Virtual Teaching: A Day in the Online Life

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Illustrations of a elementary school schedule as presented by division staff during the August 27 Albemarle County School Board work session. Courtesy ACPS

As Albemarle county teachers turn their eyes to September 8, they approach the first-ever online start of the school year with a mix of wonder and worry. “This is hard, emotionally,” said Murray Elementary kindergarten teacher Marcy Williams. “There’s something about seeing their faces coming down the hallway with their little backpacks on the first day that is so special.” But she and the division’s 1,300+ educators are resolute. “No, it’s not the optimal circumstance, but we can make virtual learning happen.”

The road to reopening has been long and steeply uphill, with a few switchbacks along the way. School division staff labored for much of the summer to construct a hybrid schedule of part online and part in-person instruction. A School Board vote on the plan slated for July 9 slipped to July 30, when it was scrapped amid a flood of teacher resistance in favor of an all-virtual learning model. August was consumed by shaping the new plan’s schedule and its countless details, finalized and presented to the public only two weeks before the start of classes.  

“It was very important for us to put the schedule together as a day in the life of a student, first and foremost, and then, 1A, in the life of a teacher,” said Jay Thomas, director of secondary education for Albemarle county schools. “Our driving question was ‘how do we keep things as normal as possible during an abnormal time?’”

Secondary schools 

The middle and high schools will operate on a four-class schedule each day, Monday to Thursday. Class blocks will be about 90 minutes, broken into two parts—35 to 40 minutes logged in with the teacher online (called ‘synchronous’ time), and the remaining time where students will do independent tasks such as watch videos, prepare assigned writings, or work with other students in online groups. The classes will use Zoom for lectures and meetings, and a learning platform called Schoology to host class materials, videos, and other instruction. The teachers will remain online during the independent learning segment, available for consultation with students should the need arise.

Friday is an “asynchronous” day, meaning that students don’t have to log on at all, though they do have a block of 2.5 hours of assignable work time. “In the morning the high school teachers will be available for office hours for each of the four classes, and can schedule private meetings if students need some one-on-one time,” said Thomas. “In the afternoon teachers will be able to do their lesson planning and professional learning and also attend faculty meetings.” (This Friday schedule is flipped for middle school teachers.)

Illustrations of a high school schedule as presented by division staff during the August 27 Albemarle County School Board work session. Courtesy ACPS

In all, the 9:30 to 4:30 schedule (with about an hour of breaks during the day) adds up to six hours of online time for teachers on Monday to Thursday, and more on Fridays as they attend virtual meetings throughout the day. Teachers are also expected to record and post videos for each class day for students who were unable to attend. Students will spend about three hours per day in synchronous instruction, though more than that online if they’re participating in small-group independent learning.

Cass Girvin teaches English and coaches boys cross country and track and field at WAHS, and his relative tech-savviness has earned him the distinction of being named a “Schoology Champion,” serving as an advocate for the program within the building. “Last year was WAHS’ first year using Schoology, and our only two requirements were to post a syllabus and use the calendar function on the platform,” said Girvin. “This year everyone is supposed to have folders for current lessons, previous lessons, and course resources, and kids who are not coming to class on Zoom will really rely on those materials.”

Girvin imagines that class time will be broken into segments similar to in-person instruction, with 20 to 30-minute periods of lessons, some independent group work, and time for checking and reviewing, but that his classes may not be able to, say, move through a novel as quickly as usual due to schedule restrictions. “We can assign only two hours of homework [per class] per week, and since we have twice as many classes [due to the everyday 4 by 4 schedule], that’s really half as much homework time,” he said.

Girvin’s biggest concern, however, is not with pacing. “I do wonder about the online format,” he said. “Last year I had an incredible group of students who were very active and engaged, but we went to Zoom [in March] and 90 percent of them would attend with their screen off, their mic off. I couldn’t get any engagement out of them, and those were kids I had had nice relationships with all year. How will it be with an entirely new class?”

Elizabeth Mulcahy, history teacher at Western Albemarle High School, is comfortable with Schoology but is still planning to assign textbook readings for class and provide physical handouts for practice work in an effort to combat excessive screen time for her students. She’s concerned about equity in assessments, since she can’t be present in the environment students are working in, and she’s worried about students not having a break from home or their cell phones. “I want students to go outside when they can and put away the cell phones during their ‘school day.’”

Some teachers are fortunate to have an already-established “pod” of co-teachers. “We are building all of this together, and teaching each other the components,” said Henley English teacher Elizabeth Sweatman, referring to her colleagues Jenna Magistro and Andrew West, who also teach eighth grade English. “Jenna learned how to make Schoology buttons and taught the other two of us, and I created a vitual Bitmoji classroom and taught them,” she said.

“We’re working incredibly hard to continue to build a community with our kids,” said Sweatman. “We are tying the social/emotional piece to English concepts, so we’re looking at stories, parables, poems, and artwork where we can think about community as portrayed in these pieces. For example, we plan to make a virtual ‘quilt’ with squares designed digitally by the kids with a photo and a poem they choose, and post it on our class site.”

Illustrations of a middle school schedule as presented by division staff during the August 27 Albemarle County School Board work session. Courtesy ACPS

Middle schoolers have a 25-minute advisory period at the start of each day, so their academic blocks are 80 minutes (rather than 90 at the high school level). Within that block, only 35 minutes may be synchronous time spent with an online teacher, per division rules, so Sweatman and her co-teachers will try to make the most of that time. “We are pre-recording lots of short instructional videos on things like how to use Zoom and Schoology so we don’t use class time on those,” she said. “Middle school students will not be given homework assignments, so whatever we want them to do—including reading their novels—has got to fit in that 80-minute time period as well.”

Sweatman wonders how her students will adapt to being in full view on a screen all day. “Not all kids feel comfortable with having video on, having their house visible, and I for one am not going to make them have it on,” she said. “I know some kids are anxious about that part of it.”

Elementary schools 

For K-5 instruction, teachers will host two 3-hour sessions, one in the morning and one mid-day to early afternoon, each containing about half of their students. The assignment of students to the a.m. or p.m. sessions will be determined by a mix of parent requests and factors needed to balance the two halves. As in the secondary schools, teachers will blend synchronous and independent instruction tailored to the students’ age group and abilities. The elementary schools will use Seesaw as their online learning platform and Zoom for class meetings.

Murray’s Marcy Williams envisions starting the kindergarten day with a morning meeting and then having a literacy lesson followed by breakout groups no larger than three students. “We can have one group with me, one with my teaching assistant, and one maybe having a snack or going to the bathroom,” said Williams. “I don’t want them to have to do much paper and pencil work since that’s not what we do in class normally, so we’re sending home little learning kits full of physical materials that the kids can hold and work with during the lessons.”

With her class split into morning and afternoon halves, Williams’ online day will run from 8:20 to 11:15 a.m., then a 30-minute lunch, and then from 11:45 to 2:40 p.m. (though K-1 students may receive synchronous instruction for only 1.5 to 2 hours per day per division rules). The county published content pacing guides for math and reading in August and selected programs which all teachers county-wide will be required to follow—for instance, the standardized early reading curriculum will be a national program called Being a Reader. Teachers will have to study these new materials and create lessons around them. “First, though,” said Williams, “I have to become a master of Zoom.”

Illustrations of a elementary school schedule as presented by division staff during the August 27 Albemarle County School Board work session. Courtesy ACPS

“There’s a lot of collaboration this year with your school and your teaching partners, and a lot of coordinated teaching, actually,” she said. “We’re trying to provide all these families with the same experience, so that in November all kids will be in the same spot.” 

“I’m excited because we’re splitting our classes into morning and afternoon sections, so I’ll have a chance to interact with smaller groups,” said Crozet Elementary third grade teacher Atlanta Hutchins. “Technically we’re asking the students to be the drivers of their own learning, since when they’re not with me they’ll be working on stuff on their own. I’m much more attuned to that than usual this year, as my own third grade daughter will be receiving her online instruction in the room next to mine as I’m teaching my students.”

For literacy work, Hutchins’ class will begin with the school-wide book of the month, Our Class is a Family by Shannon Olsen, and for math they’ll start with a growth mindset that expects mistakes and celebrates them. “I’ll be working on a whiteboard that kids will watch on the screen, and we are sending home supplies so every kid will have their own small white board and dry erase markers so they can do problems and show me.

“The key to whether or not young kids will be able to do this, I think, is consistency,” said Hutchins. “We are doing things in Seesaw like embedding little videos so they can hear directions for an activity read to them in case they missed them the first time. They can work independently if they know where things are and what to expect each day.”

Something special

Elective classes such as music, art, and P.E. (referred to as Specials at the elementary level) were left in limbo in the scheduling matrix for much of the summer. Two weeks before the semester began, Specials teachers still didn’t know whether they were going to be teaching live online or in a pre-recorded format, which meant they couldn’t begin to plan their class sessions. “We made the request to have our own Seesaw classroom [for asynchronous Specials] right after the spring session ended,” said Murray music teacher Linda Corradino. “It would take a load off the classroom teacher because our stuff wouldn’t be mixed in with theirs, and it would allow families to choose when to have their kids attend our classes. But that question still has not been answered.”

In the late-August version of the plan, elementary Specials classes will be offered synchronously and are strongly recommended for all students, though teachers will not take attendance. At Murray, specialist teachers will offer morning and afternoon sessions of their subject each week, so that students who have morning classroom time can do Specials in the afternoon and vice versa. “Students will be grouped by grade—pre-K through first, second and third, fourth and fifth—in each 30-minute session,” said Corradino. Any or all students in those groupings can attend during their time slot, “so I could potentially have fifty kids in a Zoom class,” she said.

Some of the Specials teachers plan to record and post their classes as well, and Corradino sees benefits to that format for students. “In the spring we recorded lessons on Seesaw, and I could do a video of myself playing a song and ask the students to listen and then tell me about what they heard, or send me a video of themselves singing the song if they felt comfortable,” she said. “In some ways it was more individualized because I heard from students who sent amazing videos, who might never have spoken up in class.”

Strain on the system

As the school year’s start date loomed, frustration levels of teachers throughout the school system ran high. Many felt that delayed and conflicting directives from the school division had hamstrung their ability to prepare for virtual teaching. Teachers were dismayed by frequent policy reversals, technology training that didn’t begin until late July, and the imposition of requirements such as common assessments and a universal syllabus at the eleventh hour. 

Friday’s timetable in particular—which calls for a half day of online office hours plus time for faculty meetings, division professional meetings, check and connect activities, class planning, and collaboration with special instructional coaches and technology integrators—sparked an outcry. “It’s the constant piling on of more expectations,” said one secondary school teacher. “I don’t know if it’s sustainable. It’s incredibly stressful.”

The Albemarle Education Association, a local professional group for teachers, posted several open letters to Superintendent Matt Haas and the School Board detailing their concerns about the planned weekly schedule. The AEA notes that “the schedule far exceeds the Virginia Department of Education’s recommended screen time for students and leaves teachers with very little time for planning, bathroom breaks, and other essentials.” The group also asserts that teachers’ jam-packed Friday schedule is “not realistic.”

A now-popular new rendition the old Dr. Seuss rhyme, shared by division staff during the August 27 Albemarle County School Board work session.

“I know they’ve worked hard all summer and I can’t imagine being in their place, but I don’t understand why they couldn’t give [teachers] an answer to the critical scheduling questions earlier,” said Corradino. “We toggle between having a few questions answered and making a little progress, to just spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. I think everyone’s hope is that the division will let go of some of the parameters and just let the schools decide what will work best.”

“What’s so frustrating is that I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of us that we’re online at this point,” said Girvin, “so it’s pretty wild that they still don’t know what the attendance policy is, or what the grading policy is. I’m sympathetic to the people in positions of power, but at some point that’s why they get paid a lot more than we do. It seems like nobody wants to make a decision. That kills morale more than anything.”

Meanwhile, the division is managing enrollment declines and alternatives for tech-stranded families. Parents were instructed to inform schools whether or not they’d be sending their children to school for in-person coached instruction, as is their option if they have insufficient internet access or if the student is an English language learner or has certain special education needs. Many were not heard from, so school principals had to contact hundreds of families one by one in August to determine how many would be in the buildings this fall. 

At present, 685 students division-wide are expected to use the in-person option (404 due to internet issues). Overall school enrollment is currently 13,447 students, down 500 from last year’s spring total and a further 500 from projected growth for the 2020-21 school year, likely resulting in a significant reduction in enrollment-based state education funding.

Down the road

The schedules for secondary (middle and high) schools were set with future reopening stages in mind. When schools eventually reopen for in-person instruction, the limiting factor on schedules will be school bus capacity, which with proper distancing could be as low as 24 students on a full-size bus. That means buses would have to run two routes for elementary schools, stop for cleaning, and then do the middle and high school run in time for a 9:30 start. “The school day for secondary schools starts at 9:30 instead of 9:00, because we want to be consistent if and when we move to stage 3 or 4,” said Thomas.

The school division will decide whether to move out of the current stage 2 in the middle of each 9-week grading period (to take effect the following period), so Superintendent Haas will make that call during the first week of October for the second nine weeks beginning in November. Stage 3 allows in-person instruction only for pre-K through third grade, however, so older students and their teachers are likely looking at early 2021 before they can return.

“I have to remember that this won’t last forever,” said Corradino. “We have to think of all the things we’re learning and the grit it takes to get through. In the end, it’s going to makes us stronger.” 

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