School in the Pandemic: Doubletime: Is Academic Life Easier or Harder for Schools Offering Dual Enrollment?
Written and Compiled By: Terry Born
The 20 principals who participated in the conversation below represented schools across a broad range of urban, rural and suburban locations, class and cultural divides, and both public and charter supervision, yet the challenges and successes they cite were generally representative of all.
In early March, as awareness spread across the country of the potential proliferation and danger of Covid-19, schools sensed and began to respond to the possibility of temporary, and even long-term shut downs. They started to imagine the impact of closing their doors to hundreds of thousands of young people, moving their curriculums online, training their teachers on Zoom, GoogleClassroom, CANVAS, etc as they hoped against hope this reality would never materialize. Weighing the options of keeping staffs, students, and their families safe against trying to continue within a “regular” schedule of daily classes, filled to the brim in buildings where young and old were in close physical contact, engaging in sports, sharing meals, social interaction and travelling to and fro between and through homes, buses, trains, and streets where the possibility of infection and transmission were invisible, unpredictable and uncontrollable made the decision to shut down inevitable. Within a period of 2 to 4 weeks schools across the country moved into a virtual reality that was dependent on availability of reliable online bandwidth and devices, parental responsibility, and a terrifying sense of fear, isolation, confusion and loss.
Now, two months into the new reality educational communities are grappling with social, emotional, economic and academic challenges with no guarantees of returning to brick and mortar schoolhouses in September. In the context of this situation, principals and Executive Board members of The Middle College National Consortium recently convened to reflect on what they have learned and how they are planning to address the future. The Consortium is a network of unique high schools which offer high school students the opportunity to simultaneously complete high school and earn college credits towards an AA degree. Many of the over 40 schools are able to graduate students with both, and all offer pathways towards college completion or dual credit at no cost to a predominantly underserved population.
Twenty-five representatives from schools which represent the landscape of this country: rural, urban, suburban, charter and public schools participated. The information shared and lessons learned were rich and though often troubling, yielded potential next steps for moving forward in the months ahead.
There was a broad divide between schools around access to technology and preparedness on the parts of both teachers and students in using online platforms for educational purposes. Some districts in suburban settings had already established a one to one ratio of device to pupil and were already deeply engaged in blended learning and GoogleClassroom. In urban and rural settings where internet access can be negligible or unavailable or used for purposes other than academic instruction, the startup was more difficult, involving acquiring chrome books, ipads, etc, delivering them to students and ensuring that there was a serviceable way to connect from the home. For the former the transition was smooth and schools like Santa Ana ECHS are experiencing 95% participation and completion of coursework. Yet, despite the high achievement level, principal Damon Voight says that the value of online learning is contingent on the quality of the teachers’ understanding of how to use it wisely. He says, “We put up classes in Google classroom, but kids need teacher leadership.” This speaks directly to a theme that resonated with all the participants: Middle and Early Colleges within the Consortium are grounded in the community that has been built over time through face to face experiences; binding learning, support and overcoming obstacles. Those go beyond maintaining academic rigor to coping with the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic in the lives of their students and their families. This often manifests in unreliable attendance and completion of work for some students.
Principals from New York City, Buffalo, Chicago, Brockton, Mass, Columbus, Ohio and Flint, MI all spoke about the extraordinary efforts their teachers and staff have contributed to making it work. Sue Doyle of Buffalo ECHS was only one of several principals who described that teachers in their schools are taking food and hard copy packets to students without access. Greg Brown, principal of the Graham Schools in Columbus, shared his “insight is staying in contact with our students is the most crucial element of our work. We are doing whatever possible to keep them up with academics- but the inability to connect is a real problem. Kids are hungry, taking care of siblings, etc.” At Olive Harvey MCHS in Chicago, students and staff suffered the losses of 3 important community members, including the school’s founding principal, Helen Hawkins. Matteo Trujillo said the community culture enabled them to build from a united sense of loss and commitment to seeing their school population move past their current challenges and go on to success.
Shernell Thomas of Brooklyn College Academy shared that her staff is responding to new needs based on the relationships they have had in the past. “What I’ve learned is how much assistance our parents need. We need to step up workshops for parents (in the area of online learning, time management, study skills and use of technology). The home needs more support.” This is definitely a lesson we are all learning in these difficult times where 4 or 5 family members are trying to get on line simultaneously in a small space. At International H.S. in Long Island City, Queens, the epicenter of the New York City crisis, a system has been put in place where every student gets a personal phone call weekly, distribution of information and care packages around health care, food, and social services are provided by staff. They realize that school has a 50-50% chance of opening in a “normal” setting in the Fall and when students return the school will have to deal with aftereffects of losing parents, friends, jobs, income security, all within the context of a vulnerable immigrant population.
Parents aren’t the only ones needing support. Socrates Ortiz, principal at LaGuardia Middle College in Queens is keenly aware that administrators have to give structure and support to their staff as well as their students. As we are dancing on this ever moving ball, a bit like a circus seal, the teachers are coping with enormous stress factors too. Teachers need to be trained in a totally online school experience. Though face to face interaction between student and teacher is difficult and complex, virtual teaching is as well. Learning the applications, managing the new paradigms and keeping students engaged might be the easiest part in a world where students have the ability to control the situation by simply pressing a button. Many students are undergoing stress at home and don’t want to share their situations on Zoom screens. Teachers are being inundated with daily revisions, expectations, and demands. All of them are new and each lays another burden on staff who are often managing their own families, illness and insecurity over their futures. Socrates has addressed it by holding weekly meetings with staff which include counselors to advise and offer support around stress factors. He and several other principals have been able to allow teachers to organize their class meeting times and curriculum requirements based on what works best given access and emotional needs. Because many states have cancelled or amended testing and graduation requirements for this year’s seniors, teachers have some leeway to alleviate the pressure. But some schools are under state and district guidelines forbidding any screen classroom instruction which sets in motion a host of other difficulties. They are limited to online classroom packets and no way for students to unpack confusion, get face to face feedback and interact with peers. There is little face to face accountability and lots of opportunity to tune out.
The financial repercussions of the pandemic will most certainly impact schools. It is safe to assume that state budgets which have had to be used to address medical emergencies and safety personnel and will not receive Federal Assistance will be cutting into their Education budgets come September. Colleges have also endured cutbacks due to lowered enrollment, students dropping out, and restrictions based on health and safety cutting down their permissible student-student and student-teacher ratios. For Early and Middle Colleges this will mean a loss of the generosity most colleges have extended in the past. Already, Brockton EC has been informed that they will no longer be able to use adjuncts for their students, raising their costs and lowering the number of college classes they can offer.
Urban schools have already been warned that major cuts are coming and with the opportunities offered by online learning, blended and or hybrid learning is something we can all anticipate. If September comes with a second wave of COVID-19 or safety concerns make the old normal impossible, we will have to look at structural adjustments as well. Though this is onerous, we won’t be caught as we were in March. Today, we have had two months of actual practice and observation and another 4 months to design and plan a really good set of solutions. Early and Middle Colleges have advantages we might learn from. They already make adaptations within their schedules to blend high school time schedules to match with college course offerings. Students also don’t spend their entire day in the high school building giving flexibility options for minimizing class size. Middle and Early college students have all been introduced to college-type syllabi, curricula, blended on-line- face-to-face classes so making the transition is close to seamless. The Seminars offered by most of our schools also give added support for navigating the important habits for success like time management and study groups. The Middle/Early College structure of HOUSE or Advisory is another way we support students in weekly or daily meeting time with a cohort of peers and advocate adult. Especially in times like these, a routine support system is critical.
With all of this in mind and a network of committed leaders working together and learning from one another the meeting ended with a look to the future; it’s challenges and opportunities.
- Everyone on board identified the need to address the incoming ninth grade students immediately. In normal times, each would have had orientations in the Spring and summer boot camps to prepare students for a high school/college environment. Schools are currently exploring and designing ways to move this to an effective online experience. In addition to this, this time would be used to prepare to onboard and prep students who are going to start College classes for the first time in the Fall. Those students need to be counseled and enrolled in appropriate coursework.
- Principals anticipate that students will return to school with after effects from the trauma experienced over these months. Counselors will have to find effective ways to address this individually, in small groups and with the help of community based organizations.
- Students will have lost time, skill and content after 6 months of unstructured learning. Testing such as Accuplacer, Compas, etc which determined eligibility as well as traditional grading have been waived or adjusted and there will need to be a recalibration of student placement and assessment of gaps that need to be filled.
- We have learned that online school will be a part of our future- even if it takes place in the school environment. Students need to be very adept at time management, self regulation, and peer-to-peer learning such as study groups.
- MCNC high schools will need to reimagine and re-design their relationships with partner colleges. This is a challenge- but it may also be an opportunity to renegotiate needs and ways to make the relationship beneficial to both parties.
- Finally, we have had a hiatus which has been traumatic, difficult and filled with the need to rid ourselves of things that were not essential. With the bare bones in mind, a better understanding of the tools we can and must use, and a clear understanding of the outcomes we want students to achieve we can build a better system and do a better job.