A few reasons this Spanish teacher mama wants her students to turn their cameras on in the Virtual Classroom
After participating in many discussions around the potential benefits and harms of cameras on and off in the Virtual Classroom, I am that teacher that requires her students to turn on their cameras at the beginning of class. After several months now of distance learning, I have formed some pretty definitive ideas of what I need to see and have my students see on Zoom. I would say that more than half of my students have terrible WiFi, and many are attending school in cramped apartments with siblings and other housemates nearby, so turning their cameras on for the whole lesson is not feasible or necessary. But, it is still important and here are my reasons why:
Many adolescents have been disengaged socially since March 13 and have limited opportunities to see and interact with other adolescents outside of their family groups or social media friends. Communication is visual, as well as aural, and seeing faces is an important part of human development and human connection. For our own sense of well-being, we all need to see each other, particularly as language learners – and getting facial visual cues is extremely motivating and often essential.
After a week and a half of testing the waters with my students and encouraging turning their cameras on through fun games and my own need to see them so that I could start to learn who my students were, I realized that the students were quickly succumbing to the awkward peer pressure of “don’t be different” and “don’t turn on the camera until absolutely necessary”. I noticed that Latinx students were much more likely to turn their cameras off (although not exclusively), and I didn’t like the precedent that such an ethnic divide of “engagement” might exacerbate.
Listening to many educators and parents talk about these issues throughout the summer and the early fall, I heard from many moms who wanted their kids to turn their cameras on more due to their kids’ interest in playing video games and tuning into other social media during school. They are asking for more accountability and engagement with on-line school and want our help in keeping them engaged in school, well-known by their teachers, socially engaged with other students, and off of social media and videogames.
I have listened to teachers and parents in the African American and Latinx communities exhorting teachers to not assume that Black and Brown kids are living in situations in which they might be ashamed of their homes. Some have been asking that teachers keep expectations high for all kids and to make sure that the parent is involved in decisions around the kids deciding to keep their cameras off during camera-on times in class. My students are mostly in tight quarters sharing spaces with others. Through the screen in class, we are sharing our pets, our siblings, our stuffed animals, and our household members, along with our messy rooms, piles of clothing on the bed, and sheet covered windows. And we are okay.
Because I need to be able to see my students in order to get to know them, learn their names, and connect with them, I knew from Day 1 that I would be a much better teacher if I could see them part of the time.
For all of these reasons, as well as being a mother of a teenager and being part of the milieu of parents of teenagers going through this challenge, I set out to create a more equitable and transparent policy that would keep more of my kids feeling safe with one another in the new cultural landscape of the virtual classroom – it often feels safer for teenagers if the teacher creates a rule or boundary that sets kids up for a certain type of equitable engagement and decreases the opportunity to give in to the peer pressure.
My rule is simple: turn the camera on at the beginning of class as I take roll with the question of the day. See each other, hear each other, start to get to know each other and take that leap! We are all in this together. And if your camera isn’t working or there are other issues, let me know in a private chat. The feeling in my classes immediately lightened up because we could see each other for a few minutes each day. I could start to remember who my students were and learn about each of them. I could immediately diagnose students with a variety of tech issues, and I didn’t need to focus entirely on individual chats which were overloading my circuits. It turned out that several students who had told me on their surveys that they had no issues with computers and wifi connection, actually did have issues and I was able to get them the tech support, new computers and new Hotspots. I was able to figure out who really needed to have their cameras off, and understand the different issues as to why. And students were more engaged. And, as with all of my “norms” or “rules”, I continue to be flexible. At the end of almost every class, I go into English for the benefit of those who are struggling with the Spanish, and I ask them to reach out to me, to stay after class, to write me an email, to come to my office hours if they need to ask me about anything or need help with anything. And lots of students have done exactly that.
In every school teachers have many “make it work” moments over the course of a school year and throughout their daily lessons while teaching in less than optimal conditions and without the necessary materials. However, given the nature of the pandemic, the consequences of not making it work in this moment are much more dire and put everyone at risk. San Mateo Union High School teachers have spent summer advocating for a sensible and safe start to the new school year, i.e., Distance Learning. The logistical issues surrounding opening schools for in-person learning during the Covid-19 pandemic are overwhelming the capacities of small and large districts alike, and the scientific data on how the disease will behave in indoor classrooms with a wide variability of air flow among students and staff members in stable or flexible cohorts is still speculative. Currently numbers of Covid-19 infections are rising in San Mateo and surrounding counties, and school districts are facing political pushes to open back up quickly, contradictory health guidelines, and budgetary obstacles in creating safe in-person classes on public school campuses. One long-time district teacher and parent points out the difficulties that our particular school district has had in many of our past rollouts, whether it be technology distribution, construction delays, or curricular materials.
To the School Board and Dr. Skelly:
I’ve taught at Hillsdale High School since 2002. I absolutely love my job. I love my colleagues. I love my students. I cannot wait to get back to work with them, especially since I’m heading into year 2 of my advisory loop with these rising seniors. I’m also a proud Hillsdale parent. I treasure the experiences my older kid has had in and out of the classroom, and I’m excited for my younger child to join us on campus next school year. I happily claim the title of SMUHSD superfan.
After 18 years in the District, I also have some important and relevant perspective. I’ve learned that when school starts, we are *not* logistically ready. But we start regardless and make do. Teachers can “wing it” until the delayed shipments arrive, the textbooks can be located, and the power outlet is installed. We just trust that by the Friday of week 3, or Back-to-School Night, or the end of the first grading period, that we’ll be in full swing.
I was therefore dismayed this afternoon to hear Dr. Skelly in a Zoom call with Burlingame HS parents refer to others’ “fear and doubt about the logistics of reopening” as obstacles that he, the Board, the District, and the parents behind Reopen SMUHSD must overcome. I’m not having just an emotional response to the current situation, and I’m not interested in having my legitimate concerns dismissed as such. In fact, I’m basing my position that we all need to avoid an in-person return to campus on my actual experiences in the District.
To demonstrate that my doubts are well-grounded in my actual, lived experience in the District, here’s what I can document from just the past 5-6 years’ worth of emails and personal recollections:
In June of 2014 I was informed that I had been “awarded” a Chromebook cart and was required that summer to attend training in how to modify my curriculum and instruction to best incorporate technology. However, I was told in late August (week 3 of the new school year) that delivery was delayed until at least October. My cart finally became available for my students’ use in early November 2014. I made do in the meantime.
The following school year, teachers were told in a mid-August 2015 email: “Concerning the [Chromebook] carts, Dell has decided to delay shipment for another week. At this point I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, as they keep pushing back the ship date. Once they get here, it will take [time] to inventory, build and deliver 21 carts to the sites.”
In the summer 0f 2017, I was notified that the north wall of my classroom needed to be partially demolished. When I returned to my classroom in August, a few days prior to the reopening of school, the wall was still being re-built. On the students’ first day in my room, I called to have the hazardous items (e.g., a ladder and power tools) removed from students’ reach. The wall was promptly completed that day but without an electrical outlet or Internet wiring. I quickly altered my opening week lesson plans to accommodate my lack of Internet access and laptop usability. Although frustratingly stymied, I had been teaching for 15 years by then and could make do.
The Chromebook cart delays repeated in 2018. From a 8/6/2018 email: “New Chromebook Carts- We have 11 new carts on the way! We do not have a definite timeline for the rollout. It will be soon but not day 1 (or week 1).”
The delays don’t always involve technology. For example, to begin school in August 2019 we were supposed to have enough AP Gov textbooks for all enrolled students. The books weren’t delivered to our site and available for checkout until week 4 of the school year, specifically the Friday minimum day after Back to School Night. My colleagues and I improvised in the meantime.
As the virus loomed closer in early 2020, they said we’d have hand sanitizer. According to Dr. Skelly’s 3/3/20 email, disinfectant (wipes and hand sanitizers) were ordered on 3/3/20 for all campuses. He said that these items would be provided in each classroom, admin area, library, and computer lab. He said delivery was scheduled for the following week and that they would be distributed as soon as these items were available. However, as of our shutdown midday on Fri., 3/13, they had not been distributed to classrooms. Fortunately, that delay became a moot point.
Upon the March shutdown, they said students would have Chromebooks during the SIP, and site and District personnel tried to make that happen. According to Skelly’s 3/3/20 email, the District was making ongoing efforts to ensure all students had Internet access and a Chromebook at home if they needed it. Nevertheless, as of mid-April, Hillsdale students were still being identified and delivered Chromebooks–a full 5 weeks later.
I assume positive intent here: I trust that everyone works hard, everyone hustles to satisfy students’ needs, and everyone is trying their best to remove obstacles to student success. And yet, delays inevitably happen. I’m not trying to be petty–just giving some institutional history. I fully expect these patterns to repeat, not due to any malfeasance. This is just how it goes in a large public entity. I’m not laying blame; I’m just stating facts. Despite our district’s best intentions, I don’t expect that all safety measures will be ready for full implementation before the start of the school year. The difference is that *this* year, it won’t just be a minor inconvenience that teachers should work around. Delays in receiving promised equipment but opening schools regardless will put our students and staff at risk. The delays are entirely predictable. The risks are more and more apparent. The only responsible step is to keep all students and staff away from campuses and engaged in distance learning for the foreseeable future.
The following is an excerpt of a letter written to the SMUHSD School Board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly regarding the medical expert that the district chose to advise the Return to School Committee.
I would like to address the remarks Dr. Koliwad, an endocrinologist (diabetes doctor and researcher) from UCSF, made to the Bell Schedule Committee that the district has posted to their YouTube channel (Link to the YouTube video). First, yes, I agree that wearing masks, social distancing, and daily health checks offer a very high level of safety. However, following these constraints would create an in-person learning environment that is neither effective or sustainable. I will not go into detail here because you heard many arguments about this at the last board meeting. I must mention some very grave concerns I have about Dr. Koliwad’s comments.
First, he suggests a comparison between a university hospital with highly trained medical professionals with a high school. The comparison is absolutely preposterous. It would make more sense to look at high schools in Europe and Japan and learn from their successes and setbacks. Beyond that Mr. Koliwad discusses what UCSF has done to mitigate COVID infections while not admitting that their medical students are still currently taking classes online and all non-essential clinical hours have been cancelled. According to the UCSF website, “Each degree program has offered guidance to teachers and learners on classes, clinics, lab research, other educational activities, co-curricular activities, and travel in the following three categories: 1. Non-essential and can be canceled or postponed, 2. Essential but can be moved online. 3. Essential and must be conducted in person.” Further on this UCSF webpage, “Employees performing their duties remotely should continue to do so through January 18, 2021. This supports not only public health efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also limits use of common UCSF services and helps to facilitate physical distancing for those who must work on-site.” In other words, the organization that Dr. Koliwad claims should be the model for our school district re-opening has not itself reopened for all on-site work and learning and won’t until at least 2021.
Beyond offering a flawed comparison, Dr. Koliwad provided misleading and inaccurate information. At minute 11:37 of the video he claims, “The rate of asymptomatic people testing positive for COVID has been less than 1%. In the Bay Area all nine surrounding counties we’re talking about somewhere in the order of .4 to .7%.” He failed to clarify that people without symptoms have had very little access to tests in the Bay Area until very recently. In fact the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health states, “Testing capacity in San Mateo County exceeds 1,151 tests per day, which is 1.5 tests per 1,000 County residents. During Shelter In Place (SIP), testing volume did not match testing capacity throughout the state and the County because the SIP order prevented mild/moderately ill symptomatic residents, pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic residents from testing.” Now that San Mateo County has lifted the Shelter in Place it can be expected that there will be more circulation of the virus and therefore more cases of symptomatic, asymptomatic, and presymptomatic COVID transmission.
He also claimed at minute 35:15 “We are now trying to get 20,000 plus contact tracers in San Mateo County…and we are well on the way to achieving this goal.” This is not true. Again, from the San Mateo County COVID-19 Variance Attestation form submitted to the California Department of Public Health, “ Our goal is to have at least 15 CDPH COVID-19 VARIANCE ATTESTATION FORM 10 contact tracers per 100,000 residents. For San Mateo’s 2019 estimated population of 767,000 (U.S. Census), we plan to identify capacity toscale up to a total of 115 FTE to meet the State standard. San Mateo Co. will meet this metric of 115 case and contact investigation staff by August 1, 2020.” When SMUHSD Teachers’ Association president, Craig Childress at minute 56:00 of the video questioned Dr. Koliwad about this assertion, Dr. Koliwad doubled-down on his assertion and claimed that 20,000 was the goal and the county would be reaching that goal in a matter of weeks or months based on recruiting efforts.
I will assume that Dr. Koliwad is well-intentioned and was not able to prepare for these remarks as he might for a scientific conference. He volunteered his time as a highly regarded scientist and for that I thank him. However, he was just one of the experts that the return to school Bell Schedule committee needed to meet with. It would have been very helpful for one of our many faculty tech. coordinators to talk to the committee about how we can leverage technology to offer students a stimulating and effective school experience while at the same time looking after their social and emotional welfare. There are numerous possibilities and we have the staff with the knowledge and skills to lead us to the most efficient and safe way to start the school year. I am hopeful that we can take advantage of this time to better integrate technology into our curriculum and the projects that students complete. After this is all over, we will have stronger skills that will make our eventual in-person classes even more engaging and offer students amazing opportunities to use technology to demonstrate understanding and critical thinking.
What will Distance Learning look like in the fall? How will students and teachers safely return to school? How will teachers teach engaging lessons through masks, physically distanced desks and 6 feet away from their nearest student?
As California schools look to solutions to create a viable path to learning and teaching in the 2020-21 school year, school districts and local communities struggle to understand and restructure the roles of teachers and staff personnel, nurses, schools, school buildings, mental health services, and nutrition programs. The interplay between the identity of schools as places of learning and the essential services that public schools provide has created difficult discussions between different members of the school communities and stakeholders.
The San Mateo Union High School District held a board meeting on June 11, 2020 to examine and discuss different models of starting the school year. Several documents, slide presentations, and discussions are provided on David Kristofferson’s Eduissues blogunder “Recent Topics” in Education Newsto help local parents and community members understand the complexities of returning to school in a blended or all Distance Learning model. On June 25th, the SMUHSD School Board will meet again to view a presentation of blended and distance learning models and to hear community input.
I am writing this letter, with input from the department heads at each site, to clearly present the perspective of SMUHSD math teachers with respect to school reopening in the Fall.
In short, we think that the risks of in-person learning greatly outweigh the benefits. In fact, given sufficient time during the summer to prepare, we think that synchronous distance learning will provide students with a higher quality of learning than a blended/in-person model will, with significantly fewer risks.
First and foremost, we think that the risk to the health of our students and staff, their families, and the communities at large is too great. Social distancing measures work best outdoors where people are in contact for short periods of time. Sitting in enclosed spaces for longer periods of time, even with small cohorts of students, greatly increases the risks to all. We know that there are many people who, even if not in a high-risk category themselves, live with those that are. By requiring in-person learning, we will be contributing to the likelihood of a second wave of infection, and putting many in our community at risk. Right now, many of us do not personally know anyone who has gotten sick or died from COVID-19. This may be causing people to make a faulty generalization, believing that the risk is much lower than it truly is.
According to the Washington Post, since the beginning of June when the state started to reopen, California has had its highest ever seven-day average of new coronavirus cases. Factoring in the massive scale of the ongoing BLM protests and exponential growth patterns, who knows how many infections there will be by the time we hit August. There have already been reports of schools in Canada, France, Israel, and South Korea that have closed down again due to outbreaks after reopening. In addition, as we enter the cold and flu season, any minor symptom will be suspect; students will stay home, and teachers will need to call in sick in much greater numbers than ever before. Aside from the interrupted learning, where will we find a sufficient number of substitute teachers to make this work?
Secondly, we think that the student experience in blended learning will be far worse than people are imagining. Math teachers make extensive use of collaborative group work of all sorts to make our classes engaging and reflective of the practices detailed in the Common Core. Instead, students will have to sit separately, not engage in group work, not even able to see what others are doing. Giving authentic, personalized feedback will be impossible, and teachers will waste a great deal of time attempting to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing policies. This will harm student-teacher relationships and further detract from the joy of being together.
We have already started examining a number of technological tools that will allow teachers to replicate quality in-person class and small-group learning experiences, without the risk of being
in the same classroom. With a combination of Nearpod, Zoom breakout rooms, and Google slides, for example, students can work on high-cognitive demand tasks while teachers orchestrate productive discourse. It would be a mistake not to pay attention to the affordances of such well-implemented distance learning techniques.
In addition, if we adopt the proposed quarter schedule, students will have a lot less time to work on building their fluency in math concepts. Teachers will have to simultaneously condense the amount of material being taught and speed up the pace. Students will be under a lot of stress and pressure trying to learn a semester’s worth of material in 9 weeks, and they are less likely to retain their learning. Teachers will need to create both remote and in-person lessons for students to complete which effectively doubles the planning work. This will detract from the quality of the lessons, as well as teachers’ ability to provide timely and useful feedback. AP and IB students, in particular, will struggle to complete the course syllabi and to be prepared for their exams – especially those who take math in the 2nd and 4th quarters – and students who are already struggling with math will find it even more difficult to catch up, further exacerbating the achievement gap that we have been working so hard to eliminate.
We sincerely hope that the school board will see the wisdom in providing high quality distance learning for all, as opposed to the restrictive blended-learning format. It will cost less money, lead to better learning outcomes in math, foster stronger relationships among students and staff, and significantly reduce the potential impact that COVID-19 will have on our larger community. Thank you for your time and consideration. If you have any questions about our position, or you would like a demonstration of the tech tools that I described, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.
Daniel Wekselgreene, District Math Coordinator / CHS Math Department Co-Chair
Deb Stucke, HHS Math Department Chair
Erik Bennett, BHS Math Department Chair
Andrea Rosenthal, SMHS Math Department Chair
Cheri Dartnell, AHS Math Department Chair
Lidia Battaglini, MHS Math Department Co-Chair
Letter 2: Biology Teacher
Dear Board of Trustees and Dr. Skelly,
The current dialogue between the union and the district administration and the community has almost entirely focused on the semantic question of blended vs. fully remote learning. However, as a teacher, the specific details of when and how instruction will be given, to whom, and with what supports are the pieces of information that are most critical for planning our curriculum and instruction in the fall and must be considered alongside, or even before what general type of model we choose.
In deciding on a model/phase that works for all students, we must ask two questions: how can we safely allow teachers to maximize instructional minutes? (as the quality of instruction provided during these minutes is a direct product of the time invested in the lesson planning process) and how can we best address the structural issues facing our most at-risk students, many of whom depend on their ability to access campus resources?
The intense pushback from a large number of parents and teachers in response to the once proposed “quarter system” is a clear illustration of the consequences of what happens when a plan is designed to answer the question “how can we bring students back to school?” instead of “how can we ensure that teachers are best able to do their jobs to ensure that all students are best able to access school resources and core curriculum?”
Among the most important components of any pedagogical approach is clear organization and structure. Students benefit from school and are able to learn in school because it provides structure and opportunities for socialization. Distance learning this spring failed because it failed to provide any form of structure. I think there is great benefit in having in person class, even if students are masked and six feet apart. However, under any blended model, students would only be getting this in person instruction ⅓-½ the pre-covid time. This loss of instructional minutes is problematic. Furthermore, teachers are expected to provide structure for their “remote” students while teaching a cohort of in person students. This is borderline impossible for teachers. This type of asynchronous learning for students, with a lack of structure, is not developmentally appropriate. There is a reason why high school is not structured like college. Students do not have the executive functioning skills and impulse control to self-structure and complete many hours of work outside a structured class environment. I worry that any blended model or asynchronous model burdens students with the task of self-structuring over half of their learning time. Having taught 9th grade for over 10 years, I can only think of a few students who would be capable of doing this.
I teach AP Biology, a college level course. I also teach AVID, an elective for historically underrepresented students. I worry about how I will teach AP Biology course equitably and strategically under a blended model. Unfortunately, at San Mateo High School, our AP classes have not represented our student demographics. There are a few classes that historically have been better and where my AVID students feel more successful. I have been working to make AP Biology one of those. My AVID students attribute success in AP classes to teachers consciously creating a positive classroom community combined with teachers thoughtfully scaffolding instruction to make content accessible. In my AP class, I spend a whole week on community building, I spend 2 days teaching students how to read a textbook and take notes, I explicitly teach academic language to provide access for my LTELs. This type of skill building, which is imperative for culturally relevant teaching, for making students of color independent learners vs dependent learners*, takes time. The blended models truncate this time. The children of Genentech execs who can hire private tutors and who have nice work stations in their single family Foster City homes will be mostly fine. My AVID students who share apartments with 2-3 other families, who are the most educated person in their family at 16-years-old, and who were already pushing their comfort zone by taking my AP Bio class will struggle more. The blended model (phase 5) achieves equality, bu what we really need in our district is equity. Having a large cohort of students on campus at any given time does not allow for individual students (those who need it the most) to come onto campus daily for services (nutrition, mental health, one on one health) or provide them a safe and productive space to learn.
At the last meeting, I was heartened to hear the board members’ concerns about our highest need populations and the recognition that their needs differ from some of the other students in our district. I also encourage Marc Friedman to continue investigating our SRO presence on campus and how it affects our students of color and propagates systemic racism in the form of the school to prison pipeline. However, I think it’s important to differentiate between performative action (“low hanging fruit”) and the unsexy decision-making and detail oriented planning that actually disassembles the structural racism that is embedded within our school system (of which I and you are a part of.) Since you are on the record as being committed to dismantling systems of oppression, I beg you to give significant weight to these students’ needs (i.e looking at logistics) in making your ultimate decision.
SMUHSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly and Members of the Board of Trustees:
As both a teacher in the district and a parent of a 15 year old, I would like to strongly encourage that our district, as well as our feeder districts, adopt a Distance Learning plan for next semester.
My first and most important point is that personal connections are crucial next semester. We know that all humans, and particularly our adolescents and children need social interaction. Social relationships are at the core of all human learning and healthy development. Currently, we are in the midst of a pandemic, in which our children are suffering the loss of these daily connections. My son has seen one friend at a distance since March 13th, and it was his most joyous day of the past three months. His school set up Zoom meetings and on-line assignments with peers in small breakout groups, yet he was unhappy and disconnected, spending much of his time playing videogames and on social media. It has been impossible to monitor and frustrating to control. Getting him to take a walk outside continues to be a daily battle. Much to my deep chagrin, his day begins and ends on his phone, because this is how he connects with his peers. And he needs to.
No matter how much I dislike Distance Learning, we must abide by the health and safety requirements of this pandemic. I do not want my in-person classes to be the reason that a member of our community gets hospitalized or dies by Covid-19. It cannot be. Last semester was a disaster, an experiment, and it did not work. But, the reality of the in-person classroom set-up next year is worse. We will be in masks, separated by 6 feet in desks, afraid of each other’s air, afraid of the lack of proper ventilation or windowless classrooms, and afraid of moving to the next classroom. Teachers’ voices will be muffled; facial expressions covered. No pair work, no group work, no Four Corners, no Socratic Seminars, no writing on the board, no manipulatives, flashcards, or cultural realia, no teacher walking by to observe student work. A walk to the bathroom will become an agonizing chore in hygiene and waiting in line. As students and teachers work across classrooms, our computers will mostly remain on our desks connecting us to the lesson, and to each other.
Coming to school to experience this type of learning will be expensive, frustrating, isolating, and possibly frightening. This is not the social experience we all desire. On the other hand, in spite of all of my pedagogical distrust with on-line learning, I propose that the district spend its resources and human capital this summer on developing a synchronous, attendance based Distance Learning platform in which students will see each other and their teachers five days a week. We can make this work! We can divide students into small advisory groups in which teachers, counselors, and staff help monitor their on-line engagement and become liaisons between school and families. As health and safety conditions change, we can invite our small groups to campus for social distance walks, talks, and projects outside. We can work together to more smoothly pivot between all distance learning and blended on-campus learning when things are safer. We can also create “learning centers” for small cohorts of students who need to be on campus in order to connect to the internet in a quiet environment or who need extra help and guidance.
For next school year, we must put the relationships at the forefront of our planning. Let’s put away these awkward and difficult in-person learning models, and let’s come together to do this well! Let’s invite parents and guardians to Zoom meetings with Wellness counselors and Academic counselors. Let’s identify struggling students and get them one to one help when needed. Let’s have PE options in small groups on campus. Let’s have art projects, singing, art therapy, and dance options open for everyone. Let’s have weekly meetings and check-ins with small advisory groups. We are teachers, counselors, parents, grandparents, administrators, trustees, and students. We are creative and team builders. Let’s work together to create and prepare for a mentally strong, personally connected, and healthy school year!
Signed (Name Redacted)
Letter 4: ELD Teacher
Dear Members of the Board,
I sincerely hope my message here is superfluous. I sincerely hope that by now, you’ve listened to our ELD students, their families, and their representatives across our district. I hope that you embrace their input over those who will co-opt ELD students’ struggles to push their own agenda. We’ve heard many an argument from families and community members who cite ELD students as a primary reason to return to campus to provide “equitable” learning — despite having no interaction with ELD students nor their families, ensconced in a bubble ignorant to what our ELD students’ lives actually look like. The fact that the most recent oppositional petition to distance learning — ostensibly for the sake of an equitable and safe learning environment — came from a school whose community regularly performs hate crimes is laughable.
As ELD Department Chair and SMHS teacher, my entire career has centered around ELD students. I was here when ELD students had no content options in beginning levels, when students over 16.5 years of age were unnecessarily pushed out of the comprehensive high schools, when the Wellness program was in its nascent stages and students’ only option for anxiety and trauma support was their teacher (me). Having built my career and my life around the needs and joys of teaching the ELD population, here’s what I can provide you with:
ELD Students’ Needs
How this looks on a “normal” school day
How will this look in a blended model?
How will this look in a 100% distance model?
1. Sense of community and caring adults
It’s no secret that this is the ingredient students most need to succeed, particularly historically underserved students. On a typical class day, I try for a balance between loving and firm, joking, chatting, and even singing with my students while also holding them to the expectations we’ve all agreed on. Often, sometimes multiple times per class, I have to go outside with an individual student, either to correct behavior in a restorative justice manner, or simply to listen to them and acknowledge what they’re going through. I also try to give my students breaks so they can chat and bond with their peers — something they start doing in English once they feel comfortable and un-judged. I make constant fun of myself and my Spanish in order to put students at ease and help them open up to making mistakes as part of learning.
In any classroom situation, I am the in loco parentis for my students — i.e., their stand-in parent. That means I am responsible for my students’ safety and maintaining it. In a normal school environment, this would mean reminding students to be kind to one another and correcting behavior on an individual basis when needed. In a pandemic-driven blended school context, the number of stringent expectations is much higher than “be kind” and “raise your hand.” Not only that, but breaking these expectations would not only result in distraction, but potential risk to the rest of my students. I don’t want to be the person liable for a kid coming home sick. As such, I would be forced to constantly monitor students’ behavior for appropriate social distancing, masks, thorough sanitizing, etc. I will become the adult figure who constantly tells them what they’re doing is wrong and keeps them from their friends. Not productive to student-teacher relationships, let alone to lowering the affective filter enough to acquire the language. The restorative and behavioral conversations I have to have one-on-one with students will also not be possible — not while having to keep an eye on 16 students in the classroom and their social distance from each other, while standing 6 feet away from the student telling me about a trauma they are working through – something I typically hear once a week. Add to that my genetic hearing problems on top of not sharing a common language and communicating becomes frustrating, ineffective, and much less patient than what my students need.
Though it seems a contradiction, distance learning would allow me to shorten the space between myself and my students due to the plethora of platforms available to me. During the Spring semester, I was constantly in one conversation or another with students over Google Chat, Zoom private messaging, text, or phone. While my students worked on screen, I was able to talk another student through the process over the phone, and yet two others over private messaging. There was no concern about getting close enough to hear safely because clearly, we could not breathe on each other.
I also have the privilege of living with someone teaching ELD I through synchronous classes on Zoom, and his students often stay on the Zoom call during breaks and after class to chat with their teacher and one another. They bond over video games, anime, and music, something they would not be able to do if their teacher’s duty were to keep them away from each other during class and then rush them to leave at its end. Our students do and will find novel ways to connect through their online classes, particularly if their teacher has had time and training to structure class around prioritizing relationships.
2. Constant practice and rapid feedback, particularly in speaking and writing
In a typical class period, I do a lot of “push and release” with my students — in other words, rapid cycling between instruction, whole-class practice, and partner or individual practice. While kids work in pairs or individually, I don’t get to sit down; I constantly have to run around table groups and leap over desks as students call me over and over to reaffirm they understood the directions, and often to check sentence by sentence that they are on the right track. At the beginning levels of ELD, my students’ self-confidence is lower than what they’re actually capable of. I spend most of the individual work time reminding and helping students see this themselves.
I will be bound to my “teacher zone,” separated from my students by a mask, two teacher desks, and social distance — 6 feet at best, probably six times that for the poor soul who ends up in the back of the room. There will be no more roaming the classroom to help students individually; instead, we’ve been instructed that students with individual questions would have to send them to us by email. Students in the back particularly will have a harder time hearing me for pronunciation, practice, instructions, and reaffirmations, which makes them more likely to tune out. (If you have ever traveled to a foreign country where are you were only a learner of the native language, you’d know that being bombarded by language you don’t understand all day is exhausting, even at a high proficiency.) My students depend heavily on my working one-on-one with them, either for academic or socioemotional reasons, and being told “can’t help you, email me your questions” will further discourage them from asking for help and get in the way of the regular feedback they need to acquire the language.
Obviously I cannot lean over my students’ desks over Zoom. That said, the freedom to move, share screens, and chat individually in real time gives me many more options than instructing from the “teacher zone.” I can give students direct feedback on their work in Google Docs, which they can receive in real-time rather than after the fact; I can answer students’ questions individually in chat, thereby also strengthening our relationships; and I can give one-on-one video help to students who need it during flex time (or to the full class! As it is, I get asked the same question multiple times for every assignment; answering these questions over Zoom would allow me to answer them only once — and be heard by my students). Being able to see my mouth while I give instruction or oral directions will also be crucial for students, as it is for anyone learning a second language. This of course will be much more easily done over video rather than with a mask over my face.
3. Multiple ways to access curriculum
This is critical: delivering and assessing content and language mastery through as many mediums as possible to create multiple points of access for our wide range of learners. In class, I do this by alternating reading, writing, speaking, and listening activities; scaffolding handouts to break down difficult grammar or concepts; and preparing structured partner- and group-work so they can learn from each other and check their own knowledge. Often, I differentiate on the spot to find even more pathways for the students to access the curriculum.
Clearly the on-paper scaffolding will not go away. However, many other supports I use in class will be unusable. First and foremost is the partner talk and collaboration. We know from a large body of research that students need to interact with peers in order to learn. As I have explained before, this becomes nearly impossible through masks and while maintaining 6 feet apart. I would also have to throw out many other techniques I use: manipulatives, acting, clapping and stomping syllables, peer-feedback, group work, project-based learning, computer recording programs, games, and of course, on-the-spot individual modifications for students to help them learn the target skill. Our classwork therefore would become very limited: I lecture, show examples, and then kids are on their own. Again, I am trapped in my “teacher zone” and cannot go to them to assess comprehension nor give them support. After an 80 minute class, this would become a very long list of questions students can’t ask me in person, but must email.
As I’ve said before, being separated by screens removes the fear and constant distraction of dozens of guidelines to allow us to maximize our options for student-to-student and student-teacher interaction. Students can collaborate together on a Google doc while communicating via phone call or text, act and snap and sing and yell all they need to memorize and understand vocabulary, record themselves speaking the target language without fear of contagion. During spring semester, I’ve seen students collaborate on writing, performance, debate, and artwork digitally to produce much more involved work than they would have been able to if they were restricted from collaborating with one another closely. And as I’ve said several times now, the digital medium does allow me to check one on one with students – something I would not be able to do while separated from them by 6 feet.
4. Safe, distraction-free space to work
We’ve done this through rules and expectations we drafted together, allowing breaks when necessary, and keeping the room clean. The biggest threat or terror I’ve ever had in my classroom was a spider the size of my pinky. Not exactly life-threatening.
Forget the distraction and cognitive load of trying to keep track of all of the safety rules: fear of Covid alone is enough to derail a lesson. A student’s mask slides off, someone coughs or sneezes, and the class descends into chaos over something I cannot remove with a paper towel. Keep in mind also that most of our ELD students are Latinx, the population most vulnerable to Covid, as well as the population with the least access to healthcare. A person cannot learn when they feel unsafe. This fear will be a constant undercurrent, mild for some, severe for others.
I can cough on my screen all I want and no one will feel endangered. This is key: distance learning is intended first and foremost to keep us safe, because if we do not feel safe, we cannot learn.
Please also note that our ELD students often have to watch siblings while guardians are at work, or go to work themselves. During the normal school year, I often had students missing class so they could go to work. How much will the pandemic inflate these obstacles? And how can I be flexible and meet students online at 10pm — which I’ve had to do! — if I am required to teach each of my five classes twice, not to mention preparing materials for in-person and online learning on top of other teacher duties?
I’m sure you’ve seen and will see many arguments for returning to campus centered around what people perceive to be the needs of our ELD students. I implore you to remember to let those students and their families speak for themselves — and if their voices are not yet loud enough, please remember to listen to those of us whose lives revolve around our ELD kids, and around making sure they are academically successful, happy, and safe.
Signed (Name Redacted)
Letter 5: Professional Development Coordinator
I write to express my strong objection to returning to in-person instruction in our schools. While I respect the many hours of work that my dear colleagues have invested in trying to find a way to return to in-class instruction, it is clear that the pandemic continues to burn stronger than ever. Infection rates are rising across the state and nation, and we haven’t even left the first wave of infections. If it wasn’t safe to return when state infection rates were lower in the spring, how could it be safe with rates that are even higher now, especially with flu season fast approaching? I was one of the early survey respondents to report that I would joyfully return to in-person teaching if it were deemed safe and realistic. However, plans to return to in-person instruction have been based on wishful thinking about impossible sanitation protocols and ignore the severe instructional and learning limitations we would be placed under.
I love teaching and am desperate to return to normalcy. I miss my students. In normal times, I would jump at the chance of teaching a class size of 12 or 17, as suggested by return-to-school models. I have spent countless summer hours decorating my classroom with inspirational posters, artwork, cultural items, and language supports. I would be delighted to return to the in-person language learning activities that I’ve spent years fine-tuning. I too am worried about how the many uninterrupted hours of screen time are affecting our students. It was painful to see students struggle under the triage-based asynchronous teaching model that we were forced into in the spring, and I have no desire to repeat that.
However, the compromises involved in returning to school are not worth it, and the high school experience would convert into a sad specter of perpetual anxiety that will likely undermine any possible added educational value. Our major district professional development sessions from just this February, which I had a small hand in developing and leading, centered on the importance of avoiding the provocation of “amygdala hijack”–the primordial immediate fight, flight, or freeze response that humans face when placed in stressful situations, be they physical or psychological. Returning to school will likely institutionalize amygdala hijack as an endemic theme of each day.
Every day we enter school, all students, staff, and visitors will be faced with time-consuming symptoms check protocols, which health experts know are unreliable, resembling a daily TSA security checkpoint. Students will not be in the small, stable cohorts that experts mandate: instead, throughout the week, students will churn in and out of six or more cohorts of students, in addition to their families at home. Teaching and learning will be forced into an obedience-first model, with the educational experience taking a backseat to fear. Teachers and school personnel will be charged with perfecting the Sisyphean task of enforcing health guidelines in teenagers–the same health guidelines that we daily see adults in society shrugging off around us. I understand the thirst that students have, which I share, to return to socializing in-person with each other, but nearly all instances of socialization will be prohibited: no hanging out in a group with your friends, no giving a high five in hallways, no sharing lunch with them, no relaxing club meetings, no hugging a friend suffering a breakup, no leaning in to help a classmate on their worksheet, no sharing a pencil, no picking up a book for a student who drops it in the hall. All of these activities are at once instinctual, tempting and medically unsafe. How many of us now dread using public restrooms on the rare occasion we need to when leaving our homes? Imagine a teenager facing that dread several times a day. Educators already struggle to faithfully and equitably “police” such mundane issues as respectful language and cellphones. Despite everyone’s best efforts, we will not be successful, and public safety will be compromised. When COVID cases inevitably recur in our community, what will be the psychological effect on students and adults who are unwittingly complicit?
Health care experts now acknowledge how essential masks are in preventing the spread of COVID, and they would be a constant fixture in our school. They will also be a constant impediment to learning and relationship building. Wearing masks while teaching will make clear communication challenging and will chill our relationships–we all experience this every time we leave our homes. Masks muffle your speech. Masks hide emotions. Masks require constant adjustment. Language learners can no longer rely on important facial and mouth articulation cues. Imagine going through an entire school year without seeing your teachers smile. Imagine learning in a physical environment where a teacher has never truly seen your face, and you’ve never seen theirs.
Sadly, return-to-school plans will in many ways replicate the same distance learning we are hoping to avoid. In an effort to find enough space in our classrooms to enforce social distancing, students will face obstacles to their learning and mental health. Normal hallmarks of language teaching dangerously approximate the now infamous choir practice super-spreader scenario: oral repetitions, shouting, and singing. I am lucky to have a relatively large classroom with windows. But even in my classroom, seat configuration will make it challenging to see the white board and TV that I rely on to teach. I will need to remain in a small designated “teaching zone” at the front of the class, and minor, daily teaching activities will be health violations. I can’t walk over to help a student with their work. I can’t cross the room to pick up a handout I left in the back. I can’t pass out papers or lend a pencil. I can’t pass around cultural objects. I can’t let students use markers. I can’t serve my students horchata for the first time. Students can’t work alongside their group mates. I can’t lead an evacuation drill.
Nothing we do during the pandemic will be easy, nor will it be ideal, however proposals for synchronous, live teaching will be far superior to in-person schooling or the fraught asynchronous learning experiment from this past spring. Current remote, synchronous proposals provide students with a scheduled and structured day, live virtual teaching, and timely communication and support. While there will be challenges, learning from home will help keep students and their families physically safe, rather than forcing us into an environment rooted in perpetual anxiety and dehumanization as the pandemic continues to worsen.
I urge you to reject proposals to return to school in favor of a well-thought out remote learning experience.