Monday, March 22, 2021

The Return to In-Person Instruction

For over a year, COVID-19 has impacted the world in ways that haven't been seen in decades, if ever.  For students and educators in the United States, March 13, 2020, is the generally accepted "last day" of school. Mine was actually March 12, as my school had a four-day weekend for March 13-16. I did not learn that we would not be returning until late Sunday afternoon. But fast forward now to March of 2021 and many schools and districts, including my own, are now returning to at least a partial in-person instruction model, with mixed emotions and reactions.  

What format are you returning to, IF you are going back?

There are a variety of formats depending on the situation for individual schools and districts around the country. Some schools are back to 100% in-person instruction.  Some are returning to a standard schedule with alternating cohorts of students to reduce numbers, with one of the days of the week as a virtual day.  Then there are concurrent hybrid models that involve teaching some students that are in-person while others are at home participating in class virtually.  No model is 100% safe and effective, but it is a sign that things are starting to return to a sense of normalcy.  

And while there are a lot of different approaches to returning, I want to focus on the concurrent hybrid model because this is what my school is returning to for the remainder of the year.  And this focus is only for secondary students; elementary students have a different system. Students and their families that chose to return to hybrid instruction a few weeks back on a district survey were divided into two cohorts.  One cohort would attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other cohort would attend on Thursdays and Fridays.  Wednesdays for all students would be a designated virtual day.  But this is where the return to school becomes confusing and problematic.  

The hybrid model would only be a half-day model.  The first week would allow for grades 6, 9, and 12 to return, with grades 7, 8, 10, and 11 returning with their peers a couple of weeks later after spring break. Students would attend two classes for 90 minutes each in the morning of their designated cohorts.  Virtual students and the other cohort would attend those classes online.  After a two-hour break, all students would get online to attend two more classes for 30 minutes each.  The two-hour break would allow for those students that were at school to get home, have something to eat, and take a break before getting online for their other classes.  

For my school, our "normal" schedule is a four by four block schedule.  Students attend four classes on "odd" day and their other four classes on "even" day.  In the new schedule, Mondays and Thursdays are "odd" days while Tuesdays and Fridays are "even" days.  Over the course of two weeks, students that returned to hybrid would go to each class in-person one time for 90 minutes.  In those two weeks, whether in person or online, students attend each class for a total of 270 minutes or four and a half hours.  Over the course of the remaining weeks of the school year, students would see each teacher in person four times, if they returned to hybrid. 

Now, before I go any further, I do not want to disparage any person or group that was responsible for the planning or the execution of the hybrid plan.  There is no perfect plan to return to and I cannot imagine the time and collaboration that went into planning a safe return to school. However, I do feel that this plan is very flawed in many ways. 

When the survey asking families if they would want to return to a hybrid model was sent, cases of COVID-19 were very high and a safe return would have been very hard to do.  Fast forward a couple of months and the same survey results were used to determine if a student was going to return or remain in distance education.  Families did not have the opportunity to change their mind from virtual to hybrid (if they had chosen hybrid and wanted to stay in distance, they could do that).  As a result, very few students are actually returning to in-person instruction.  

The half-day model is also problematic, in my opinion. Rather than staying at school for a full day, students need to return home to attend two shortened classes. Online classes are hard enough to get started and accomplish things in the time allotted, now 30-minute classes will be done in a snap.  Because of the alternating schedule over two weeks, while students will be on campus for two days a week, they will only see all of their teachers once during that time.  

While many are happy about a return to school, many are also questioning, "Why?", especially with only a few weeks left in the school year.  Many teachers have requested to remain at home to teach remotely due to concerns with a safe return.  Students are not able to get vaccines yet, so families are concern about potential exposure. However, after a few days of working from school without students, then seeing a handful of kids on campus for orientation, it was really nice to see the excitement in their (masked) faces.  

In the end, while I think the system has its problems, I am excited to be back on a school campus with other educators and students.  While it is a far cry from what we used to know, this is a good first step toward getting closer to that sense of normalcy that we have all craved for over a year.  And as cases have steadily decreased in Nevada (the test positivity rate in the state has fallen from a high of nearly 24% in December to under the World Health Organization's recommended rate of 5% as of this writing), I have even more hope that schools will be fully open again come August. 

Until next time...

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Where Do We Go From Here? Four Years Later...

In the days after the 2016 election, I wrote a blog post titled Where Do We Go From Here?, a commentary about the runup to the election and the results.  At the time, I was very disillusioned by the negativity of the campaign in the months prior to the election and while I was not at all pleased with the results, I wrote about keeping an open mind and hoping that the Constitution's system of checks and balances would result in limiting any drastic changes to policies in the years under a Trump presidency. And while I had full intentions to write this in a more timely fashion, the developments were moving so fast that anything I wrote would have been obsolete the moment I published it, and that may still be the case! In a review of this post four years later, so much has changed, but at the same time, not much has changed at all.  

Four years under Donald Trump has made us more divided than ever.  Issues that should not be politicized, such as racial equality, scientific evidence, and denouncement of hate and domestic terror groups, have divided much of the nation into distinct camps.  Trump and his supporters have made bigots of many kinds comfortable to spew their hatred and misinformation like wildfire.  He has sown distrust for credible media sources, teachers, doctors, scientists, and essentially anybody that does not agree with his agenda.  And a pandemic that has been raging for months? Don't get me started on that...

To top it off, weeks after the elections and after the results of the election were called by major media outlets (across the political spectrum, mind you) and vote certifications underway, he refused to concede defeat and has filed lawsuits that claim rampant voter fraud without evidence, nearly all of which have been tossed out.  Supporters continued to feed into the misinformation and other leaders within the party that has the ability to denounce it have enabled him even further.  Then, the unfathomable happened: a sitting president encouraged a violent uprising in protest to the certification of the Electoral College results, leading to hundreds, even thousands, storming the Capitol in an attempted coup.  If you would have told me in January 2017 that this would have happened, I would have thought you were writing a movie script. 

As a historian, I can think of countless comparisons of leaders that did these exact kinds of things in dictatorships where misinformation, distrust, and questioning of legitimate election results have plagued nations and lead to outbreaks of violence and worldwide wars. But in the United States of America?  The nation that is supposed to be the beacon of democratic principles across the globe?  And to have an armed mob storm the Capitol, nearly without resistance, is something that you see on the news that "happens someplace else." (I recently watched both seasons of Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime and found it very chilling to watch people storming the presidential palace after a contentious election in Venezuala, events that are not true, but very realistic looking on the show.)  Whether the security for the Capitol on January 6 was that ill-prepared or in cahoots with those responsible remains to be seen, but to have it be the first time that the Capitol had been breached since the British stormed Washington, DC in the War of 1812?  I'll let you reflect on that... 

Now that President Biden's inauguration is behind us, I have been overcome with a sense of relief.  Not because things are going to change instantly and life is going to be "normal" again, but because of a lot of different reasons.  I am relieved and excited that the new president is somebody that is not going to go out of their way to be divisive in their words and actions (politically, one may not agree with him, but let's face it, Joe Biden is not going to take to Twitter to belittle people and fire them from their jobs).  I am relieved that the new president is surrounding himself with competent, intelligent people that have experience in their fields, not simply appointing friends and supporters like the spoils system of decades ago.  I am relieved that the various government agencies are working diligently to bring those responsible for the insurrection of January 6 to justice, as arrests and charges are filed on a daily basis.  And I am relieved that the problems that were brought into the open further by the previous four years can be addressed and work can begin to solve them.  

This is not going to happen overnight.  When the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, Nazism did not simply disappear.  It took years for war criminals to be brought to justice and the effects that fascism had on German society to be eradicated, but even then, it wasn't eradicated completely.  Is it fair to compare Trumpism to Nazism?  Perhaps not, it is comparing apples to oranges, but many aspects are very similar, such as the disinformation campaigns, attempting to ignore legitimate elections, and the refusal to denounce xenophobia, racism, and white nationalism in the ranks of supporters.  And this is not to compare all Trump supporters to those groups, but this country has, for far too long, ignored problems in the name of supporting a party or ideology, i.e. supporting law enforcement but turning a blind eye to systemic racism in policing. 

And what does this mean for education?  For starters, an educator, Miguel Cardona, will be leading the Department of Education, not a billionaire hellbent on destroying public education and helping for-profit schools line their pockets.  There has already been discussion of forgiving student loan debt to help people get out of that debt and stimulate the economy (imagine where people that normally spend $500/month on student loans can put that money!), but with slim majorities in the House and Senate, it may be tough to pass large scale forgiveness.  But perhaps the most important aspect of turning the page?  It is even more apparent how important educators' jobs are to help mold informed citizens.  Even after Biden's inauguration, there is still a large percentage of people that feel that the election was stolen and rigged, all because they were fed lies by the president and relied on QAnon and far-right "media" sources for their information.  Teaching students how to analyze sources and determine if a source has a credible reputation (ex. Associated Press, Reuters, etc.) is going to be the catalyst moving forward for limiting disinformation from our lives.  

As I mentioned, I was not excited for a Trump presidency in late 2016 and 2017.  I kept an open mind but was sorely disappointed in those four years.  And while I do not expect Joe Biden to be a miracle worker that will go down as the greatest president of all time, I do have hope for the next four years simply based on common decency and the decisions that he has made leading up to the start of his term, most notably, naming Kamala Harris the first-ever female vice president!  We may not agree politically, but I look forward to the coming weeks of productive discourse without fear of reprimand from the Oval Office's personal Twitter account.  

Until next time...