberg, the paraprofessional at North High School, said students want to talk about race.
“They want to have these conversations and I think maybe some educators might not feel comfortable but that’s why you have other ones who are comfortable,” she said. “[Students] need an outlet too.”
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