*this article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer
Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class when the fire alarm rang. Fire alarms are a regular occurrence in schools, but this time I happened to have half my class present in the room and the other half attending on Zoom. With no idea whether it was a drill or a real fire, I was forced to tell my remote students class was ending, quickly shut down my laptop and lead my in-person students out to safety in the parking lot.
In a school year where unexpected challenges have become commonplace, this SNAFU didn’t seem to faze students. But as their teacher it struck me as a vivid example of the limitations of the hybrid model.
Hybrid teaching has been absolutely necessary this year. The COVID pandemic has killed almost 600,000 Americans and it’s still not over. It has been crucial to provide families with a remote option so they can make the right decisions for their own health and safety, and conducting business in survival mode has meant that public schools have not had the time or resources to create high quality virtual-only alternatives.
The result has been teachers doing the best they can to teach both online and in-person students at the same time. This approach has had definite drawbacks. Students who are learning from home are often not getting the individual attention they need, and those in the classroom are still spending way too much time staring at screens. With the added chaos of regular technology challenges, it has been far too easy for unengaged students to slip through the cracks despite the valiant efforts of their teachers to hold it all together. And the time and energy required to teach two different ways at once has many educators on the edge of burnout.
Too often our practice as a society is to put more and more on the plates of classroom teachers without sufficient attention to how our actions are impacting staff morale or the quality of instruction. As this school year draws to a close, it’s time to talk about how we will handle remote learning going forward to ensure that it’s a good experience for all stakeholders.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the innovation this health crisis has required has revealed things about all of us that we didn’t previously know. Virtual learning has worked very well for some. Certain teachers have developed amazing online teaching skills, and some students have flourished with the added responsibility and independence that it takes for successful learning from home. Having had a year to watch things play out, public school parents in many North Carolina counties are calling for an expansion of remote alternatives beyond the pandemic.
Durham Public Schools has already announced the launch of a new all-remote academy for the 2021-22 school year. Wake County is in the planning phase of a similar move. For its part, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is getting ready to survey parents to gauge interest. Legislation has been filed in both the North Carolina House and Senate which could also impact how virtual schools operate in the fall, so there are quite a few balls still in the air. All of which will cost money. Lawmakers should be prepared to help districts pay.
As our decision makers wrestle with how to chart the right path forward for virtual learning, the starting point must be acknowledging that hybrid learning is a “break in case of emergency” only option. Remote learning should require a long term commitment by families, and virtual schools need to be staffed by teachers who are skilled at that work and are able to focus on it exclusively.
Good teaching requires continual reflection on what’s working and what isn’t in an effort to continually improve. Here’s hoping that approach shapes policy decisions on virtual schools as well.