With school reopening coming in March and teacher vaccinations underway, this moment could be the beginning of the long-anticipated return to in-person school for everyone. Community COVID spread in Chicago is among the lowest it’s ever been — according to the City COVID-Dashboard, test positivity is at 3.4% down from 10% on January 8, 2021; new weekly cases have dropped from 9,203 to 2,210 in that same period. Is this the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve all been waiting for?
Maybe eventually, but it may not be cause to celebrate right away. While the low rate of community spread might allow for safer in-person learning conditions, the required safety mitigations will create more rules to follow and new challenges for interactive learning. The majority of students will continue to learn from home, while most of their teachers adjust to teaching in-person and remotely at the same time.
Whatever else happens, this shift to hybrid creates yet another major disruption to teaching and learning. Those students and teachers who do re-enter buildings in March will be returning to in-person learning for the first time in almost a full year. Navigating the sheer magnitude of these changes—physically and psychologically, for families and educators alike—is overwhelming.
As a Local School Council chair and a principal, we’ve been collaborating with fellow educational leaders, teachers, parents who are also health professionals, and community organizers around the city to brainstorm solutions and identify areas for advocacy. It’s clear that we’re all wondering the same thing right now: how can we make the best of this?
From a principal’s perspective, the reality is, every school is handling this shift to hybrid differently. At our school, one way we chose to address this disruption was to focus on keeping our students’ teachers and their method of instruction as consistent as possible. Some teachers may be at school, others may be working from home due to personal needs while another adult provides them with safe supervision. Regardless of circumstance, the goal was to give teachers autonomy to choose the instructional approach that would be responsive to both teacher strength and student needs.
From the perspective of a parent/educator, the consistency of having the same teachers and consistency in how the subjects are taught feels supportive to our kids’ social and emotional well-being. There’s a foundation of trust in the relationships they have already cultivated with their teachers and classroom community. This should help students and teachers alike navigate the disruption with more confidence.
Our teachers know our students and are developing plans tailored to their classes to minimize the disruption. For example, my kindergartener’s shift to hybrid will result in more async breaks throughout the day, so the remote learning day will be longer now. To prepare for this, his Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Kymberli-Kamille Miller, has been working with the entire class to gradually build their focus-stamina. They’ve also been discussing COVID safety and have been practicing mask-wearing on screen. Additionally, some peers will be in person and some will be entirely remote, so the students they can engage with might change day to day. Throughout remote learning, however, the kindergarteners have been getting to know each other in small groups, so it feels like they will be as prepared as possible, socially, to return to school.
Simultaneous Teaching Requires Creativity
Nevertheless, simultaneous instruction and classroom management is going to be a complex challenge and will require an adjustment period for all. Those teaching students in-person and remotely at the same time will have to figure out new and different ways to manage their remote classrooms while engaging students in person. This shift to hybrid will also require teachers to creatively facilitate community connections for their students at home, to prevent them from feeling left out. One way to do this might include offering more opportunities for remote students to just socialize with each other via Google Break Out Rooms, like virtual recess.
Moreover, from producing We Still Teach with the Chicago Teachers Union and Fox32/My50, we discovered that teachers have an extraordinary potential to connect emotionally with students through brief video lessons. As a staff, teachers could each make one video and collectively, create an entire library of personalized, instructional content that can become an async, remote way to “cover” each other’s classes during unplanned disruptions and help remote students still feel like they are still part of the school community.
From a principal’s perspective, creative approaches to remote learning can be supported in the school-wide schedule. As one example, we do a monthly “Leopard Day,” that features a live line-up of creative, teacher-driven enrichment activities such as visiting a horse barn, learning to cook, interactive read-alouds, playing card games, making cave paintings, and taking nature walks. We also provide resources for students to explore on-demand activities such as Virtual Field Trips, and curate async learning through educator-driven online and video lessons — such as We Still Teach.
Compassionately Support Mental Health
During the adjustment period that this shift to hybrid will bring, we should also expect social and emotional disruptions to teaching and learning that we cannot fully predict at this time. Despite our best efforts to be consistent and creative, there may still be jealousy and Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) over different teaching and learning experiences. No two classrooms will look alike, and this can be challenging for students and teachers to wrap their heads around. From a parent’s perspective, it’s tough to know what might work best for our children at this time because this is all uncharted territory — and so the decision to return to in-person learning or stay remote is an extraordinarily difficult one to make as a family.
As shared by our Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Miller, one especially overwhelming challenge that teachers face is the sustainability of the hybrid format. With remote learning, teachers encountered new levels of burnout and exhaustion. Planning became more tedious and concrete in ways that were not present in the past. Simple activities now require slide decks, visuals, videos, audio, and opportunities for student engagement featuring various methods of contribution. With the commitment to continuing student education in the most robust way possible, comes sacrifice of time and flexibility. Hybrid learning brings forth challenges of sustaining a safe environment for young learners while continuing that robust education. Routines and procedure setting are such an important part of the education of our youngest learners. At this point of the school year, students would have such things so embedded in their memory that reminders would be minimal as their learning continues. Now, for most students, routines are sorely lacking. For teachers, the procedures and routines are also very different at this point in the school year.
As teachers face the challenge of attending to students that are connected remotely — while tasked with safely supporting students in person in order to provide robust instruction to both groups, they can feel pulled in multiple directions. This can amplify feelings of burnout and exhaustion.
We need to work together as a community to support this. From an administrative perspective, having additional planning time is beneficial for us all, as well as a consistent focus solely on our top priorities as a school. From a parent/educator perspective, we have to be as patient and compassionate with our teachers as we know they plan to be with our students adjusting at this time.
This pandemic has been tough on us all. Deeper traumas from grief and isolation have resulted in depression and anxiety, fear, stress, burnout and exhaustion in educators, students, and their families alike. To begin to address this, we need to aggressively prioritize access to mental health supports in school, and outside of it. Physically, the delayed reopening has allowed some prioritization of teacher and staff vaccinations– but not enough. As we ramp up towards widespread community vaccination, we will all adjust from various stages of isolation to re-enter society with new rules and regulations. This learning curve will test us. To communicate the warmth and kindness we would typically share with hugs, high fives or smiles now hidden by masks, we will all need to adapt.
Teachers need our grace and understanding, as they determine all the nuances of how to deliver instruction to students in two different structures. Students need our patience and compassion, as they adapt to yet another new learning environment and routine. As we prepare to reopen in March, we hope this is the beginning of the end, but realize this new reality could still be with us for some time. Persistent, vigilant compliance with safety protocols combined with wider vaccination rollout should allow us more, safe, opportunities to engage with one another. As we navigate these challenges, hopefully we emerge with a greater sense of community for having all experienced the same historic moment together.
Kat O’Brien is a parent, LSC Chair at LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago, educator, writer, and executive producer of We Still Teach.
Chris Graves is principal at LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago and a doctoral candidate at Illinois State University.
Kymberli-Kamille Miller is a kindergarten teacher at LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago. She is pictured teaching remotely in her classroom, in preparation for some students’ return March 1.
Photo credit: LaSalle Language Academy.
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