When New Orleans’ public schools welcomed students in PreK through fourth grade back to the classroom last month, 38 percent decided to keep learning from home. That’s created new challenges for teachers who in some cases must now teach in-person and remote students at the same time.
The approach, known as blended synchronous learning, was rarely attempted before the pandemic because it requires teachers to essentially do two jobs at once. Now, some schools have been left with no other choice.
New Orleans Public Radio’s education reporter, Aubri Juhasz, spoke with third-grade teacher Kelli Gann about the challenges of juggling two modes of teaching.
Gann teaches at Morris Jeff Community School in the Treme neighborhood. Right now, two-thirds of her class is in-person, while the rest of her students are virtual.
On why she’s teaching in-person and virtual students at the same time.
Every family had the option of whether they wanted to be virtual or in-person. We had to wait and see which families decided to do what and then plan accordingly. At least in the grade level that I teach, the numbers just didn't work out. If we combine the in-person kids into one class and designate one person as the virtual teacher, we don't have enough space [to spread out] and be safe.
On how she’s implemented blended synchronous learning in her classroom.
I post lessons and activities for my virtual students to do and then at certain times during the day they join us for a live lesson. What that looks like is I'm sort of standing in front of a computer facing my class. So I'm teaching the in-person kids and I'm logged into a virtual meeting and the virtual kids are pulled up on our board. They're projected so that the in-person kids can see the virtual kids and the virtual kids can see each other.
On what it’s like preparing lessons for two different modes of learning.
I'm basically doing two jobs. I've been teaching for a while, so I can generally take the lesson plans that we've done in past years and tweak them and reuse them. But with virtual teaching, we have to completely overhaul everything.
The preparation [for virtual learning] takes a really long time. When we were all virtual, I had time during the day to do that. But now it's still the same amount of prep work but I'm in person with kids all day and I can't just say, like, “OK guys, wait a second, I need to make my slides for tomorrow.”
On balancing the needs of families, students and teachers.
I think that’s the main challenge. If we find something that works for families, it may not work for teachers and if we find something that works for teachers, that may not work for students.
One of the good things is that I have really hard working and talented co-workers and I feel like we're always actively problem solving to try to make things better. But, I think one of the main challenges is not really knowing how long we are going to have to do it this way because there's also the concern of wanting to be able to keep everyone safe.
I think a lot of times teachers are really excited to solve problems and they care about their students. A lot of times they do that at their own expense. They will just jump in to solve the problem, to make everything work, and they'll end up putting themselves last. That's something I've had to work through during my professional career. Yes, we want to make it work for everyone, but if I don't put the oxygen mask on myself first, then my students are not going to have a healthy, caring person.
On what it’s like making sure students stay six feet apart and wear their masks.
In June and July, the things that I was absolutely losing sleep over were things like how are the kids going to wear masks all day? How are we going to keep them apart? How are they going to wash their hands? Honestly, that's been the smoothest part of all this.
We've known when kids come back in the building, we're going to have to keep them safe. So those procedures have been in place for a long time. Not only that, but the kids are used to this way of life a little bit, like, outside of school.
I've been so impressed with them. They wear their masks all day. They don't complain. They're really good about washing their hands. Sometimes I have to remind them to pull up their masks, but they are way better at it than adults.
On what attendance has been like for virtual and in-person learning.
I will say that most of my in-person kids were the kids who were struggling with attendance when everyone was learning virtually. No parents have really said these words to me, but I’ve wondered if they felt like they had to send their kids to school because they didn't have another option. I’m worried that maybe they felt that they didn't have the same choices that other families did just out of necessity.
On the concerns she’s hearing from parents and students and the impact the coronavirus has had on their daily lives.
My conversations with parents this year have been so different from past years. There's a lot more sharing, parents telling me what’s going on with their family and if someone is sick.
I feel like that’s because everyone in the whole world is dealing with really tough things all at once. I don't know if there's just less shame in talking about it, but I think that more so than usual, I have a better idea of what families are actually dealing with because they've let me know.
And even students, like we'll be having our little daily morning meeting and they'll talk about really tough topics. You know, a kid will just say, “Hey, I'm feeling sad today because I lost someone in my family a few months ago and I'm thinking about it.” And other kids will be like, “You know what? That happened to me, too. And sometimes I feel this way and this is how I deal with it.” Suddenly they're all comforting each other about really tough, really serious issues.
On building meaningful relationships with her students even when she can’t interact with them in-person.
It's been really interesting [because] we’ve been forced to skip all the niceties. I'm just now getting to learn the personalities of my students and it's been really interesting because I think especially for kids who historically have struggled with behavior or gotten in trouble at school, it's been really cool to get to know them virtually where they can do things that would normally be considered disruptive.
If you're on mute, you can just talk the whole time. You can get out of your seat. All the things that traditionally get kids in trouble at school. It's nice to be able to get to know one another and build that relationship before we ever have to address those things.