Saturday, June 27, 2020

An Alternative Plan for Fall 2020

Dear FCPS School Board and Leadership,

The current conflagration surrounding your proposed plans for this Fall suggest that some different ideas could be helpful. Here is one for secondary schools:

Monday: Virtual synchronous: periods 1-8
Tuesday: In school: Cohort A periods 1-8 
Wednesday: In school: Cohort B periods 1-8 
Thursday: Virtual synchronous: block periods 1-4
Friday: Virtual synchronous: block periods 5-8

Note: The above reflects input from a teacher who pointed out that having a cohort in school on a Monday causes several issues.

  1. 4 days of synchronous instruction for every student
  2. Teachers only in building two days/week
  3. Easy to pivot to either all virtual or all in-school
  4. More time to clean schools
  5. Frees up secondary schools so elementary schools could theoretically take more space. I am not an elementary education person, so I will leave the "how" of that to others.
Part of the challenge your current plan presents for secondary school is that it is SO awful for students. Two days of synchronous instruction is simply insufficient. 

Another challenge of the current plan is that it exposes teachers to risk 4 days/week. My plan reduces that to 2 days. Another idea is to have teachers with medical issues be fully virtual, with an Instructional Assistant in the room to facilitate the in-class technology while the teacher is virtually present via video. Note that with the proposed plan above, this would only have to be done for Monday and Tuesday. 

I know that you are being inundated with complaints and suggestions and pleas from various fronts. I am not trying to solve a problem for my kid. I'm much more worried about a) the many students who really need more synchronous, guided instruction, b) the teachers who are worried about their health, and c) the families who are torn by two options they know will serve their students poorly.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

FCPS: Some Thoughts on the Plan for Fall 2020

A friend asked me what I thought of the FCPS Return to School plan for opening this Fall, so here goes ...
  1. There are no really good choices. The School Board and FCPS Leadership are all doing their best in a crappy situation. Further, school-based administrators, teachers, and other staff are heroes. They have been dealing with changing plans and guidelines for months.
  2. I totally understand the need to nail down staffing, transportation, and other resources, but it's pretty tough to ask parents to decide now whether they will be in school or fully virtual for the full year.
  3. On the other side, I imagine that more teachers will want to teach virtually than will be needed. Many teachers have health issues (either their own or their family) that will make dealing with the in-school Petri dish a worrisome idea. I totally understand that many people have been going to work, but a school environment is probably significantly worse than an office when it comes to germs.
  4. For several reasons, I still wish they had considered a blended approach.
  5. Having teachers and other staff in the buildings so much, and with the cluster that was the experience this Spring, I fully expect many teachers and admins to retire in the coming weeks. There are many who are already eligible to retire, but have continued to work for myriad reasons. The threats this coming year will likely pose to their health, happiness, and sanity will tip the scales for many. 
  6. Staffing challenges will be legion. From a bigger than usual wave of retirements (see above), to finding subs, to figuring out who will teach virtually vs. in school, every school will have major staffing headaches.
  7. Child care is a huge issue on several fronts. Anyone with elementary-age children will have a problem. In particular, I worry about teachers who will have to be in school 4 days a week, and have elementary-age children who will only be in school 2 days a week. 
  8. Going back to #2... I dislike the idea of only 90 minutes of synchronous instruction for each secondary school class every week. 
  9. The Online Campus has a big catalog. I'd seriously consider looking through it to see if it makes sense for my kid to take a few classes that way. The experience might not be as good as the in-school experience, but a) the Online Campus curricula are designed for virtual use and b) the experience won't degrade if there is a spike in the pandemic that necessitates schools going back to a virtual setting.
  10. I think FCPS is already way behind where they need to be with staff training and curriculum planning. Having 60% of instruction/learning happen asynchronously is a huge shift that really requires training and collaboration. Not every teacher should solve this. Solutions need to be developed as teams and shared widely.
  11. I've got questions: What will happen with extracurriculars? What if we are out of Phase 3 and everything is basically open? How will the system navigate the likely changes in the Phases we're in?
That's all I can think of for now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Opening Fairfax County Secondary Schools this Fall

Dear FCPS School Board and Leadership,

This Spring had its challenges. I'm not going to re-hash them, but want to praise the many teachers and administrators who still made effective learning happen for their students. I was impressed by and grateful for my daughter's devoted, talented, creative teachers.

Here are some thoughts about secondary schools as you plan to open FCPS this Fall:

1: Your Proven Online Solution: Use Fairfax's Online Campus to push many courses online that already have virtual versions. Perhaps the base experience for many classes could be shifted to the Online Campus course, with in-person instruction once/week (as long as health conditions allow) as well as weekly synchronous virtual class sessions (see below). FCPS has the content and infrastructure to make this work. Also note that leaning heavily on Online Campus will make it easier to pivot to all virtual learning if the health circumstances require it. 

2: Teacher Support: Teachers who will be blending virtual and in-person instruction need ...
  • Content that is designed for virtual/blended delivery. Few teachers have the time or expertise to create the depth and breadth of digital content that they will need to pull this off well. 
  • Tools for collaboration and for creating simple content (e.g., simple instructional videos).
  • Training in blended and virtual technology and pedagogy. Facilitating a course that depends on technology requires comfort with technology, but also with new pedagogical strategies. 
  • Time to plan and collaborate with their colleagues. For instance, there is no reason that each English 10 teacher in a given school should create their own videos. They should be able to share the burden and stay in sync. 
A few quotes from teachers:
"Asking teachers to reinvent the curriculum for online delivery is impossible and a fools errand...will...not...happen."
"... Teachers want to be prepared to help their students should virtual learning continue but we need help."
"Registration for the FCPS Academy course on online teaching opened at midnight on June 15th. The two sections filled in less than 4 minutes!! It’s summer break and hundreds of teachers are up at midnight to register for a course so they can learn how to teach online. By mid-morning over 100 were waitlisted,"
Without all of these supports, the system will struggle again, student learning will suffer, and FCPS will lose many talented, devoted, but frustrated teachers. 

3: A Blended Model: The scenarios presented so far seem to be either fully virtual or fully (in terms of synchronous teacher support) face-to-face. What about a blended solution? For instance what about using a variation of Scenario 2:
  • Monday and Tuesday: Half of students in school each day with 8-period day. 
  • Wednesday: Virtual periods 1-4 synchronous online
  • Thursday: Virtual periods 5-8 synchronous online
  • Friday: Intervention block
Some advantages of this blended approach are: 
  • More structured time for students. None of the proposed scenarios have students learning synchronously more than two days/week. My suggestion pushes it to three.
  • Less in-person contact time so that health risks are reduced.
  • Easy to pivot to fully online if health conditions change for the district or for a particular school, teacher, or student. 
4: Reaching Out for Guidance: K12, Inc.'s headquarters is right here in Fairfax County, and they have been doing virtual learning for close to two decades. K12's 100,000+ students include lots of ELLs and IEPs and special education and F&RL. It could make sense to get their input as you frame up virtual and blended solutions, including how to provide counseling, engage with families, and deal effectively with populations that have specific needs. K12 is far from perfect, but they have been doing virtual and blended learning for a long time, so they can probably help FCPS avoid some pitfalls.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Reopening K-12 Schools

As K-12 districts around the country weigh how they will reopen this Fall, they are still licking their wounds from a pretty tough Spring. 

What are some of the factors that schools are weighing (whether they admit them or not)?

Families: On one hand, K-6 schools play a vital child care role, and the importance of this role increases as socioeconomic status decreases. It's inconvenient when someone who can work from home has kids underfoot, but what about parents for whom their job can only be done on site? On the other hand, kids are vectors that can bring the virus from school to home. Navigating this lose-lose situation is not easy. 

Faculty and staff: Bringing students back puts the faculty and staff (and all their families) at risk, and some more than others. How can a school system deal with staff who have significant risk factors?

Students with special needs: This is a really broad category. This isn't just (or even mostly) about students who have physical challenges. What about those with IEPs and 504s that articulate accommodations they need? What about special education? 

Students without privilege: Some students have home lives that aren't compatible with distance learning. Internet access, child care, loud siblings, space, and a plethora of other issues make virtual learning virtually impossible for many students. Plus, there is a big difference between a student who has two college-educated parents working from home all day and a student whose parents have less education and/or comfort with technology. As our local district shifted to distance learning, I'm guessing that some students (like my daughter) shifted to about 60% efficiency. But less privileged kids undoubtedly dropped to 5% or less. Having gone through a third of a school year with this sort of separation will exacerbate opportunity gaps. Any blended or virtual instruction that continues into the next school year will compound (and I mean that in the strictest mathematical sense) the issue.

Students with knowledge/skill gaps created this year: As noted above, some students will have massive knowledge/skill gaps as a result of this year's challenges, but virtually all students will have some deficiencies. How will teachers address those? This mostly has to be figured out department-by-department, but school districts can provide some guidance.

Logistics: It's easy to say that schools should implement distancing, but how can they pull it off? Splitting an elementary school into two half-size cohorts isn't too difficult in theory (though it won't be easy to actually do), and I think you could pull it off in middle school. High school is really tough. One of the big high school problems is that you reshuffle the students after every period. You can solve it for 1st period, but what about 2nd? Someone much smarter than I will come up with some good solutions to this, but at first blush, the logistics seem challenging. Also, all this splitting and shifting creates all sorts of challenges for families (see above). Other logistical challenges include transportation, lunch, hallways, and classroom arrangement. 

Extracurriculars: What about sports and musical groups and yearbook and clubs? Without marching band, life is hollow and devoid of joy.

Virtual/Blended Learning: Many school districts will roll out some form of blended learning for some of their students. Also, districts probably worry that a spike in cases will push them back to pure virtual learning. 

Budgets: Most school systems will be asked to do more with less. Almost every issue above has costs, and many school districts will see their revenues decline. As a result, I suspect that many programs will be discontinued so districts can focus on opening safely. 

So... what should schools do? 
1: Blended Learning: The importance of this is two-fold: Blending can help reduce class sizes (which improves safety), and can help prepare for going to more virtual strategies. That said, blended learning needs to be used strategically. To make blended learning work, districts must:
  • Develop virtual/blended learning strategies that are flexible and effective. Among other things, this means finding the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous strategies for each situation.
  • Consider separate blended learning strategies for different grade bands and populations. For instance, special ed, ELL, K-2 students, and HS students taking an honors math class all have very different needs and capabilities.
  • Identify and buy high-quality virtual/blended curricula.
  • Make sure the IT infrastructure for virtual/blended instruction is solid and secure.
  • Give teachers training and time so they can learn how to make it work. 
2: Flexibility: How will you deal with a surge in cases in a particular school? What about a particular department within a school? Now is the time to do contingency planning.

3: Test-Trace-Isolate: No school or jurisdiction should open without a solid test-trace-isolate strategy. This May 15 article by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver at The Washington Post: We could stop the pandemic by July 4 if the government took these steps lays out solid strategies.

Should be interesting to see how this plays out.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Reopening Higher Ed

As colleges and universities around the country weigh how they will reopen this Fall, various voices are being heard. Here are just two:
What are some of the factors that schools are weighing (whether they admit them or not)?

Faculty and staff: Students are generally young and have few preexisting conditions. On the other hand, faculty and staff are older, and many have family members with significant risks. Bringing students back puts the faculty, staff, business owners, and all their families at risk. Honestly, this seems like an OSHA issue to me.

Revenue: When I originally looked at the university bill I paid in January, I just focused on the bottom line: How much am I writing a check for? Now, I look at every line and wonder: Will there be an athletic fee if the gym is closed? What about the meal plan? If everything were virtual, the bottom line would be VERY different. For me, all of those are distinct costs, but for the university, they are all important revenue streams.

The higher education value proposition: I'm not going to wade too far into the "is college worth it" debate, but I found this article by Susan Svrluga at the Washington Post particularly interesting: Is college worth it? A Georgetown study measures return on investment — with some surprising results. One thing this points out is that not all schools (even within a particular university) are equal financially. Most vocational schools such as law and business and engineering will survive this regardless. Those departments that can go virtual well probably should. But what about schools of liberal arts? What about those philosophy and religious studies and sociology departments? They are in a tougher spot. Faculty in these areas care about their health, but they also like having jobs. Honestly, this probably requires its own blog posts, but what if I just go with word association: community colleges, gap year, University of Phoenix, the humanities make us human.

Students without privilege: Many students are barely able to afford college. They scrape by thanks to on-campus jobs and scholarships and loans. This upheaval will make the college dream unattainable for many of these students. Without a job in the dining hall or at the athletic center, some students can't afford to live on campus. On the other hand, some students have home lives that aren't compatible with distance learning. Internet access, child care, loud siblings, space, and a plethora of other issues make virtual learning virtually impossible for many students. It's a lose-lose proposition for them.

College towns: There is no Blacksburg without Virginia Tech. What about Ann Arbor without the Univeristy of Michigan? Oberlin, OH? College Station, TX? State College, PA? You get the idea. Hechinger Report has Little-noticed victims of the higher education shutdowns: college towns

Students with privilege: First of all, I have put students last because they (as a population) are not particularly at risk, and they are resilient. If they all had to live at home and do this virtually, most of them would figure out how to do it well. That said, I'm sure my son is not alone in wanting very desperately to get back to campus (I'm trying not to be hurt). 

Let's be honest and admit that faculty and schools come at this from radically different perspectives. Faculty care about the health of their families, while schools are confronting an existential crisis. Many schools probably worry that going virtual will crush their bottom line, degrade the educational experience, and open themselves up to competition from challengers they never had to worry about before. 

So... what should schools do? 
  1. No school or jurisdiction should open without a solid test-trace-isolate strategy. This May 15 article by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver at The Washington Post: We could stop the pandemic by July 4 if the government took these steps lays out solid strategies.
  2. Blended Learning: The importance of this is two-fold: Blending can help reduce class sizes (which improves safety), and can help prepare for going to more virtual strategies. 
  3. Flexibility: How will you deal with a surge in cases on campus? How will you re-imagine your traditional gatherings? 
Should be interesting to see how this plays out.

Merit and Diversity in College Admissions

The recent Supreme Court ruling against race-conscious university admissions has everyone thinking about racism, privilege, equity, merit, ...