“The current timeline does not make us feel confident that everything that needs to be in place will be in place, for in-person learning.”
Recalling when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced in March that schools would close due to the spread of coronavirus, Boston Public Schools (BPS) history teacher Jose Valenzuela said that the situation was hectic. An instructor at Boston Latin Academy in Roxbury, he said that his school had to abruptly pivot to virtual teaching, using Google Classroom to lead lessons.
The shift, and especially the lack of in-person contact, created a rupture in the relationship between students and teachers. According to Valenzuela, who is also a coach and the founder of Boston Youth Wrestling, the situation was difficult to navigate.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, educators have been trying to prepare for a new start. While what happened in the spring was not ideal, teachers, parents, and union leaders have expressed strong opposition to the hybrid approach that district officials are pushing for. Also called the “hopscotch model,” the plan would have students attend classes both in person and remotely. Teachers would have to lead lessons for two different groups at once, guiding a classroom of physically present students, as well as addressing an audience over the computer. Educators like Valenzuela said there is almost no choice—schools should begin the year by going fully remote.
“The model presented by Boston Public Schools is pretty untenable, from my point of view,” Valenzuela said. “The simultaneous teaching is next to impossible. Even if you could argue that it’s technically possible, with the technology available, it comes at a really high expense, money that could be spent elsewhere. It’s not very good pedagogy. I don’t think good teaching could be done that way. In some ways, you’re doing a detriment to both groups of students. The group of students who are in person should be getting a very different form of education and teaching methodology than kids online would be getting. Trying to do it for both at the same time harms both groups.”
The hybrid plan divides students into three groups, according to Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang. Students in “Group A” would attend classes in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, learning remotely on the days when they are not physically in school. Those in “Group B” would come to their classes in person on Thursdays and Fridays, taking classes virtually from Monday through Wednesday. Special needs students and those who are not fluent English speakers, “Group C,” would be permitted to attend in person classes with both Group A and Group B. While teachers would like nothing more than to see their students face to face again, schools should not compromise the safety of both their pupils and educators, Tang said.
“We want to have as much in-person teaching and learning as we can. We know that’s what’s best for students. However, we do have serious concerns about the hybrid plan, because we’ve gotten no assurances about health and safety protocols and the necessary facility updates,” Tang said. “That’s got to be the number one priority. …The current timeline does not make us feel confident that everything that needs to be in place will be in place, for in-person learning.”
Union leaders have voiced concerns about the state of the buildings that students and teachers would be entering, if they were to follow the hybrid plan. According to Valenzuela and others, many facilities are derelict, and there is not enough time to bring schools up to code. To begin, they would need to have functioning sinks and water and proper ventilation, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said. Individuals occupying the buildings would also need to be provided with personal protective equipment and would have to practice social distancing.
Furthermore, high-traffic areas would need to be sanitized every night. Students would spend six-and-a-half hours in the same room, seated at their desks, unable to interact with each other, and eat lunch in the same classroom without recess. American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts president Beth Kontos noted the difficulty of leading groups of children through the hallways to go on bathroom breaks; Amrita Dani, a teacher at the Boston Adult Technical Academy, said that the student experience would be extremely restrictive.
“What I’m first struck by, with this hopscotch plan, is how it treats students like they’re cargo that needs to be stowed away in places,” Dani said. “They’re coming to school, and you’re expecting them to essentially sit in a box for six-and-a-half hours a day. Teachers can’t get within six feet of the students and walk over to the student and help. …It’s taking everything about school that has the potential for any sort of human connection or radical transformation and keeping only the parts that feel like a prison.”
Some districts, like Somerville, Lynn, and Wayland, are starting the fall semester with a fully remote opening plan. While having students attend class through a computer is far from ideal, Somerville Teachers Association President Rami Bridge said it is a compromise worth making. Students and teachers should not be asked to face the health risk that they would encounter if they attended school partially in person.
“It’s a tragedy,” Bridge said. “It’s a public policy tragedy that led us to where we are, where we’re forced to make impossible choices between health, safety, and students’ educational best interests. … In person learning with six-foot distancing and Plexiglas shields between educators and students is not in students’ best interests. I feel like in many ways, we’re dealing with a hand we’ve been dealt, and all the choices are bad. …What we’re seeing is a lot of educators and people wanting to take personal responsibility and personally fix societal failings, and it doesn’t work that way. We shouldn’t have schools that force us to make that tradeoff.”
Najimy said she is hopeful that there are ways remote learning can be adapted to more fully meet children’s needs, by embracing new avenues for learning. In contrast to the spring, this fall has the potential to be different, if educators can innovate.
“There are so many creative ideas,” Najimy said. “Remote learning is not using a computer as the method of instruction. It’s using technology as the way to communicate. Remote learning can be about kids designing projects.
“We could bring virtual museum tours into the homes of kids. We could have artists in residence from their own homes working with our students. We could have nature projects that are integrated into curriculums. We could have kids participate in service learning projects, where they’re participating in helping the good of the community, that deal with the emotional stress.
“There’s a whole world of possibility out there.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.