Teachers were interviewed over the phone and asked to remain anonymous to protect job security.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on issues that were lying just beneath the surface in America. As schools shutdown this past spring, parents converted their homes into makeshift classrooms and received first-hand knowledge of just how undervalued teachers are in America.
Beginning in March, teachers across the nation were forced to alter their teaching styles for online learning all while facing a lack of job security, low salary, and increased workload. As Virginia schools begin to phase students back to in-person instruction, it is crucial that school districts consider the difficulties of hybrid classes and the strain it will put on educators who are already spread thin.
The plan to move Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) students back into the classroom is taking place juxtaposed to the looming threat of a second wave of COVID-19. This second-wave threatens the timelines that would safely bring students back to school, but that is not stopping school districts from trying their best to adapt to the new normal in education.
FCPS’s response began earlier this month as they implemented a cohort learning model. This model places around 3.5% of FCPS students and faculty back in classrooms for early learners and specialized high school career preparatory programs that could not be replicated online.
Fairfax County Public School’s next operational level involves bringing more students back with a hybrid learning model that gives students the option of remaining completely online or receiving two days of in-person instruction and two days of virtual instruction. This concurrent teaching model necessitates that in-person and online students are given instruction at the same time.
There is a lack of comprehensive research on the effect which concurrent classrooms have on student success due to how new the model is for schools across the country. The reliance on anecdotal evidence makes it difficult for school districts to choose the correct path for a hybrid model.
One of the greatest challenges facing teachers who are doing non-concurrent instruction is the increased workload of creating content for both audiences. While concurrent classroom models allow teachers to save time on preparing materials because they are not required to teach the same lesson twice, early evidence suggests that there are several other issues with concurrent instruction.
These concurrent models have been failing in classrooms across the US due rises in COVID cases and student struggles to participate. Teachers are forced to split their attention among the different populations of in-person and online students to the detriment of student engagement.
Even with teaching assistants facilitating discussions, graduate students were notified via email that hybrid classes at the University of Virginia were moving online to help increase the flow of lectures and provide an equal playing field for student participation.
Equity in the classroom is an important hurdle for educators to overcome in the hybrid environment. Those attending in-person lectures gain a clear advantage through their direct access to instructors as compared to those attending online who experience various virtual barriers to access, such as bad internet connection.
One of the main benefits of concurrent models is that it can greatly assist lower income families who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Parents who have been forced to stay home or take their kids to work would be given the opportunity to send their kids back into a classroom.
With this model, teachers would also be able to provide greater assistance to students who are struggling in a virtual classroom by directly monitoring students during the in-person days and helping them with any issues that are hard to communicate online.
In Spotsylvania County, there is a non-concurrent hybrid model and many teachers have seen positives for students with accessibility difficulties. One Spotsylvania teacher says that “Having [students] come in-person two days a week ensures we will see them and allows us to make sure they are engaging. It also gives us the opportunity to work one on one with our kids who struggle which isn’t a possibility when teaching online.”
The push for in-person learning is understandable given that research has shown that virtual learning has negative effects on student success.
A 2017 study published in the American Economic Review on for-profit colleges found that online courses reduce the probability of a student being enrolled a year later by about 10%. Those enrolled in online courses also had slightly lower grades for two subsequent semesters than those who did not take online courses.
A more recent study investigated the impact of online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic had on the academic performance of Virginia’s community college students. The authors find “that the shift to virtual instruction resulted in a 6.7 percentage point decrease in course completion, driven by increases in both course withdrawal and failure.”
The long-term impacts that COVID-19 will have on student success are unknown, but given previous research on online learning, it could be quite bleak. It is for this reason that FCPS is prioritizing getting students back in the classroom who cannot learn in a virtual environment.
The FCPS hybrid model initiative comes at the expense of educators who are just becoming familiar with the many quirks of virtual learning and now have to adjust to a new model once again. The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT) outlined their requirements for a safe return to school in their 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening. Among these guidelines, FCFT wants FCPS to conduct a walkthrough of a day in the life of a hybrid model teacher before putting both students and faculty at risk.
Instead of a walkthrough, FCPS plans to run pilot programs in a couple of classrooms across the county to determine effective strategies. FCPS Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand stated in his presentation on October 15th that multiple principals are excited to be a part of these pilot programs and are eager to get students back in their schools.
The FCPS school board approved 13 pilot programs that the superintendent will report during their November 12th meeting. The hope is that FCPS will be able to create professional development modules that can help teachers understand the new COVID-19 guidelines and implement the best methods of instruction in this brand new setting.
Despite their best efforts, a lot of the responsibility will still fall in the hands of teachers. Procedures for conducting classroom activities will have to be determined at the individual teacher level due to the vast variety in classroom size and school resources.
FCPS risks losing some of their most talented teachers if they are not able to safely protect all individuals who are going back to school. On October 6th, FCFT released survey results from 1,335 union members revealing that FCPS may not have enough teachers to maintain their efforts. This survey shows that 85% of educators are not confident in FCPS’s return to school plan and over 25% are considering taking unpaid leave or resigning if they are asked to return.
The Virginia Department of Education on its website “strongly encourages every division to avoid furloughs if at all possible,” but many school districts have struggled to uphold this guideline. Initially, FCPS gave over 650 teachers 48 hours to decide if they would teach in-person, submit an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) request, take a leave of absence, or resign. They retroactively gave teachers four more days to make the incredibly difficult decision after receiving significant pushback regarding the initially short timeline.
ADA requests have skyrocketed among teachers and operational staff in Fairfax County. The total number of ADA requests sent as of October 14th is 2,474, though only 1,027 of them have been approved so far. Still, even among the 42% of requests that have been approved, there is no guarantee of safety in the workplace.
Approval means that staff is allowed to conduct “100% telework, or some combination of telework and in-person [work].” This can be devastating for teachers who may live with a loved one who is a member of an at-risk population for COVID-19.
Virginia teachers are doing all this extra work to accommodate online learning with a salary that is already well below the national average and shows no signs of increasing. The average national salary for teachers in the 2018-2019 school year was $61,730 and in Virginia that average was only $52,466.
Compounded with the tightening of school district budgets across the country due to COVID-19, the chances of teachers earning a much deserved raise for working overtime to adjust to the new virtual classrooms is low.
The Fairfax County School Board approved their FY 2021 budget in May giving the first signs of the damage that the virus will have on school funding. The total budget decrease is $67 million, which completely erases the possibility for pay scale increases for employees.
Burnout is another very serious concern for teachers in concurrent models. FCFT’s survey reveals that almost 99% of teachers reported working beyond contract hours in the current virtual learning model. The concurrent model could increase workload and cause teachers to look elsewhere for work or leave the education field entirely.
A teacher in Stafford County said, “The beginning of the year was very overwhelming, with getting used to a new system and adapting to virtual [teaching], but now that we’re into a routine, the work is more manageable.”
Stafford County, which is planning to implement a non-concurrent hybrid model, is moving along with their plan and this teacher noted, “Since we’ve started to transition to hybrid [learning], the work is increasing again as we prepare to see kids in person as well as giving them work online.”
FCPS has consistently struggled to communicate with teachers about the direction they are headed. Many teachers had no clue about the plan for concurrent teaching until a day before the school board meeting presentation.
FCPS School board member Melanie K. Meren said in an update, “I am very sad that a more complete version of this plan wasn’t presented to us much sooner” and that the school board needs “to be provided with clear, complete presentations and recommendations from the Superintendent in order to best do our jobs.”
This highlights how critical communication is in helping educators and administrators plan for however the school board decides to move forward, especially after seeing the results of the pilot programs.
Learning from educator’s experiences in different hybrid environments will also be needed to ensure that FCPS can easily transition students back to in-person. Stafford and Spotsylvania County are utilizing a different hybrid model that does not involve concurrent teaching and FCPS should consider these rather than solely focusing on the concurrent model.
School districts have been dealt a rough hand, but they should not rush to get students back in class without strong evidence that hybrid models are better than current virtual classrooms for teachers and students. Setting teachers up for success, in turn, sets students up for success. Without highly prepared and protected teachers, students will never be able to overcome the challenges that the coronavirus has presented for their education.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.