About fourteen months ago The Before Times ended, ushering in The Age of The Virus. On 16 March 2021, my little school transitioned to distance learning, and like other schools in South Carolina, we finished the year online.
We began this school year with a mix of online and in-person students, with most students attending in-person. We had a plethora of new policies to enforce, such as one-way traffic in hallways (that quickly collapsed), mask-wearing, and social distancing. Of those three, mask-wearing was pretty much the only one that really stuck the entire year, until Governor McMaster blessedly issued his executive order last week allowing students to opt-out of wearing masks.
With Awards Day today and graduation just eight days away (next week is Exam Week, so it will be a much lighter week than most for yours portly), it seemed appropriate to review this highly unusual school year, and to reflect upon how it went, and what the long-term implications of it will be.
Needless to say, this year was quite different than others, though, like any school year, it began to fall into predictable patterns. The biggest challenge was balancing online students and in-person students.
In theory (and, mostly in practice) this approach makes way more sense than the public school “hybrid” system, in which there are two groups of students, with one group “on” (in-person) one day while the other group is “off” (fully virtual) that same day, with each group alternating. In speaking with public school colleagues who had to endure the hybrid system, is was quite difficult, as they had to do essentially double the planning: their usual face-to-face lesson for the “on” group that day, and a separate, pre-recorded lesson for the “off” group. I know that many schools dedicated Fridays to teacher workdays so teachers could pre-record lessons.
Our system was to have online students attend simultaneously to in-person students. This approach is akin to what I experienced teaching evening classes at a local technical college some years ago, where some students were in the class with me, while other students assembled at their respective branch campuses and tuned in via a closed-circuit television system. The difference, of course, is that my online students were decentralized, each at their individual homes.
In many ways, that made it more difficult to keep online students on task, and in practice many of them simply tuned out during class. Our online procedures technically required students to be online with their cameras on, but in practice that rarely happened. On one virtual learning day (when all students were virtual), a student turned on his camera in the middle of class to reveal that he was skeet shooting. I also frequently had students tuning in while driving, which is both dangerous and not conducive to focused learning.
Abuse of the online system was rampant, too, despite my administration’s feeble attempts to prevent it. How does one prevent the unpreventable? On any test or quiz day, I would notice a spike of around 10-20% of my students going online, often just for the day. Sometimes it would be nearly 50% of the class! Naturally, online quiz scores were often unrealistically high (and consistently so), and everyone knew there was some not-so-surreptitious Googling and note-searching occurring. I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Wikipedia‘s Greatest Hits” a number of times this year, and far more frequently than usual.
Attendance also became a tedious, lengthy process. Instead of simply calling out roll rapid fire and being done with it in thirty seconds, it became an exercise of “wait-and-see” who will log in on time. Normally, when the bell rings, most students arrive within the four-minute change between classes. I can mark those students present as they arrive.
With online students, they often (and understandably) would wait until the actual start of class—the ringing of the tardy bell—to log in. That makes sense: if you or I had a Zoom meeting at 10 AM, for example, we’d likely log in at or slightly before 10 AM. The problem arose when I’d have an entire class ready to go in-person, but I’d be waiting on one virtual student to pop up. There were also many students who took the start of class as the end of their prior class, so I’d have students logging in ten minutes late.
Teachers were also required to e-mail attendance every period to the registrar, in addition to entering it in RenWeb, our gradebook and attendance software. That’s not particularly onerous (though the registrar tells me that many of my colleagues didn’t bother sending attendance e-mails at all), but the following scenario was common: just as I’d hit “send” to submit attendance, a tardy online student would pop up. That would then require another follow-up e-mail stating that the student logged in late. If it were during first period, that would often create confusion, as the registrar would occasionally miss the follow-up e-mail and include the student in the list of absentees for the day. That also meant she had to make an extra phone call to parents about their “missing” child, who in fact was merely extremely tardy.
This issue was relatively minor in one sense, but the net effect is that the true start of class would often be delayed by as much as ten minutes—and sometimes longer! Given that class times were reduced from one hour to fifty-six minutes this year, that further cut into class time. Granted, four minutes is not a huge loss, though it adds up over the course of a week to twenty fewer minutes of class time. Tack on another ten minutes to that, though, and you’re looking at an hour of last class time in a week between the shorter class time and the tedious attendance process.
One might say, “Well, just start teaching,” and that is, indeed, what I often did. That brought it’s own problems, though, as a student might log in fifteen minutes late, but escape my notice (because I’m teaching to a class full of students, and not just to a computer). If I didn’t catch that one tardy student, they’d be marked absent, and then that student or their parents would contact me inquiring “why was I/my child marked absent when I/my child was there?” Again, it’s not a huge obstacle to overcome, but it’s another small detail that distracts from actual teaching.
Overall, going fully online last spring (which I enjoyed personally and professionally) and then offering the go-on-it-anytime virtual option derailed some students long-term. I would say that the vast majority of middle school students, and a solid majority of high school students, simply aren’t ready to take classes fully online when those classes are substantially in-person courses (a notable exception—my technical college students are often dual enrollment high schoolers, and they seem to thrive in a purely online environment, though that could be a self-selecting group, and there are still a number of students each semester that really struggle with the format). There are some students who did really well with it this year, but most students lack the discipline and structure to succeed in an online format.
On the other hand, The Age of The Virus made the school year much more manageable in other ways. Given that most extracurricular events, morning meetings, and the like were cancelled or moved online or to some other decentralized format, it substantially eased up some of my duties outside of the classroom. My school is obsessed with turning every small holiday or occasion into a major production, and as the de facto sound guy, I end up juggling a lot of equipment setup. With a few exceptions, that constant demand for production value—“put a speaker in this weird outdoor location” or “we want you to throw together an ensemble in two days to play at an inconvenient location”—was substantially reduced. It actually enabled me to conduct my music classes properly, working on tunes at our own pace, rather than shifting the curriculum on a dime to accommodate the whims of the administration or board.
Despite my anxious ranting last weekend, this school year was, overall, a good one. Professionally, I was able to grow as a musician and a music teacher, and my music classes were some of the most rewarding I’ve ever taught, both for myself and—based on their feedback—my students. Incorporating online students in performance-based music courses was a challenge, and one that, I fear, I did not adequately meet, but I was able to do so much more with my in-person students than in any prior year.
It’s amazing what one can accomplish when one’s administration leaves one alone, eh?