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Thousands of students in Boston have been stuck at home for nearly a year, dreaming of the day they can go back into school and leave their laptop screens behind. But when they finally return to classrooms over the next two months, many will find no escape from online learning.
To serve both students in the classroom and those at home without hiring extra staff, hundreds of teachers in Boston Public Schools will instruct both groups simultaneously, with everyone logging onto Zoom or Google Classroom — whether they are miles away or 10 feet from their teacher.
District leaders gave schools leeway to devise their own approaches to the complicated demands of reopening, and some found creative solutions. But the online model will be widely used in reopened classrooms, according to district officials. Online classes that pool remote learners with those in school preserve choice for families without adding staff. Yet the approach is little used around the country — and some say it risks shortchanging both groups of students.
“If I’m tethered to a computer, I can’t do right by the kids in the room, and if I’m engaging the kids in the room, I’m not doing right by the kids online,” said Neema Avashia, an eighth grade civics teacher at McCormack Middle School in Dorchester. “I agree 100 percent that students need to be in school — the question is, how do I teach both?”
Under Boston’s current reopening plan, more high-needs students, including English learners and those with disabilities, were able to return to school last week. If the timeline remains unchanged, students in preschool through grade 3 will return on March 1, grades 4-8 on March 15, and high-schoolers at the end of March.
To keep numbers down and ensure social distancing, students will attend school two days a week and learn remotely the rest of the time. Any family may opt to keep children fully remote. District officials said it is too soon to say how many will choose to attend in-person. Teachers interviewed said they expect at least half their students to remain at home.
For many families, in-school days will be an asset no matter what form classroom learning takes. Some parents have been unable to work without child care, while others have lamented their children’s loss of social contact.
Students living in shelters, in crowded, chaotic households, or in homes with spotty Internet service may find school rooms a far better place to learn, whatever the format. Others simply crave a change of scenery.
“It’s a reason to get up and get ready, to take a bus and go somewhere and move my body,” said Mariella Murillo, a senior at Boston Arts Academy who wrote about her remote learning experience for the Globe. “It gets exhausting to do the same thing every day.”
But some students wonder if it will be worth it to commute to school — increasing their risk of illness — only to log into online classes.
“For me, it’s definitely less motivating, and from what I know so far, I’m leaning against it,” said Lauren Choy, a sophomore at Boston Latin School. “What I love about school is not just being in the building — it’s being able to socialize with friends and teachers.”
School and district leaders stress that students who are physically present will gain social support, better access to services, and more engagement with teachers, even if some instruction is online. They say they have learned from the past year and will incorporate new tools and strategies to make hybrid classes work. The district spent $2.6 million to purchase 3,500 high-tech cameras for classrooms, with wide-angle lenses and multi-directional microphones, freeing teachers to move around, according to the district.
That may sound ideal, said Avashia, the eighth grade teacher, but in reality, remote classes require lots of onscreen oversight. Teachers must watch for and re-admit students who lose their connections, monitor the chat box for questions, and stay vigilant for unauthorized intruders or “Zoom-bombers.” The end result can leave little attention for students in the room.
“It’s putting students in buildings without thought for the quality of their experience,” she said.
At some schools, students as young as 3 and 4 will watch their prekindergarten teachers on laptops for part of the day. Students with disabilities may be taught online as well, with exceptions for those whose special needs make laptop use difficult or impossible.
Schools have found some ways to lighten the load. At Rafael Hernandez K-8 School in Roxbury, teacher Melanie Allen said her principal secured extra AmeriCorps members to supplement the permanent staff and assigned one to every teacher who lacked a classroom aide. As a result, each team can divide their duties, with one monitoring students in online breakout rooms while the other helps students in the classroom.
The school also came up with a creative reopening plan for middle school students that splits teachers’ schedules between school and home. That is critical, said Allen, because wearing a mask sharply limits her ability to engage with online students.
“When you’re on a screen all day, your face is all you have,” she said. “You’re far less connected to others in a mask — especially my [English learner] students, who can’t even see my lips.”
But the rotating schedule will only work for now, when a handful of high-needs students are in buildings. In mid-March, when her school opens to all, Allen and her colleagues will teach online and in-person at once — with their masks on.
There is little research on that type of simultaneous instruction, but it appears few districts have made it a staple. A database assembled by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell found only about a dozen of 100 mostly large urban districts include “livestreaming” (when remote learners log into classroom lessons) in their pandemic plans. School systems in Dallas, St. Louis, and Sacramento are among them.
Betheny Gross, the center’s associate director, said anecdotal accounts suggest significant challenges with the model, including barriers to student-to-student interaction and difficulty for instructors. Those demands might “move teachers away from practices that elevate students’ engagement [and] create opportunities for student voice,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Lea Serena, a second grade teacher at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, said learning in person will be better overall for some of her students, even if they still watch her on a screen. But she worries about the loss of hands-on strategies that make lessons come alive.
“It’s going to help my students emotionally,” she said. “But I don’t know if instruction is going to be that much better.”
For Jessica McGovern, a parent of two BPS students and a pediatrician, the model’s imperfection and the district’s failure to devise more creative solutions are overridden by a sense of urgency. Her own 7-year-old cries every day he has to learn online, she said, while in her medical practice, she has witnessed “an explosion” of mental health concerns in children.
“Some kids might be learning on a computer in school, and that’s not great,” she said, “but I’d still rather they be with their peers. Kids need their routine, they need a place that’s safe and all the services they get there.”
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.