Wednesday, October 14, 2020

on SASD's scuttling the plan to go hybrid

On Monday, October 12, the Shippensburg Area School District Board of Directors made the difficult decision to reverse plans to transition to hybrid schooling for grades 6-12 on November 10th.  Instead, the district will continue to offer an all-online delivery model through the second marking period, with exceptions for some students in special education.

I know this news comes as a considerable disappointment to many parents and students.

On the other hand, I know a large number are relieved by the decision, as the move to open schools has been viewed with skepticism and apprehension by many others.

I’ve received numerous communications from parents and other community members expressing both viewpoints.

As for me, I'm heartbroken over not being in school. I want to send my own kid back to school. And, frankly, telling him that he won't be going back--even for two days a week at the beginning of November as we had planned--was really hard. He wants to go back. Still, I believe it was the right decision.

While I certainly cannot speak for the entire board, I want to try to explain at least this one board member’s reasoning.

First, if we were to transition to a hybrid system in the beginning of November for the upper grades as planned, we would be doing so AGAINST the recommendations of our superintendent, the principals of the middle and high schools, and what appears to be a plurality of our teachers. This is not a small matter. If we were to direct our administrators to move to a hybrid system, I’m confident that they would do it as well as they could. I’m also confident that our teachers would do their very best. However, with a decision of this consequence, to go against the recommendations of the professionals that live and breathe the ramifications of these decisions daily is a heavy ask.

It should be noted that this recommendation did not come all-of-a-sudden. Planning for a hybrid-schooling model of some kind began even before the end of the last school year. I’m confident that the administrators, teachers, and staff involved in that planning have turned the matter around every which way. I know they’ve wanted to make it work. And I know they are disappointed they could not find a solution they felt comfortable recommending, as am I.

So, why has administration recommended against transitioning to a hybrid system for the upper grades? For a more detailed explanation, I strongly recommend listening to the presentations of the principals of the middle and high schools from Monday’s meeting. You can find a link to the meeting from the district website; click “School Board” —>  “Recorded Meetings" (or just click here).

For me, the reasoning for maintaining an online-only delivery model for the upper grades can be summarized into two categories of concern: logistic hurdles and educational outcomes.

To understand the logistical issues, please watch the principals’ presentations in Monday’s board meeting. For me, it was eye opening. Some notable examples: scheduling complexity resulting in class sizes that would exceed CDC social distancing requirements, position vacancies that we have been unable to fill, a substitute shortage that the COVID moment has only exacerbated, the reverberating consequences of a teacher needing to quarantine or isolate, and complicating teacher job duties to the point of absurdity.

But the educational outcomes piece is also critical. I have long assumed—and I know I’m not alone in this—that for most students any time in school would be better than no time in school. That while a “normal,” five-day, face-to-face model is preferred, a two-day hybrid model would be better than all online. For the lower grades, I still believe this to be the case. However, for the upper grades, this no longer seems at all clear. And as our public health professionals have strongly advised against going back to a "normal," five-day-a-week, in-person model until we dip below the 10 active COVID cases per 100,000 residents threshold, that really leaves us with only one choice.

(Cumberland and Franklin Counties have bounced around between 20 and 50 cases per 100,000 residents for the past three months. How other districts can make decisions that stare CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health recommendations in the face is beyond me. I wish them luck, but I can't help but believe such decisions border on malfeasance.)

We could, of course, change our expectations as to what school is. In our present online model, kids get four days of live instruction from each teacher and one day of unsupervised, self-paced activities. In a hybrid system, I think the best we can expect is two days of live instruction, and three days of self-paced activities, but those two days of live instruction would be in-person rather than online. (I realize there are other hybrid models, but from what I understand, what I’ve described here is the least likely to break the backs of our teachers and therefore the most realistic—without teachers, we will have no school.)

Maybe, eventually, we will need to change our expectations. But, for me, the extra days of live instruction of an online delivery strategy coupled with the logistical entanglements of maintaining CDC guidelines with a hybrid system, are enough to convince me that at this point it would be inappropriate to transition our upper grades to a hybrid model.

Some will say that what the district needs to do is provide choice—hybrid for those that want it, an online option for those that prefer that strategy. By necessity, going hybrid requires both, because if a student needs to quarantine or isolate for whatever reason, they’ll need to move from hybrid to online and back again. However, in offering both delivery methods, we’re putting an expectation on teachers that they manage both. That is, both, simultaneously. In essence, we’d be requiring that each teacher now do two jobs. In the lower grades, we’ve been able to deal with this problem by assigning some teachers all-online duties. In the middle and high schools, because of schedule complexities, this just isn’t possible for a district our size.

A reasonable person would certainly be excused if they were to ask why, if the hybrid system is so problematic, had the board recently approved a hybrid start for grades 6-12 at the beginning of the second marking period?

Well, why did the board move toward a hybrid opening? Strong demand from the public, for sure. Wishful thinking on the part of the board, too. But also the assumption that a hybrid model would be educationally superior to a fully online model, and a misunderstanding of logistical issues at play.

So, to me, Monday night we corrected an error of judgment that we had earlier made--an error of judgment that went against the recommendations of the professionals we have employed to manage our community's schools. Furthermore, in the time that has passed, we’ve learned more about the challenges and shortcomings of hybrid schooling from those doing it.

For this flip-flopping, I am very apologetic. I deeply regret the confusion and frustration in the community that is an understandable result of this reversal of plans.

Finally, I absolutely recognize that reasonable people will disagree on the right way forward. I certainly do not have all the answers. I wish I did. In the end, as always, I vote in a manner that I believe is in the best interest of the children of our community. I have no other incentive.

I welcome your comments.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your work. I know how hard these decisions are right now, and I believe the board is acting with the best interests of the students and teachers in mind. The short-term pain that this situation causes our community should be kept in mind with the long-term perspective for the health and well being of our community. I really want to keep our teachers safe.