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What it’s like to teach students in person and online simultaneously
Mary M. McConnaha
“The word of the year is ‘pivot’” our assistant middle school principal told us as we prepared to return to school this fall. At the time, I expected that meant being flexible in my lesson plans, being ready for day-to-day disruptions, and accepting challenges as they come. Turns out, it also means pivoting my head back and forth between my Google Meet screen and the students in my classroom.
My school is offering in-person classes for the many parents and students who opt in. We keep these students in two groups, sending half in person Monday and Tuesday and the other half Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is an all-remote day for deep cleaning and community building for teachers and their advisories. We will soon pivot once again and offer more students the chance to come in person for four days instead of two. A handful of families have already elected to keep their children fully remote and will likely continue to do so.
My school tests all students and staff for the coronavirus once every two weeks during lunch, which has been extended from roughly half an hour to a full hour. The test results are guiding whether the school accepts more students in person or requires even more students to attend virtually. We have been lucky so far that the social distancing and masks have been effective.
I am in a privileged situation by working at an independent school with a more manageable number of students than many large public schools. (Our class sizes are no more than 14 students, and our grade levels have roughly 50 to 60.) Many of the schools in this country do not have the resources or funding to implement this model of hybrid teaching safely. Like so many other aspects of life, COVID-19 has shown just how deep the inequities are in our educational system. If our school could not afford frequent testing and packets of cloth masks for every student, if we did not already have small class sizes, if we were in a county with a higher rate of community spread, or even if our ventilation system was just a few years older, we could not have welcomed back so many students. That said, our safety precautions do not mean we’re immune to the seasonal flu, excessive travel, or becoming lax with social distancing—any of those factors could put the school back to virtual learning.
“Things that used to take a moment—filling out a reading log, for example—now take several minutes.”
My day starts with an app that tells staff and students if we are good to go or if we need to stay home. The app asks me if I have a fever? Do I have a sore throat? Am I feeling fatigued? (The teachers in my school smile at that last one; try being a middle school teacher and not being fatigued.)
I make sure that my mask is on before I get out of my car. Once I’m inside the school building, I manage to lift one hand out to get a squirt of hand sanitizer before dropping all the stuff that I’m juggling—my computer bag, lunch bag, purse, coffee mug, and water bottle—on my desk. I rub my hands together with the sanitizer and then take my mask off for a half hour of reprieve before the students enter my classroom.
In my classroom, desks are spaced out six feet apart. In the hallways, stickers on the floor show students which direction to walk. We remind the students to “helicopter their arms” to make sure they can’t touch anyone else while they walk, though enforcing this distance is a work in progress. We eat outside every day under tents, but once it turns too cold to eat outside, individual classes will eat together in their classroom.
In addition to the spaced-apart desks, the classroom itself is sparse this year. I am the only one who touches my classroom library. Students drop their returned book into “book quarantine,” and I cycle through a new library box each day for three days before returning the books to the library. The classroom white board, which no one at home can see, is blank except for the day’s schedule and a “Welcome Class of 2026” sign.
Before every class, I perform “The Dance of the Google Meets,” which involves practiced, precise clicking and moving my body to quickly “pivot” between two laptops—a fast and reliable one and the other a brick. I need both so that I can present one full screen to the students in my classroom, while also seeing my online students attending from home.
With half my class remote, I have learned to recognize students better by voice than ever before. Class etiquette and procedures are hard to teach online, especially to a class of middle school students. When the students at home have a question, instead of typing it in the chat or waiting for me to ask if there are any questions, they just unmute themselves and ask. This might interrupt silent independent reading, while I am actively in the middle of saying something, or while a student in the classroom is asking a question.
On that note, the pace that we are working through the curriculum feels much slower this year than it ever has before. Things that used to take a moment—filling out a reading log, for example—now take several minutes. Note-taking takes especially long, as the online students toggle between devices. I’ve had students’ Wi-Fi cut out in the middle of directions, and they need everything repeated. A student once forgot to turn the volume on for an entire class, before asking during the last 10 minutes, “Are you saying something? Because I’ve just been independently reading this whole time.”
Being a hybrid teacher is exhausting, and I do often wish that I could teach just one way or the other. But watching so many of my students thrive because they can be back in person makes up for a lot of that exhaustion. Like everyone else, I cannot wait for all my students to be back in my room, mask-free, heads buried together in meaningful group work. Until then, I’m going to teach my best and do what I can to keep us all safe.
Vol. 40, Issue 11