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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Different Approaches to Teaching When Schools Reopen

By Peter DeWitt — June 28, 2020 6 min read
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Why are we talking about the reopening of schools now? In some states, school is just finishing up, so the thought of a new school year, and what that may look like, is not a favorite topic to discuss at the moment, but it is one of the most important. The reason to talk about reopening now is to take some much needed time to work through what that may look like, which is not an option school communities felt they had in the spring. In fact, in a survey of over 600 P-12 teachers (DeWitt) from 12 countries, 73 percent of teachers surveyed answered that their schools were not prepared for virtual teaching. (12 percent answered “Other” and said that they had the technology tools but lacked the training.) Feel free to fill out the survey here.

We need to make sure that we take some time to make the best decisions for the fall, and it will not be an easy discussion because many in our school communities found the whole experience of the spring traumatic. Cruising through Facebook one day recently, I read a comment from a teacher that captured my attention. It said that remote teaching “sucked” and wouldn’t get better. The teacher went on to say that they hated it, parents hated it, and students hated it. As I looked at the comments on the post, every single one focused on how awful this remote teaching experience has been.

It’s the end of the year for schools in the Northeast, so the frustration with the last few months is apparently high. Most of this experience has not been remote teaching and learning, as much as it’s been pandemic teaching and learning. Many teachers, leaders, parents/guardians, and students have put in a lot of time and effort to make this very difficult situation work as best that it can. But for those who think it “sucks,” we might want to take a moment to breathe, because we are just at the beginning of this experience.

My Education Week colleague Madeline Will wrote an important article recently about six ways that schools are looking at bringing back students in the fall, which you can read here.

The quick and dirty (this is a short cut; please read Will’s whole article because it’s informative and excellent):

  • Phased - Schools only bring back certain students.
  • Multitrack - Groups of students in school buildings on different days.
  • Staggered - Half of the students in the morning. Half in the afternoon.
  • Bubble Strategy - Groups of students stay together. Teachers switch.
  • Cyclical - School buildings alternate between being open and closed, which will result in remote learning.
  • Year-Round - Students divided into groups; there are cohorts and specific times they will be in school and certain times they will be involved in remote learning.

What we can garner from reading Will’s article, as well as reading comments on teacher and leader pages on Facebook, is that it’s about to get a lot more complicated. Whether schools are looking at a phased reopening, multitrack system, or any of the other options, we know none of them will make everyone happy. The reality is that schools around the globe are talking about a variety of in-person, hybrid, and full-on remote approaches for the beginning of the 2020-21 school term. On the Teaching During the Pandemic and Teaching During COVID Facebook pages, teachers have been questioning what that will look like. Here is one of the questions:

Anyone's school/district have a tentative hybrid plan that actually protects teachers? Our network just put one out that has the student population cut in half with each half in campus 2 days/week but teachers are present and teaching all 4 days (so still exposed to all kids). I can see elementary schools going half day with teachers exposed to two groups of 10-15, but what about high schools where each teacher is used to seeing 90+ daily??

Whether we talk about having students come back for one day a week, every other day, or every other week, the sad reality is that we are all going to be exposed to the coronavirus every time we step outside and go back to our individual places of work. And because of that, we may see teachers who feel uncomfortable with returning to school and parents who do not want their children to go back to school, either. That impacts every approach school communities decide to take.

3 Teaching Options
Instead of focusing on what hybrid approach would work best, which is really up to each individual school district, I thought I would take Will’s important article and break it down to how teaching may look during each model. One of the issues I would like to keep at the heart of this topic is that it wasn’t too long ago that many teachers were struggling to get students to show up to online learning. I wrote about 6 reasons here. Did we learn anything from the lack of control we felt during the spring that we can use to move forward in a positive way in the fall?

The Options:
In-Classroom Teaching
- This may sound like a far-fetched idea, but in states like Florida, all students will return to campus in the fall, which means all teachers will return to in-person teaching. However, when it comes to Will’s article, we will see this type of teaching in a phased reopening model, as well as the bubble strategy. I say that because in the phased reopening model and bubble strategy, there will be teachers who will be in a self-contained teaching situation with their students over a year.

What instruction may look like - Answering this question will all depend on the lessons those teachers learned from the pandemic teaching of the spring. Besides wearing masks and trying to keep a social distance, it will be important for students to have flexibility and voice in their learning, which also means opportunities for deeper conversations in the classroom. If we thought they could do it during pandemic teaching and learning, then we have to let go of some of our old control issues from the last time we were in the classroom.

Hybrid Teaching - Hybrid teaching means that teachers will have the responsibility to plan for in-person lessons and for remote lessons as well. This type of instruction will prove complicated for some teachers who struggle with remote teaching and will take place for those teachers and students using the multitrack, staggered schedules, year-round, and cyclical lockdown strategy.

What instruction may look like - Perhaps schools will have co-teaching options or use instructional coaches to take on some of the planning for the remote portion of the hybrid approach. Another option is that teachers can use the in-person part of hybrid teaching for direct instruction and remedial assistance and the remote part of hybrid to engage students in project-based learning (and that is for K-12 students, not just high school). The other option is to use the flipped model of teaching where the remote aspect of hybrid is used to allow students to gain familiarity with a topic and then use the in-person experience to dive deeper into learning.

Remote Teaching - Remote teaching will be used for the phased reopening (for those students not allowed in the building yet) and for those schools that will offer an option for parents who do not want to send their children back to school (Vermont is offering this option) until there is a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 (not mentioned in Will’s article). As we know, there are parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children back to school, and there are teachers who do not feel comfortable going back, either (survey finds 1 in 5 teachers don’t feel comfortable returning to school in the fall).

What instruction may look like - School districts may be in a position where they use those teachers not comfortable going into school as remote teachers, meaning that they become the teacher of record for a group of students across multiple grade levels (elementary), or they teach specific content for multiple grade levels (middle and high school). Additionally, in a survey of several hundred students from four countries, I found that a majority of students liked when they could see their teachers and peers in a synchronous session twice a week, along with lessons that come with short videos or allow them to engage in project-based learning (K-12 students can take the survey here).

Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Are More Important Than Ever
Now more than ever, PLCs will play an important role in hybrid learning, in-person and remote learning. Not only are PLCs a place to co-plan and discuss issues happening in the grade level or content area, PLCs will become an important place to design in-person lessons and remote lessons as well.

Everyone can still be creative in their own way, but PLCs will be vital to make sure instruction is tighter and that each grade and content area is offering equitable ways to engage all students. PLCs also need to remain to be the venue teachers use to gather evidence about what is working in both in-person classrooms and remote learning experiences. We have to get past the trauma that the pandemic has caused to our teaching and look at the ways this whole experience will enhance what we do in the fall, and PLCs are the places to have those conversations.

In the End
Many people have remarked about how the past few months have “sucked.” One thing is for sure, if we go into the fall with the same attitude (and yes, I understand why it happens), it will certainly continue to be the same way. Although all of this is hard, it is providing us with an opportunity to imagine school a bit differently, which is good because public schools must stay competitive considering how many online schools, charter, and private schools are already available to students.

If we have learned anything over the last few months, it’s that we do not have to do as much talking as we do in the classroom (which is not new), and we do not have to have as many activities to entertain students. We can go deeper with fewer activities, and this may be the time to do it.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.