TCTA | Teaching in a pandemic: Educators adapt to challenges of…
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Teaching in a pandemic: Educators adapt to challenges of COVID-19

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This article appeared in the Winter 2020-21 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

It was a fall semester full of challenges, and while the new semester will undoubtedly begin with more uncertainty, we may be able to see the light ahead that marks an end to the pandemic.

Most districts chose remote learning to start the 2020-21 school year. After a few weeks, many started offering a blend of in-person and distance learning, with starts and stops for quarantines as students and staff tested positive for COVID-19. Many areas of Texas have been virus hot spots since the summer, and while others in more isolated, rural areas have had fewer cases, no part of the state has been immune to the challenges of learning amid a pandemic.

We have heard from members concerned about their health and safety and that of their loved ones, with roughly 1 in 4 teachers at higher risk of complications. We’ve also received calls about districts failing to provide personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. Others report that they are not being notified of positive COVID-19 tests and that districts are failing to order quarantines for everyone with close contacts.

But there are reports of good things too, such as districts that gave teachers and other staff stipends to thank them for showing up each day. Some districts granted requests from most teachers seeking accommodations so high-risk staff could teach from home.

And perhaps the most encouraging news of all, vaccines for adults from Pfizer and Moderna will hopefully provide further protection from COVID-19 in the spring. Trials of vaccines for children were in early stages in December.

Throughout it all, TCTA has been advocating for our members, and our latest efforts include urging state officials to label teachers as frontline workers so that those who want to be vaccinated can do so sooner. TCTA has not advocated for mandatory vaccinations, only that teachers be given the same access as school nurses and other essential personnel as more doses are available in the coming months.

Since it likely will be late spring or early summer before a majority of Americans have access to a vaccine, procedures at schools will be much the same in the spring semester as the fall, with face masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing and sanitizing classrooms, along with temporary shifts to distance learning if cases spike.

We have learned a lot in the fall semester about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching amid the pandemic, and, after hearing about the difficulties that educators are experiencing trying to teach both in-person and online students at the same time, TEA is highlighting other types of instructional arrangements that districts could use to try to reduce the burden on educators. TCTA offers a quick look at the pros and cons of each model in the box below.

With all the disruption in learning, major concerns for teachers have been evaluations and student testing. TCTA advocated early and often that state leaders should suspend the requirement for teacher evaluation. The disruption of traditional modes of instructional delivery have rendered typical components of teacher evaluation (observation and student growth) difficult, if not impossible, to capture accurately. TCTA also argued for the suspension of STAAR testing and the related A-F accountability ratings that would add stress to students who are already struggling to stay engaged this year.

On Dec. 10, Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that districts could apply for waivers from teacher appraisals this year. He also said he would pause the A-F accountability ratings for districts, campuses and charter schools during the 2020-21 school year. But he said STAAR tests would be administered, though with longer testing windows to accommodate social distancing. Morath and other state officials have argued that the data collected from STAAR tests will help determine how much the pandemic affected learning. TCTA will continue to urge that STAAR testing be suspended this spring.

As the fall semester ended, recent studies showed that COVID-19 transmission on campuses has been relatively low — at least when recommended health and safety guidelines are followed. While that’s good news, we must remain vigilant in the coming months to continue following CDC guidelines to stay safe.

We know many of you will continue to have questions and concerns about COVID-19, and we remain ready to help. Call the Legal Department at 888-879-8282 to speak with a staff attorney. We also will provide the latest information in eUpdate and in our COVID-19 FAQs.

Four models to manage remote and on-campus learning

METHOD 1: CONCURRENT TEACHING

  • How it works: Teachers deliver remote and on-campus instruction in the same class period simultaneously.
  • Pros: Allows students to stay with same teacher, easily accommodates students moving in and out of in-person/virtual learning.
  • Cons: Heavy lift for teachers; teachers have to specialize in two instructional modalities and perform them simultaneously.
  • Examples: Many districts used this model in the fall semester, a challenge for teachers.

METHOD 2: SPLIT SCHEDULING

  • How it works: Teachers deliver remote instruction during one class period and in-person instruction in another.
  • Pros: Allows students to stay with same teacher; accommodates students moving in/out of in-person/virtual learning. Although teachers have to specialize in two instructional modalities, they don’t have to do it at the same time.
  • Cons: Teachers must specialize in two modalities. Heavily dependent on whether numbers work out regarding the number of students choosing in-person or virtual learning.
  • Example: Crowley ISD looks at the number of on-campus students vs. remote learners for a grading period to set the maximum student-teacher ratio for on-campus and virtual learning. Then it determines the number of on-campus periods required and the number of periods available for remote teaching. Students are assigned to teachers based on the ratios, and class schedules are arranged so students keep their teacher or team of teachers even if they switch between remote and in-person learning. Teachers focus on in-person students one class period, then remote learners in another.

METHOD 3: SPLIT STAFFING

  • How it works: Teachers within one site are staffed to deliver remote or on-campus instruction, not both.
  • Pros: Allows teachers to specialize in one modality.
  • Cons: Students may not stay with same teacher and schedules may change if students switch modalities. (A way to ease that is to have common curriculum and scope/sequence and teacher teams, which is why this model may only work at the elementary level.) It also requires complex master scheduling.
  • Examples: Forney ISD’s virtual teachers only teach remotely, but they do so from campus so they can assist with student arrivals, dismissals, lunch duty — a way to manage social distancing effectively across remote/on-campus teachers. In Victoria and Hawkins ISD, some elementary campuses use this method.

METHOD 4: VIRTUAL ACADEMY

  • How it works: One virtual academy is set up to support all remote learners in a district with dedicated teachers. Other students attend school on campus with in-person instructors.
  • Pros: Useful when campuses vary widely on the percentage of remote students and teacher capacity to deliver remote learning effectively. In that case, it may be best to pool virtual students and teachers across the district via the virtual academy.
  • Cons: Requires significant communication with families that if a student changes modality, he/she is likely to see a teacher/schedule change (one way to ease this is common scope/sequence, common teacher collaboration time).
  • Example: Lubbock ISD has its own virtual academy principal. Substitutes have been trained to teach virtually. Also, if teachers are quarantined and feeling OK while isolated at home, substitutes monitor in-person students while the teacher does lessons virtually from home. Lubbock ISD has 84 virtual teachers for elementary. These teachers are solely virtual, and their online classes have 25-35 students, to allow social distancing for on-campus learners. In middle and high school, some faculty teaches concurrently, some students use the self-paced Edgenuity program for learning, and some teachers have designated virtual periods and in-person classes.