Two weeks into the new school year, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist had one goal in mind as he hosted an online chat Wednesday with Pinellas County parents and teachers: To hear what’s working and what’s not as they navigate education during the coronavirus pandemic.
It didn’t take long for the issue of “simultaneous teaching” — having in-person and remote students in the same classes — to arise. It’s not working, they told the former state education commissioner.
“It really is making it difficult for both the students that are face-to-face and online to have the full educational experience that they are used to,” special education teacher Janet Cunningham told Crist.
This way of teaching is also taking place in Hillsborough, Pasco and other school districts, sometimes under different names like “hybrid” or “concurrent.” But it appears to be more prevalent in Pinellas, where the push back is getting louder.
Cunningham’s complaint was similar to dozens filling Nancy Velardi’s email inbox. Velardi, the president of the county’s teacher union, said she has tried for days to get school district administrators to agree to negotiate the model away.
So far, she said, she hasn’t convinced the officials to bargain.
“The district is hedging,” Velardi said Thursday. “They will talk to us, but they do not want to sit at the table. They are saying we can work it out without negotiations.”
Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said the district has been talking with union leaders for weeks over this subject. The district sent a letter to the union Thursday afternoon, offering about a dozen suggestions to make the model work better.
Those include better use of headsets and other technology, teaching in smaller groups and alternating days between live instruction and independent work.
“We’re just kind of waiting to hear what their proposed solutions are, and combine them with ours,” Corbett said.
The union has begun pulling together teachers’ comments and alternative ideas. But if the conversations don’t go well — and Velardi has little confidence they will — then a class-action grievance is in the offing.
“They are refusing to accept the fact that this is actually like making a teacher teach 12 courses and not just six,” Velardi said.
In earlier talks, the sides agreed that such an arrangement might be necessary in select instances, such as when a school has just one teacher in a subject. But it’s taking place in almost every middle and high school, she said, and “that is not what was agreed to. ... It is not acceptable and we want it changed.”
Teachers are not the only ones unhappy with the model. Parents who signed up for the district’s MyPCS Online distance learning for their children say they were told their children would have teachers dedicated to remote classes.
Corbett noted that the administration shifted direction to keep class sizes small, for maximum social distancing. It was not ideal for instruction, he said, but health and safety must come first.
Placing online and in-person students in separate classes could make distancing disappear, he said. “That’s the crux of why it’s difficult.”
But since seeing it in action, more than 1,800 people have signed a parent-driven online petition calling for an end to simultaneous teaching.
“There is no viable way for the teacher to (be) expected to manage both classrooms at the same time and provide the level of education that the teachers are able to teach if they are not being pulled in multiple directions,” the petition reads, in part.
Stephanie Cox, who has sons in fourth and sixth grades, told Crist in his online chat that her older child has seven of eight periods in the model.
“Really, he’s getting 50 percent of the teacher’s instruction,” Cox said, noting instructors often walk away from their computers to deal with children in the room. “It’s hard for the teachers to see if he’s struggling with something. It’s very stressful.”
Tracey McConnell, who has a seventh and ninth grader, told the Tampa Bay Times that both her children have struggled to get admitted to their online classrooms.
“My son has a lot of advanced classes, and he’s not able to get into the classrooms and there’s teaching going on,” she said. “I don’t know if they are going to ever get past this simultaneous thing. It is not working.”
Such concerns have made their way to School Board members, who shared some of the views.
Board member Rene Flowers said she has wondered, for example, how teachers could be expected to sit in one space and not move around, as the district has suggested as a way to limit spreading the coronavirus. Yet if they circulate in the classroom, online students can’t hear.
“I don’t think it is a viable solution,” Flowers said of simultaneous teaching.
Yet she also recognized some of the related factors playing into the procedure, such as not having enough teachers in the right positions to divide the work otherwise.
Flowers said she intended to bring the topic up for conversation at the board’s meeting on Tuesday.
“We should come up with something to provide a better system,” she said. “I have no idea what that is. ... I’ll take any suggestions that will possibly work.”