[Post was started in March, finished in May 2021.]
This has been weighing on my mind for a year now. It’s time for me to be very clear about the vitriol that is flying that accuses teachers of putting convenience over the well-being of students.
Those of us who requested the opportunity to stay out of physical contact with students this past year did not do so out of anything other than fear: for ourselves and our families, and for our students. The SARS-CoV2 pandemic that swept the world beginning sometime in 2019 is a highly contagious disease with a significantly disastrous affect on older people and people with underlying heart, lung, or immune problems. In many areas, a very high proportion of teachers and other school staff are in populations that have a much higher rate of hospitalization and death with this disease. There is increasing evidence that long-term disabling effects can occur even with asymptomatic infection. While most students might be relatively gently affected if they are infected, they can transmit that infection – to teachers and other vulnerable people.
Although it is clear that, with the right precautions, transmission of SARS-CoV2 can be minimized, the right precautions are simply not possible in many schools. For decades most states have not kept up with maintenance or construction, and many schools (most, in some areas) have outmoded ventilation systems that do not effectively exchange air. Many schools are overcrowded in the best of times. My own classroom, with the (bare minimum) 6-foot spacing would have been able to effectively accommodate only about 9 students, 12-14 if they didn’t need to see the board or the teacher’s demonstrations clearly. And, in my classroom, there was a large corner where the air exchange was minimal…
Though there are now vaccines, and both I and my immediate family are fully vaccinated (as of May), there are large numbers of people who are apparently refusing to be vaccinated. I know just enough about viral mutations and the sneaky ways that each generation of virus can shift to outmaneuver medical or pharmaceutical intervention to be concerned about humanity’s long-term survival. The best way to avoid a new, even deadlier/more contagious/less vaccine-preventable mutation is to stop transmission of the variants that already exist. Without vaccinations coupled with the other measures that are shown to work, I doubt life will ever be “normal,” as we knew it, again. With new variants already in circulation around the world and some already not fully , there are so many reasons to reduce any and all transmission.
Yet, large numbers of people are not only refusing to follow the simplest of medical advice over the last year (wear a mask and maintain physical distance whenever in public) but also refusing to use a vaccine that has so far been proven safe and effective (effective in reducing an individual’s chance of catching the disease, reducing the effects of the disease if caught, and reducing the likelihood of transmission to others if exposed…). Please note that the safety of the vaccine can be measured in many ways – I look at the comparison of exposure to known harm, which is far less for people post-vaccination than for actually being infected.
As well, there is always the question of basic hygiene, the ability of families to keep ill students home, and mask wearing. The most-effective tool for prevention during this pandemic turned out to be physical distancing and mask wearing accompanied by hand washing. The younger the children, the less likely they are to be successful in school without a teacher frequently providing side-by-side support. The younger the children, the less likely they are to be able to leave a mask alone- or on, and the less likely they are to be proficient at washing their hands.
And let’s go ahead and bring economics into the picture: better-off families generally send their children to schools that have sufficient funds for maintenance and smaller class sizes. Better-off families are more likely to be employed in jobs that allow time off for family needs (working-class families on the other hand often are told that they can choose to come to work and stay employed or choose to take care of their families when illness strikes and lose their jobs); thus better-off families both can afford to keep children home when they are ill as well as feel more confident that when they send their students to school the risk of infection (from anything) is lower. Better-off families, when push comes to shove, may be able to stay financially afloat if one wage-earner needs to stay home (not earning money) for an extended period. Better-off families generally also have more up-to-date tools for remote learning, more-reliable internet connections and power supply, more ability to provide space for all family members to have some independent work zones. Better-off families, in other words, have been able to afford measures that minimized the impacts of the pandemic in general, and of remote instruction in particular.
There is NO teacher who believes that all-remote instruction is best for all children and families. It may be best for students who are ill or who live so far from the physical school that transportation time (let alone expense) prohibits most in-person time. It may be best for students whose physical schools are limited in opportunities to provide targeted instruction (rural and remote small towns can struggle to provide the variety of courses of larger schools, and may not be as adaptable or as well staffed for students who have exceptional needs). It may be best for families who have to travel frequently and for whom in-person schools just start to feel “right” and then another move happens…
There are in fact times when remote instruction is a boon. For over a century “correspondence courses” and distance education have provided a much-needed option for many people. With my own health conditions, I far prefer remote instruction (when done right). I learn just as much, and often more, as I learn when I must be physically present because I am less-constrained by struggling to hear a speaker over the background noise, less exhausted from the effort of getting to (and then from) the class, less anxious about exposure to common substances that can be life-threatening to me, and more likely to be able to reach for notes or texts from prior learning to support my newly-acquired knowledge.
And there is the question of whether asynchronous or synchronous instruction is “better” which I suggest is a red herring. The implication is that only real-time communication is valuable, thus only real-time instruction is enduring. But as with distance education not being new, neither are asynchronous communications: think, penpals! I have friends around the globe, some of whom I have acquired through “backchannel” communications that are asynchronous. I have other friends I because I was able to be online at the same time and serendipitiously connected.
There is no doubt that basic instruction can be videotaped and delivered at any time the student is ready; and it can be just as effective as in-person basic instruction. Again, for some students more effective as they can pause the recording, rewatch/relisten, slow down (or speed up), as much as needed to grasp the concepts. This is particularly useful for students with language processing issues or students for whom the language of instruction is not the person’s home language.
But for feedback from a teacher or peers, or for the “implementation” or practice phase of instruction? It can be far more efficient and effective for a student to see and be able to ask for additional clarification if the teacher is immediately available. It also allows a teacher to ask the student to quickly demonstrate whether the feedback worked! As a teacher, it has been difficult to rely on feedback that may never have been seen/heard, and wasn’t useful to the student. Even when trying to work with a student in a video meeting there have been moments that a quick gesture or a finger pointing to the page would have been more effective that a two-minute explanation.
I want to mention a “middle of the road” strategy that many schools and districts have been using: hybrid learning. In true hybrid learning, some instruction and practice takes place away from the physical school – at times with synchronous instruction via video meetings and at times with asynchronous instruction via recorded lessons and independent work – and some takes place in the school with the teacher and other support staff present. Hybrid learning offers a “best of both worlds” promise – that class sizes during in-person instruction are reduced enough to provide sufficient physical distancing between students while still providing that all-important peer interaction and personal connection to the teacher. This approach can work! But it is less effective when done by teachers who have little comfort or familiarity with adaptations that “leverage” the positives and minimize the negatives. And it is, at least at first, a LOT of extra work for both teachers and families/students as new methods of instructional delivery, including learning to watch and pay attention to instructional video.
The modern term for this is “flipping” a classroom. It can maximize the time spent in the classroom, while simultaneously relieving some of the stress from families trying to support learning in content they don’t feel very knowledgeable about. Truthfully, the basics (even through high school) haven’t changed; but the language used to talk about everything from math to history, to science and English has. New developments in science aside, the reclassification of Pluto as just another object in the Oort cloud is an example, there really isn’t much new under the sun. At least not in K-12 education.
We have new buzzwords, a lot of great breakthroughs ways to support our students-as-people, and some amazing new technologies that both open up the world to kids from restricted backgrounds and level the playing field for kids with exceptional needs. But fundamentally, teaching is still about helping kids develop into whatever they dream of. Fundamentally, we are still partners with families and communities, dreaming the future into being.
Let’s be real: everything has changed; nothing has changed. We might need to rethink our expectations and what constitutes basic services (internet connections, for example, should be as available as power, water, and phone…), but thoughtful infrastructure support can meet these demands. We might need to rethink “schooling” in terms of where and when (and how often), but we can still teach and learn. We might need to rethink social gatherings, but we can still love, share, and spend “time” with and for each other. We might need to rethink work environments… but all of these are possible and hardly unusual in the long course of history.
Times change. We can change, too.