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Colorado teachers are working twice — sometimes three times — as hard when their students learn both in person and online

A hybrid approach to school gives students the chance to see teachers and peers in person. But is it also burning out educators?

Rhiannon Wenning prepares lesson plans for her AP World History students from her home on Oct. 29, 2020, in Lakewood. Wenning teaches 9th and 11th graders at Jefferson Junior/Senior High School in Edgewater. Since teaching her classes online, she placed inspirational signs on the wall behind her that her students can see. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Rhiannon Wenning’s school days have grown longer with the pandemic, and in her 20 years of teaching, she’s never worked as hard.

Her usual 50-hour work weeks have notched up to between 60 and 70 hours. Recently, the Jefferson Junior/Senior High School social studies teacher clocked an 80-hour week, committing at least 16 hours to schoolwork during a weekend.

With a hybrid approach to classes — in which students are rotating between in-person and online learning — Wenning’s planning and grading have become much more about juggling disparate tasks this school year. Not only does she have to develop lessons for designated groups of students seated in her classroom, but she also has to cater to hybrid students on the days they’re studying from home. Plus, she’s responsible for a third set of students who are spending the semester doing all of their coursework remotely.

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For many Colorado teachers whose schools have opted for a hybrid mode of learning amid the pandemic, their workload has at least doubled. For some like Wenning, it feels like it’s tripled as they spread their attention among three sets of students. 

Districts pursuing hybrid learning have good intentions — among them, ensuring that kids can have some face-to-face interaction with educators and peers for their own social-emotional health and begin to regain a sense of normalcy after months of chaos and uncertainty. But is the benefit of bringing students back into classrooms once or twice a week worth the burden of adding more work to teachers, many of whom were already strained before the coronavirus?

There isn’t one clear answer.

A hybrid mode of schooling can pan out well for schools if it’s planned out, said Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, a nonprofit focused on improving public education and boosting student achievement. But without detailed planning, teachers could potentially be taking on twice the amount of work and getting substantially less return than if they focused on effective online work.

“Without support and planning, hybrid…can lead to the worst of both worlds,” Schoales said.

He acknowledges how hard a hybrid approach to school can be, but adds that in-person learning is a critical experience for students.

“Connecting in person, even if it’s only one or two days a week, is better than nothing,” he said.

Rhiannon Wenning prepares lesson plans for her AP World History students from her home on Oct. 29, 2020, in Lakewood. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That’s why educators like Mark Sass, Teach Plus executive director for Colorado and a part-time social studies teacher at Legacy High School in Broomfield, don’t hesitate to express a preference for hybrid learning over remote classes. Sass, who was teaching through a hybrid mode up until last week, when middle schoolers and high schoolers transitioned back to remote instruction, doesn’t want to trade all the additional planning that comes with hybrid schooling for time away from his students.

There’s so much about the face-to-face environment that doesn’t translate to distance learning, Sass said, including being able to directly interact with students, reading their body language and being able to have spontaneous conversations, which tend to be much more informative.

“I think it’s better for the kids,” Sass said. “Some teachers certainly do take on an extra burden with that, it takes a little bit of extra time, but it’s totally the right thing to do for kids.”

A day in the chaotic life of a hybrid teacher

As much work as a hybrid approach creates for Wenning, she wants to stick with it so long as it’s safe for teachers and students. But she is also starting to recognize that conducting classes entirely remotely might be a better option. Along with curbing the spread of the virus, Wenning said, it would offer school communities more consistency and would open up more time for teachers to help students struggling with remote classes.

Other teachers like David Holt, a social studies teacher at Arvada Senior High School, see hybrid learning as “almost counterproductive” for many students. 

Shifting between in-person and online learning is “mentally taxing” for students, Holt said, adding “they don’t succeed as well as they could have if they had a single learning environment to focus on.”

When hybrid students study online for a few days, they begin to check out, he said, whereas those engaged fully in remote learning can better adapt.

Looking back, Holt wishes Jeffco Public Schools had invested more time and energy during the summer in preparing for robust online learning and developing school-run learning pods for groups of students with higher needs.

Angie Anderson, a social studies teacher at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, pressed the need for the district to better prioritize how much in-person support is provided to students based on their needs. Some of her students really need that in-person component — beyond what a hybrid system can offer them, Anderson said. She added that access to resources, family support and skills differ from student to student.

“I wish we would have looked at it through an equity lens to support the kids who need the most support,” Anderson said.

All three teachers’ school days center largely on trying to split their attention between the students sitting in front of them and those showing up to class through a screen.

Wenning started the school year in remote learning and, two weeks in, converted to hybrid instruction. Her classes are split between two cohorts who alternate attending classes in person. She sees students from two of her class sections on Mondays and Wednesdays, with students from other periods showing up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, all students study remotely.

During most of Wenning’s class time, she has to focus her attention on the students in her classroom, a cohort of hybrid students streaming in and another group of students who are staying home for every class. She often covers learning objectives for the day with all students and then releases those learning via Zoom to continue working on an assignment on their own. While her remote students are concentrating on one lesson, she’ll teach another lesson to the 10-15 kids in her room.

Rhiannon Wenning prepares lesson plans for her AP World History students from her home on Oct. 29, 2020, in Lakewood. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wenning must spray desks and sanitize her entire classroom after a period ends. She doesn’t get a planning period on some days, with her first break of the day at lunch. In the afternoon, while teaching a credit-recovery program, she also tries to answer emails and give feedback to both the students in her room and those online.

That communication doesn’t stop once Wenning leaves the school building. After working a part-time job in tutoring after school most days, she heads home, often to grade or plan for two or three more hours. Wenning typically wraps up her grading, planning, emails and personal responsibilities around midnight.

It hasn’t helped that her school has had to pivot between different learning modes this school year because of fluctuations in the spread of the coronavirus. The entire school was quarantined in September, forcing Wenning to adapt her planning to a remote-only style of teaching for two weeks. She has to be agile and ready with plans that will accommodate whichever mode her school demands.

Anderson, the Bear Creek High School teacher, works until about 9 p.m. every night. She spent much of her school year reworking her curriculum, which was based on group discussions and projects, for remote learning. She said the lessons don’t easily translate. For every 90 minutes of teaching, she spends 90 minutes planning — without any additional planning time built into the school day.

The pandemic has exposed just how thin teachers are spread, Anderson said.

School leaders recognize teachers’ stress levels but also want what’s best for kids

Although Sass, of Legacy High School in Broomfield, is a proponent of hybrid learning, he acknowledges how much more planning and scheduling it requires. He also has to consider the timing of lessons and what kind of schoolwork can best be completed by students on their own. It’s critical that the work they do independently stems from something he’s already covered with them. 

“It’s a bit like chess on two levels,” Sass said, adding that he also has to watch what’s going on live and find ways to engage students learning from home.

During his time in hybrid instruction, Sass didn’t have to focus simultaneously on students in class and those livestreaming from home, but he sympathizes with teachers who do and the challenge they face in incorporating those students learning from a distance.

“You just have to be so much more deliberate in checking yourself” so that you include the kids who are livestreaming, Sass said.

Another hurdle for hybrid teachers: They can’t give their students the kind of immediate feedback that helps accelerate learning. That problem is particularly disruptive when it comes to complex assignments, such as those related to writing development.

“In those types of instances, it’s taking longer for the learning process to occur,” said Corey Pierce, director of the School of Special Education and a professor at the University of Northern Colorado. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Pierce noted that educator preparation programs generally have not equipped aspiring teachers with the tools to manage learning in remote, hybrid and other flexible formats. That’s starting to change as the pandemic prompts teacher training programs to broaden their focus beyond the traditional classroom.

Both Sheridan School District No. 2 and Cañon City School District have also schooled students through a hybrid approach this fall. 

Sheridan School District had a learning curve to overcome with its hybrid model during the first few weeks of school, said Chief Academic Officer Shirley Miles, but teachers are now embracing the approach. The district trained educators over the summer on how to facilitate hybrid learning, walking them through different aspects of the remote part of hybrid learning. The district has outfitted classrooms with cameras so that teachers can livestream their lessons. Professional development that touches on technology continues throughout the school year, Miles said.

Sheridan School District temporarily converted back to remote-only classes last week following fall break. 

Miles sees the need for teachers to learn how to use the technology as the main driver of their increased workload and understands how challenging it is to work with students who are remote and in person at the same time. But she isn’t worried about teachers burning out and remains confident it’s becoming a smoother process with time and practice.

She also elevates the need for kids to be back at school for their own wellbeing.

“We all know that really in person is better,” Miles said, “not just the social-emotional piece but the achievement piece as well.”

Rhiannon Wenning prepares lesson plans for her AP World History students from her home on Oct. 29, 2020, in Lakewood. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

George Welsh, superintendent of Cañon City School District, is a lot more concerned about every single one of his teachers burning out this school year. The district’s high school has used a hybrid mode of learning for the past two years, so its teachers had a running start this fall. The district’s middle schoolers are also taking hybrid courses this year, but if Welsh could do it over again, he would have preferred creating a digital middle school. But he doesn’t have the resources or the staff for that kind of system.

He knows the workload has increased for hybrid teachers, particularly those in middle school, as it has completely shifted their instruction — something Welsh said would be stressful in a typical school year without a pandemic.

A recent survey in the district indicated that about 60% of staff are having thoughts about leaving the profession. Welsh said the district is focused on listening to teachers and trying to make adjustments to help them feel less overwhelmed, such as scaling back on professional development.

He finds himself quizzing teachers for guidance: What can we do to get us through this? What can we do to support you through this year?


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