Now that the Fauquier County school division has launched its hybrid learning model -- which brought two-thirds of students back into school buildings Nov. 9 – the administration is moving forward with a plan to tweak the model further in order to provide more instructional hours per week. The school division is planning to begin the updated “blended” learning model in mid-January.
Currently, students receive two days of active (synchronous) instruction from their teachers and complete three days of independent remote learning. The goal of the new plan is to double the teacher-led instruction time to four days of synchronous learning. Teachers would present new material Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and Friday, rather than Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, as they do now. Wednesdays would still be reserved for asynchronous learning.
Students whose parents have signed them up for in-person instruction would still be in classrooms only two days a week but would log in and learn new material via livestream video the other two days – the same way that students learning remotely full-time do now.
Some parents have been pushing for kids to be back in school five days a week, but as long as the state remains in Phase 3 of the Forward Virginia plan, the school division will maintain the hybrid model, said Tara Helkowski, spokeswoman for the school division. The governor’s restrictions (for Phase 3) do not apply to schools, however, and the instruction model for each school division is determined by the local school board, not the state education department or the governor.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered more restrictions on some gatherings and on some businesses in reaction to a spike in coronavirus cases throughout the state, but schools are specifically exempted from these new rules. The new restrictions went into effect Sunday at midnight. (See story, page 2.)
Major Warner, deputy superintendent Fauquier schools, said that the expanded hybrid model “really isn’t a new model. Instead, this plan reconfigures the amount of synchronous and asynchronous learning, moving us closer to the amount of synchronous learning time that existed when we were 100% virtual.”
He acknowledged, “The shift to increased synchronous instructional time will require staff to adjust their pacing and planning. We are discussing this now so that teachers have time to plan and adjust.”
Warner added that principals are enthusiastic about the plan to step up the number of synchronous learning days.
The plan means that some children will be sitting in front of a computer all day four days a week, something that local teachers and parents have agreed is not ideal. And for students learning remotely whose internet service is spotty, there would be no chance to log in during the second two days of the week to “catch up.” If they miss a lesson because of poor connectivity, those lessons will not be repeated.
Even students who will be in the classroom two days a week will be tied to the computer for at least two days. For children whose parents chose in-person learning because of a lack of internet connectivity, they will be more dependent on the internet than before the expanded learning plan.
Warner responded, “We recognize there are challenges to work through, especially for students with connectivity issues. We are committed to ensuring all students have the devices, and we will continue to provide options for connectivity. This mirrors what our kids were doing prior to Nov. 9 under the 100% virtual model in terms of screen time expectations. We believe the move from two to four synchronous learning days is the best decision for our students.”
School division Technology Services Director Louis McDonald said that he has received confirmation that 600 Chromebooks (out of a total of 7,400) that have been ordered will be arriving. That leaves 6,800 still on order that have not been confirmed.
Although the goal is to provide all students with devices, the supply chain has been disrupted for months because of increased demand from school districts all around the country. Warner said, “Similarly to the 100% virtual learning model, we will continue to provide students with the devices they need. The arrival of the new Chromebooks will allow us to rely less on families to use their own devices for learning.”
As far as teachers being able to connect with more students virtually, Warner said, “We are always monitoring bandwidth, and we will make adjustments as needed.”
In December, students will be able to switch their preference from hybrid to remote learning or from remote learning to hybrid.
Reaction from teachers and parents group
A least one group of parents is glad that students will be receiving more teacher-led instruction. Mike Hammond of the group FCPS1 Equity said, “This is a plan that we and the teachers and parents in our group had recommended several weeks back, after the switch to hybrid was announced, and again at the town hall. It's similar to what other counties did when returning to in-person learning. We appreciate that it creates more instruction time and more structure for students so that they are not left on their own for three days a week.”
He added, though, “Many of the teachers have concerns about being able to conduct any physically interactive activities. For example, if there's a lab that students in class can participate in, those at home will not be able to and the teacher will have to repeat the lab for the next cohort later in the week or abandon the lab all together. There's still an issue with all-virtual kids getting the attention they need, and this will now shift the balance yet again. With two-thirds of a class at home on any given day … teachers will have to give more attention to at-home students and less to in-class students.”
Commenting on specific groups of students who require special attention, Hammond said, “Special education will still be an issue as there's no real structural change to teachers’ ability to accommodate them. Other concerns have been voiced about hands-on career and technical education classes and if they will be able to keep their four-days-in-class status.
“We still feel that until there are dedicated virtual and in-class instructors there will continue to be an unequal balance between the virtual and face-to-face students. This plan just shifts that balance from the few attending class to the larger group that will now be logging in. And of course, there's still the issue of connectivity and devices.”
He repeated an objection his group has had since the beginning of hybrid instruction: “This also does not lessen the burden on teachers having to teach both virtual and in-person students at the same time. I continue to hear that this mode is proving unsustainable for teachers. Those I've spoken with say that moving to a new model, again, with four days of new content is just a shift to new work and will not relieve their current workload.
“I think this is a step in the right direction as far as instruction goes, but it does little to solve many of the issues that are still outstanding regarding students’ equitable access to learning. It also does almost nothing to lessen the workload for teachers.”