In discussing the spring semester in pandemic mode, I heard from teachers who were very complimentary on the materials that were distributed by the SDP for virtual learning (and the speed with which they were produced), as well as the teacher development sessions that helped teachers pivot to online instruction. I also heard of teachers who easily switched to digital instruction and were highly successful, and I have encouraged the SDP to reach out to teachers and principals to get their suggestions, as planning moves forward for the fall.
On the other hand, critics complained not only that the delivery of instruction was uneven across schools and even within schools, but that some students received very little attention at all and really lost three full months of instruction. Now that the District has announced the decision to start the fall semester with a virtual learning model, I would like to emphasize several points related to how and how often instruction is delivered, for what purpose and with what reward. Many of the criticisms of virtual instruction in the spring related to these questions. Since my area of expertise is English Learner instruction, I will provide examples related to that demographic.
1.It is important that students receive daily face-to-face (“synchronous”) instruction. It was surprising to me that many schools did not create a roster that ensured that students were receiving regular, daily instruction from each of their teachers; some students apparently met with their teachers almost only on an “as needed” basis, as they were invited to contact their teachers for help during virtual “office hours.” It’s not surprising that many students would be reluctant to contact their teacher, whether because they feared more assignments or simply were too shy to speak to the teacher in English. For English Learners who most likely lack opportunity in the home to hear and speak English, having high-quality daily language lessons is crucial for their language development. Unfortunately, in schools that had adopted a “push-in” model of ESOL instruction, some ESOL teachers were only sitting in on classroom teachers’ lessons, and ELs received NO specialized ESOL instruction at all. Of course, assigning projects and other work for students to complete outside of the virtual face-to-face sessions can be desirable and even exciting and fun, but only—-in the case of lower-proficiency English Learners—- if the assignments do not require extensive parental input or research that would overtax newcomers’/beginners’ language skills. I would like to emphasize that daily language lessons will only happen, if carefully crafted rosters are created, and then actually followed, and when principals are required to monitor the quality and frequency of lessons by each teacher.
2. There is no question that having instruction largely ungraded and for review and enrichment through much of the spring did not motivate many students. Clearly, teachers will need to analyze how well students have progressed and where gaps in knowledge may be lurking because of the virus crisis, and they may need to review and reteach concepts that were introduced during the period of May-June, when new material was supposedly introduced. However, classes in the fall semester should introduce new material for which students are held responsible and for which they are tested and graded. The system for taking attendance, in which students could sign in for any type of interaction with school staff and could still be counted as “participating” in lessons needs to be altered; the disappointing percentage of students who participated in lessons in the spring is actually an overestimate of the numbers, since some students were in class “in name only.” The goal for participation needs to be at least 90%, with maximum effort expended in helping families connect to the internet. Exceptions in grading and testing will have to be made for students who are unable to access the virtual lessons, but I would content that the SDP needs to work out a plan so that very few to no students are denied this opportunity. English Learners have so many instructional needs—-linguistic and academic, and in many ways, way too much is challenging new material for them, another reason why students must see their ESOL and classroom/content teachers daily. And their progress needs to be carefully tracked and recorded, if they are to progress to the point where they can compete with their English-speaking peers. Content/classroom teachers must be reminded that they are responsible for making accommodations in instruction and grading, so that ELs can succeed in every class; for ELs, the LANGUAGE of content lessons is new material, not just the content of those lessons.
3. Finally, virtual learning involves parents or other family members and caregivers directly in providing instruction to their children. Outreach to and support of immigrant parents ——in the parents’ preferred languages—- is crucial, if ELs are to succeed this fall. It is almost unbelievable that the SDP set up a technology center, where parents could call in to get help with the various platforms being used for distance learning, yet no bilingual staff were included in the staffing of that center, so Bilingual Counseling Assistants had to take up the slack. It is also troubling that BCAs were tasked with contacting and supporting parents in many other ways, as well, resulting in their working endless hours of uncompensated overtime. In some schools, the ESOL teachers became parent liaisons, as well, although providing instruction is their actual job description, and, if daily language instruction is instituted for the fall, they will be unable to provide parent support services at the same level. Clearly one area in which staffing must be supplemented is in bilingual support staff, whether that support is delivered centrally to parents throughout the District or in service of individual schools.
Teacher, principal, and student accountability, challenging and engaging instruction, and needs-based support are crucial for a successful return to school this fall. Good luck!!