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...

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