LARGO — Pinellas County school officials said Tuesday they had heard the complaints loud and clear: Many teachers and parents do not like the practice of combining online and in-person students in classes.
But when it came to finding answers, School Board members and top administrators came nowhere close to what the critics wanted. Rather than move toward eliminating the concept, as some requested, district leaders spoke at length about making the model work through some extra planning and assistance.
Defining the problem isn’t the hard part, superintendent Mike Grego said during a School Board meeting at district headquarters in Largo. “I continue to challenge all of us to come to the table with solutions.”
Grego said the district had provided some ideas to the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which has fielded objections to the approach from several of its members. Those included steps like providing more technology such as microphones, and dividing class time between the online and in-person sections.
The teachers union responded with a letter detailing its own recommendations, offering suggestions such as providing teachers with one full planning day per week, with the caveat that its ultimate goal is eliminating the so-called “hybrid” or “simultaneous” classes.
“The hybrid model appears to be a remedy in theory and on paper, but when put into practice is causing stress and over burdensome work on the part of the teacher and is not providing the quality education our students deserve,” the union leadership wrote to the district.
The sides are scheduled to discuss the topic again on Sept. 14.
In the meantime, they staked out their positions during the board’s meeting.
Grego and his team couched the debate in terms of an educational process that remained in development. It is far from perfect, they acknowledged, but it serves a purpose of keeping classrooms less crowded to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent for teaching and learning, told the board that the decision to use simultaneous teaching was made at the school level, to best meet local needs. He said his office provided guidance to teachers ahead of time and continued to offer advice to anyone who sought it.
One of the first recommendations, he said, was for teachers to use one lesson for all their students, rather than creating different ones for online and face-to-face.
“We’re all adjusting,” Grego added. “There’s still more work to get done, and this work is every day.”
Board members signaled their discontent with the criticisms they’ve heard about the model. They noted the frustration is starting to turn into anger, voiced by teachers and parents.
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Board member Lisa Cane said she has seen the situation first hand in her own home with four children. She has to deal with their various school issues while trying to work, and then also watch teachers try to balance their time between two sets of students.
“It is a problem across the board for teachers, parents and students,” Cane said.
Board member Nicole Carr observed that the district has tried to send the message that it wants to improve the situation, but that the word isn’t getting through.
“We’ve said it, but our staff hasn’t absorbed it," Carr said. "So what can we do better?”
To many of the speakers who addressed the board on the topic, the answer was clear.
“It is time to take off the rose-colored glasses and be truthful,” East Lake High teacher Jill Barncord told the board, echoing others who spoke. “You are all implementing these decisions but you are not witnessing first hand the challenges they impose.”
She and others scoffed at the notion that they could use one lesson for both online and in-person students.
“If only it were that easy,” said Gulfport Elementary teacher Rachel Mita, who said she has 147 online and 166 in-person students.
“It is not fair to have a group of kids sitting at home, a group of kids in front of the teacher, and to expect the teacher to be able to do the same thing for both of them,” added Oak Grove Middle teacher Kristen Coffelt, calling the current working conditions “disgraceful.”
Pinellas Park Middle teacher Patrick Mugan told the board he never felt so unsupported as now. He works long, unpaid hours to prepare for his students, he said, and resents it when officials suggest that’s just what teachers do because they care.
“I don’t understand how you can sit here and pat yourselves on the back like you’re doing a great job. Because you’re not,” Mugan said, pleading for help.
Parent Amanda Loeffler, who has petitioned to end simultaneous teaching, shared the discontent.
“This isn’t fair,” she told the board. “How do you expect the children to get a decent education when their teacher is tasked with so many things they shouldn’t be tasked with?”
In other business, the School Board gave final approval to a $1.67 billion budget, with a tax rate of $6.427 per $1,000 of assessed value. Associate superintendent for finance Kevin Smith told the board that funding appeared solid through at least December, but statewide revenue projections remain unclear. Cuts might be necessary later in the school year, he said, depending on how lawmakers respond.