Laura Gibson faces a teaching dilemma, times two, this fall.
Worried about her ailing mother in Tennessee, Gibson asked the Pinellas County school district to let her teach virtual classes only, so she could tend to her family on a moment’s notice if needed. She was denied.
Instead, Gibson returned to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle in St. Petersburg, where she learned that half of her sixth-graders will attend each period online, and half in person. It’s an arrangement that, in many ways, represents the least feasible teaching option she might have imagined.
“I’m not quite sure how I will be able to be an effective teacher,” said Gibson, whose husband has encouraged her to leave. “I don’t see how, practically and realistically, it can work.”
She is far from alone.
Teachers and parents have inundated Pinellas School Board members with complaints that the combining of virtual and face-to-face students was not what the district promised when it rolled out its reopening model. The Hillsborough and Pasco school districts are encountering similar concerns. But with less extensive plans for what’s being termed “simultaneous teaching,” those districts have not seen the reaction Pinellas is getting.
“The way it was presented to teachers and parents was, it was going to be in-person or online,” said Laura McCrary, whose son will begin his junior year at Countryside High. “My son has autism. ... How is he going to get (his accommodations) met in MyPCS Online when the teacher has got to pay attention to the students in the classroom?”
Mary Ellen Shaffer, whose daughter attends Mildred Helms Elementary, said parents were told that kids who took the virtual learning option would have a dedicated teacher.
“My concern is that the priority, and rightly so, would go be children that are live and right in front of you,” said Shaffer, who sits on the Largo school’s PTA board. She worried the model will be difficult for students at home, and stressful for teachers who are asked to do so much this fall.
Kevin Hendrick, the school district’s chief academic officer, acknowledged the situation is far from ideal.
“Nothing that we are doing is optimal,” Hendrick said, noting how the spread of COVID-19 has thrown the “usual” out the door.
Unlike past years, health and safety take increased precedence over everything else, he said. That meant rethinking teaching assignments from the original proposal that separated online and in-person classes.
“The best way to keep our schools open and keep our employees safe ... is to have the fewest number of students in the classroom at one time,” Hendrick explained.
Schools were given the option of how to organize their offerings. Some, such as Safety Harbor Middle, worked to keep their classes distinct as much as possible.
Many others reviewed their teaching rosters and student enrollment plans, and decided to go with the simultaneous approach.
Hendrick used Campbell Park Elementary’s first-grade sections as one example, showing how the school-based team considered several options before settling on one that allowed a new teacher to have only face-to-face students while the others split their load.
The district included five pages of ideas for simultaneous teaching in its MyPCS Online teacher guide. For technology and direct instruction, it says, “think simple.”
That means sitting in front of the computer with the camera on, projecting any materials both on the screen and in the classroom. Small groups can chat together while the teacher works with others, Hendrick said.
The guide also stresses using Canvas, the district’s new learning management system, as the place for running classes, making and receiving assignments, and other tasks. That would be a goal even without the online component, Hendrick said, as the schools aim to make coursework more accessible to all students. Who knows when COVID-19 might force them home, too?
In all, he said he expected the model to work as teachers and students become comfortable with it.
Gibson, the sixth-grade teacher, had her concerns, though. She wondered how she could pay adequate attention to students in two places at one time, noting it’s hard enough to manage a classroom. And she has gifted students.
She also questioned how her students would be able to hear one another, much less collaborate, in the setup. And she observed that her in-person students won’t have computers available to them, unlike their peers at home.
“The practical aspects of this have not been explained to anyone,” Gibson said.
Nor does the arrangement jibe with teachers’ memorandum of understanding with the district, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Nancy Velardi said.
“They did say at the table that perhaps occasionally this might happen as a very rare occurrence where there is only one teacher to teach a subject,” Velardi said. “Now they’re giving it to everybody. This is certainly not what we discussed.”
She suggested that parents, students and teachers should be upset with the change. “I think everybody is getting shortchanged.”
The union hasn’t taken any formal action, Velardi said, instead waiting to see if the administration alters its course.
“If we have to, we will do a class action grievance or lawsuit,” she said.
The situation isn’t as dire in Hillsborough County, where everyone is still trying to figure out what course schedules look like. But Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins said she anticipated the issue might arise there, too, in time.
“It is not easy to do both,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “We want it to be in very limited circumstances. But I don’t think that’s going to be what’s going to happen.”
Pasco County schools, meanwhile, are trying to keep simultaneous teaching to a minimum, district spokesman Steve Hegarty said. Where possible, he added, the district has adopted new technology to make it more accessible.
It’s called Swivl, and is being used primarily in career-technical classes. Supervisor Lori Romano said the district has tested the system, which uses multiple microphones and a camera that follows the teacher using GPS trackers, and found it simple to use, with easy ability for communicating with all students.
Pasco bought 237 units for career-technical teachers, and another 70 for International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Cambridge instructors. So far, Romano said, teachers have largely welcomed it.
That’s not readily available in Pinellas.
McCrary, whose son attends Countryside High, said she believed Pinellas officials took the lazy way out by allowing for the simultaneous teaching, rather than trying other approaches. At first, she said, it upset her.
But she decided not to get too angry, especially at the people inside her son’s school.
“The state has caused this mess,” she said. “I don’t think parents should blame teachers or administrators. ... Everybody’s plate is full.”