Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Opening Schools While Dealing with the Delta Variant

Schools are opening up as the Delta Variant is ascending. This could be a tough Fall.

What is the outlook for Covid cases?

UVA has a model for how the number of cases could progress. Here is what it looks like for Virginia:

The first peak represents last January. The second peak is the delta wave we are building towards. This model indicates that the worst of Delta could be in September and early October. Here is a quote from the authors: 

If the Delta variant continues to spread, cases could possibly peak at levels higher than previous January peaks. 

What should schools do?

Needless to say, FCPS's hands are currently tied by state legislation. If cases indeed surge as the UVA model suggests, AND the Governor unties the School Board's hands, then:

  • Keep concurrent off the table of options. It's a terrible option that serves everyone poorly
  • Switch to remote when public health and safeguarding your staff necessitate it. 
  • Set the expectation that K-6 and special needs students will be the first to return as soon as case levels are low enough to do so safely. 
  • Bring back MS/HS extracurricular activities before bringing MS/HS students back to classrooms.  
    • CDC guidance indicates that virus spread and public health need to be thought about holistically. Every single thing we do to open up multiplies the spread of the virus. Opening up MS/HS in-person classrooms AND extracurriculars have multiplicative effects. If you are going to pick one, I suggest the latter for the following two reasons. 
    • Allowing MS/HS extracurriculars provides students with valuable experiences without necessitating shuffling students from class to class. Unlike in ES, the secondary model of students moving from class to class is bound to spread the virus widely through the school and make contact tracing challenging. 
    • Keeping MS and HS students remote would provide more space in which classes for students in ES and with special needs (e.g., Special Education, ELL, etc.) could be held while implementing social distancing strategies.

None of the choices ahead are easy ones, and I don't envy the School Boards that have to wrestle with them. Still, if our communities can take decisive action now, we can push down the peak and get back to normal quickly.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Opening School in the Fall: The Problem with Concurrent

K-12 Schools are planning how they will open in the Fall. Here are some thoughts on the options.

Back to Normal (AKA "Pandemic? What Pandemic?")

Many schools around the country plan to return to pre-pandemic normal in the Fall. The only concerns with that are that some people (both students and teachers) ...

  1. Have significant health issues that make them particularly susceptible to a serious case of COVID and/or preclude them from taking the vaccine.
  2. Have learned that virtual learning has significant benefits that help them deal with social, emotional, physical, or logistical issues. 

Being in-person is great for most students and staff, but it would be somewhere between critical and nice if there were a virtual option as well. An NPR/Ipsos poll indicates that (for a host of reasons) 29% of parents want to stick with remote learning indefinitely. 

Back to Normal, but with the Option of a Separate Virtual School

Some school systems are standing up virtual schools for those teachers and students who can't return to in-person school. This requires buying or creating the curriculum and software that are needed to make virtual learning really work. It also requires having teachers, administrators, counselors, ELL specialists, instructional coaches, and other supports that are focused on the virtual environment.


Some schools will choose to continue concurrent instruction they are currently using. In this model, teachers will be responsible for both in-person and virtual students at the same time. I have major problems with this.

  1. The curriculum, tools, assessments, and supports that are best for in-person learning are not the same as those for virtual learning. As a result, either in-person or virtual students (or both) will be given a solution that is a poor fit for their situation.
  2. Students who are remote will get much less attention and support than they need, while the need to address both populations will cause teachers and other staff huge amounts of stress.
  3. Virtual K-12 schools around the country have created systems that support virtual students and staff, and they are different from in-person systems. Doing a good job of supporting ELLs and special ed and struggling or gifted students is different in a virtual setting. As are community building and collaboration and counseling and family engagement. These challenges require different systems in a virtual environment than we use in brick-and-mortar schools.
  4. I have spoken to teachers (and other staff) who hate concurrent instruction enough that they will resign, retire, or take a leave of absence if forced to continue the concurrent instruction they are doing now. 
  5. Reports from school districts around the country who are using concurrent instruction should give us all pause. Here is a quote from an NBC News article Educators teaching online and in person at the same time feel burned out
"Teachers are reporting high levels of stress and burnout around the country, including in KansasMichigan and Salt Lake Tribune reported, principals say their teachers are having panic attacks while juggling both.

High levels of teacher stress affect not only students and their quality of education, but the entire profession, said Christopher McCarthy, chair of the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.

'When teachers are under a lot of stress, they are also a lot more likely to leave the profession, which is a very bad outcome,' he said."

Many teachers and students welcomed the return to classrooms for hybrid this Spring because it means we are on a path to normalcy. But concurrent instruction is not sustainable, and will lead to VERY poor learning outcomes as well as significant staff attrition. Concurrent seems like the easy solution, but just because it's being done now doesn't mean it should continue. 

Through this school year, I have heard people raise equity as an issue totally disingenuously, so I'm sure they will do so in this case as well. We serve all students better when we give them educational systems and supports that match their needs. If we are going to allow students to choose virtual, then the only equitable way to do that is to do it well. Having them as add-ons to a physical class serves nobody well. As one educator told me recently:

If equity is about giving kids what they need, the best way to achieve that is to have a setting that supports the unique needs of the different learning platforms with teachers specifically trained to meet the needs of the kids in front of them.
Standing up separate virtual schools is the only way to serve virtual and in-person students well. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Shift to Concurrent

Teachers are returning to school buildings.  

I know the decisions have been made, and concurrent instruction is happening, but I want to clarify my concerns on the education side of things (I think I've gone on before about the public health side of this).

At our local high school, about 85-90% of the teachers are returning to classrooms, but, fewer than half of the students are returning to the building. 

So 90% of our teachers are returning to school buildings to improve the education of fewer than 50% of the students. I worry that teaching concurrently will generally degrade instruction, especially for remote students. I'm sure this isn't true for all teachers or contexts (e.g., special needs, vocational ed, and others), but based on my work with teachers around the country, the shift to concurrent is not an easy one.

I would argue that even if your goal is to keep students from "falling behind," the right strategy in November should have been to say that schools will stay remote for the remainder of the school year. Everyone could have focused on really great virtual instruction instead of spending so much time, money, and emotional energy preparing to return to school buildings.

And, there is a racial layer to this as well. Which students are returning? Data from around the country indicate that white students are returning to buildings in numbers FAR greater than students of color (e.g., New York, Nashville). This is not surprising in light of a recent Axios poll that indicates that Black and Latino parents are twice as likely as white parents to be extremely or very concerned about schools in their community reopening too quickly. 

Put this all together, and I think it's reasonable to predict that returning to buildings for concurrent instruction will widen opportunity gaps.

Teachers: Good luck. You have been put in a tough position, but I know you will do your best. I appreciate all you have done and all you will do.

Parents: This is a huge shift. Check in on your students often. 

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