In recent weeks, as novel coronavirus caseloads across the country have surged, school systems are making difficult decisions to stop or limit in-person learning options in an effort to reduce the virus’ spread. In some areas, those transitions are coming just weeks after districts phased in on-campus learning.

This fall’s toggle between in-person, hybrid and distance learning formats has become more challenging, according to administrators and education experts. Unlike the spring, when nearly all districts only offered remote learning, a district now may have multiple learning format options for different grade levels that vary based on the school day or week, said Chris Tienken, an associate professor of education administration at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“It’s not easier this time around because the logistics have become infinitely more complex,” said Tienken. “What you actually have are some schools that have been on three or four different schedules already, and we’re only at Thanksgiving.”

When schedules are altered, teachers need to adjust their lesson plans or simultaneously plan for both in-person and online formats. Administrators need to verify staff will be available for each mode of learning and communicate scheduling changes to families, students and staff.

“You can imagine the chaos that causes in the teaching and learning environment because there’s no continuity and no predictability,” Tienken said.

Scheduling changes

Reasons for shutting schools to face-to-face instruction are usually tied to the increased COVID-19 caseload in the community. Because the impacts of COVID-19 cases are so localized, there is no universal approach to scheduling decisions. 

The Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205 in Elmhurst, Illinois, ceased in-person learning for all grades from Oct. 21 to Nov. 4 when positivity rates and case numbers increased.

While school districts are afforded some level of discretion, every indicator — positivity rates, number of cases, number of youth cases — is headed in the wrong direction and that is why we made the decision to pause our in-person instruction for all students,” wrote Superintendent David Moyer in a letter to parents and staff. Remote learning was extended to Nov. 29 when COVID-19 metrics did not improve, according to the district’s website.

In some cases, districts that planned to open campuses for the first time since March are delaying those goals. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school system in the nation, remains in a virtual learning mode despite aspirations to open campuses earlier in the fall and an effort to provide COVID-19 testing to all students, families and staff.

“My commitment remains the same as I made when we closed schools in March – we will not reopen schools until it’s safe and appropriate to do so,” said LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner in a message to the school community Nov. 23, noting the community recorded its highest daily count since the public health crisis began.

Sometimes, when districts decide to alter learning formats because of increased cases, there is very short notice to school communities. For instance, Virginia Beach City School District in Virginia announced Nov. 16 on its Twitter account that it would switch from in-person to virtual learning the next day. Meanwhile, in Michigan, a Nov. 16 executive order from the state education superintendent announced the closure of in-person learning for grades 9-12 beginning Nov. 18 and lasting through Dec. 8.

Some parts of the country are trying to help schools continue in-person despite the rise in COVID-19 cases. The Oregon Department of Education said schools can make decisions to keep buildings open despite a two week state-wide freeze that began Nov. 18 for indoor dining, the closure of certain businesses and other restrictions on social gatherings. 

Rhode Island is planning to implement restrictions from Nov. 30 to Dec. 13 on indoor dining, attendance limitations for funerals, the closure of movie theaters and more. The state’s executive order says schools serving grades K-8 can remain open, but that local school administrators have flexibility to limit in-person learning for high schools

Even where face-to-face instruction is not disrupted, the logistical challenges of making slight scheduling adjustments can feel weighty. The School District of Pickens County in South Carolina has offered full-time in-person learning and remote learning this fall, but it is adjusting in-person class schedules for high school students for two weeks after the Thanksgiving break to reduce the number of times students change classes, said Superintendent Danny Merck, who meets daily with a core group of administrators to review health metrics in the district.

“We don’t try to have the attitude that things aren’t getting worse,” Merck said. “Our biggest priority is keeping students and staff safe.”

Effective practices

Merck said the Pickens school system plans the learning format in six-week intervals, saying he’s found it helpful to work around that timeframe instead of trying to plan for the entire year. He also said while he watches his district’s health and learning data closely, he communicates with other school leaders in the region, state, country and even abroad to better understand how schools are adapting learning formats in different situations. 

In addition, Merck said he relies on information collected by school community task forces about the impacts of the health crisis, as well as advice from medical experts. “There’s a cycle of communication because we don’t want any surprises,” he said.

When school systems decide to switch learning formats or schedules, there are often some in the community who don’t agree. For example, some teachers have protested school building reopenings, while some parents have pushed districts to offer more in-person instruction. 

“School administrators are in an absolute no-win situation here. If they’re looking for universal public affirmation, they’re not going to find it,” Tienken, the education professor, said.

Tienken said school districts that have switched learning formats successfully are focused on the safety of students and staff in school buildings, and their decisions are supported by health experts and other evidence-based information.

“They’re not making decisions based on public opinion,” he said. “They’re making it based on their duty to serve students and staff.”

Other practices that have made learning format changes less challenging for students and staffs, according to Tienken, include:

  • Have curriculum “diets.” School districts that have analyzed their curriculum to determine “must-have” and “nice-to-have” lessons are able to give guidance to teachers about how to better prioritize learning requirements during this unpredictable year so class time, in whatever format available, is used efficiently.

  • Set staff planning time. Some districts on remote schedules and hybrid in-person formats have built in a half-day once a week for staff planning, allowing teachers dedicated time to prepare lessons that can be delivered remotely and in-person.

  • Hire remote teachers. Because many districts that offer full-time in-person learning are allowing families the choice of remote learning while the pandemic is still a threat, it can be difficult for teachers to monitor and serve students online and face-to-face at the same time. Some districts that have the resources have hired teachers to support online learners, working in coordination with the class’ in-person teacher.  

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