UP CLOSE | Teachers in a pandemic: Adapting and innovating in an unorthodox school year

UP CLOSE | Teachers in a pandemic: Adapting and innovating in an unorthodox school year

Nine NHPS teachers spoke to the News about how they have adapted their teaching strategies to help students through an unexpected and prolonged period of remote learning.

Published on April 13, 2021

Last March, High School in the Community math and statistics teacher Dorothy Cohen was trying to think about pie: finding sponsors to donate pies and looking for fun facts about pi. She was planning for her school’s upcoming Pi Day festivities, during which the class would get together to eat pie and attempt to recite digits of pi.

But 2020’s Pi Day celebration ended up being more of a challenge to carry out than any teacher had expected. Cohen had to balance a fun celebration with “all that talk” of a possible district-wide school closure.

On March 12, 2020, Cohen’s school entered what she described as “crisis mode,” when New Haven Public Schools officials announced that beginning the following day, the district’s schools were to close indefinitely due to “COVID-19 concerns,” a phrase that is ubiquitous now, but was anything but for Cohen and other NHPS teachers at the time.

For Marta Musial, a fourth-grade teacher at Conte West Hills Magnet School, the sudden shift to remote learning was jarring. In the two weeks following March 12, 2020, she said that teachers were “completely in the dark as to what was going to happen.”

Musial is one of nine NHPS teachers interviewed by the News about how they have adapted their teaching strategies to help students through an unexpected and prolonged period of remote learning.

Immediately after schools closed down, Musial resorted to sharing educational videos from YouTube, Netflix and other streaming platforms to fill in the gap. Even after she received guidelines from NHPS to push forward with remote instruction, she found it difficult to transition to a virtual setting, as she had previously relied on a learning centers-based approach — a method of education in which students engage in independent and self-directed activities. Continuing with this approach involved breakout rooms, which her students found difficult to maneuver, often returning to the main room before completing their activities.

A year later, teachers across NHPS like Cohen and Musial are still struggling to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.

“The teachers are just burnt out,” said Dave Cicarella, who is the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers and has taught in NHPS for over 40 years. “It’s just so much work to teach remotely … [teachers] much prefer to teach in school, but it’s gotta be safe. Remote learning is not something anyone enjoys.”

The rate of chronic absenteeism among district students has risen to 33.7 percent, the highest percentage since data was first collected in the 2014-15 school year. The number of students who failed five or more classes in the fall 2020 semester quadrupled in comparison to fall 2019.

All the teachers interviewed by the News said the breakdown in teacher-student interaction has also raised significant alarm. Teachers are often staring at blank screens, with little clue as to what their students are doing on the other side.

Over the course of a year, NHPS has taken actions to alleviate some of the pandemic-era problems that teachers and their students face. Superintendent Iline Tracey has worked to ensure that every NHPS student has access to an internet-connected device and the internet. The school district has launched the A.C.E. campaign, a team of volunteers who identify ways to provide support for families of students who sporadically attend classes.

Amid discussion between students, parents and officials on balancing the COVID-19 risks of reopening and the drawbacks of remote learning, NHPS students have been trickling back into the classroom since early this year. In January, elementary school students were allowed back to school for the first time since March 2020. In March, middle school students were offered the same opportunity, and by early April, high school students were finally back in schools.

But not all students have shifted into the hybrid model.

As of April 2, 2,270 high school students out of 5,681 — or about 40 percent — have opted to stay in the remote system, according to Michele Sherban, director of research, assessment and evaluation for NHPS. For middle and elementary school students, 5,205 out of 13,995 — or about 37.2 percent — have chosen the remote system.

The shift to hybrid learning has not meant an end to remote learning. Thousands of NHPS students — regardless of whether they are at home or in the classroom — continue to sign into their virtual Google Classrooms each day.

One year on from March 2020, many teachers are still struggling to teach dynamic lessons and keep their students engaged in school. Yet they have developed innovative solutions to their newfound challenges.

A timeline of NHPS reopening in 2020-2021. (Stephanie Shao, Production and Design Staffer)

‘There’s no playbook’: Teaching remotely

Cicarella often hears from NHPS teachers about the challenges they are facing. Throughout the pandemic, he has heard teachers talk about the difficulty of teaching concepts in a virtual setting. Teachers are navigating a sudden drastic shift in pedagogy made tougher by the lack of preexisting teaching and learning models amid a pandemic.

Cicarella said that while teachers have not lost the ability to teach lessons, remote learning is much more challenging than traditional in-person instruction. As the union president put it, “there’s no playbook” for teachers, no prior pre-pandemic model that teachers have been taught to follow.

Due to the lack of robust learning models, teachers across NHPS have had to innovate — adapting the way they teach to various types of remote learning.

Musial has adapted her teaching style to the pandemic by splitting her class time between group sessions and self-guided independent work, which replaced her individualized, centers-based approach. She described the transition as “a happy medium” because students retained the ability to choose what activities they wanted to engage in under her new plan. Despite her best efforts, the fourth-grade teacher said she has still seen her students fall behind in their education.

Some of Musial’s fourth graders have struggled to learn multiplication, a concept that she said they should have grasped by the end of third grade. Other students have not developed their grammar or vocabulary skills to what she believes to be a fourth-grade level.

But Musial told the News that her biggest challenge has been conducting standardized testing. This school year, she had to virtually administer Connecticut’s triennial Interim Assessment Block, or IAB, tests for math and English skills. She stated that it was difficult for some of her students to stay engaged while taking the test.

In theater there’s stage right, stage left, stage down, stage up. In Zoom, everything is in our camera frame. You’re using the box, in a way, to express yourself as you would in a stage. … It’s a fight, there’s a lot of hesitance about [performing virtually].

—Matt Young, theater teacher at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School

A host of technological challenges contribute to the learning loss and testing woes that Musial described. Musial said that many of her students have been uncomfortable using computers to write their assignments because they are used to writing out their work by hand. She added that it is also difficult to know what exactly her students are doing during class unless she asks them to share their computer screen. Even then, some of Musial’s students are either too shy or too embarrassed to share their screens.

Matt Young, a theater teacher at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, has found it difficult to bring theater into a virtual space.

“In theater there’s stage right, stage left, stage down, stage up,” Young said. “In Zoom, everything is in our camera frame. You’re using the box, in a way, to express yourself as you would in a stage. … It’s a fight, there’s a lot of hesitance about [performing virtually].”

Young told the News that during the first two weeks of the school shutdown, the arts sat dormant as in-person activities were suddenly canceled. After NHPS guidance was handed down at the end of March, he used Google Classroom to teach his classes.

However, NHPS does not require its students to have their videos on during class. For Young, this means that traditional theater exercises — such as mirroring, which is based on physical movement and response to it — are no longer feasible. He decided to focus primarily on lessons on the power of the actor’s voice. For example, Young assigned his class of mostly fifth graders monologues for them to develop so that they could discover themselves.

As time has passed, some of Young’s students have become more comfortable with turning on their cameras more frequently. But others are still struggling to meaningfully participate in class.

Young said that low student engagement in virtual learning makes it hard to create safe learning environments where students “surprise [themselves] every day” by going out of their comfort zone.

For Steven Baumann, an eighth-grade science teacher at Conte West, science education has its own host of problems, beginning with the loss of in-person instruction, as students can no longer participate in in-person labs.

Baumann typically has his class interact through Google Docs, watch short videos and read through an online textbook. Sometimes, he uses computer simulations to replace traditional experiments — some particularly useful resources have come from PHET, PBS and NASA.

“[I’m] still nowhere near where I wanna be,” Baumann said. “I’d much rather have kids spend more time trying to figure out science instead of just looking at the results.”

A false dawn? Switching to a hybrid model

Under NHPS’ hybrid reopening guidelines, pre-K to fifth grade students are currently allowed back to school for in-person learning for four days a week. Students in grades six through 12 are only allowed back to school twice a week and are divided into two cohorts. Due to cohorting and the availability of a remote learning choice, NHPS teachers are often teaching both an in-person and virtual pool of students at the same time, which presents additional instructional challenges. And Cicarella said there are only a few teachers who have an aide to help them teach both student pools.

Teachers like Baumann are not entirely sure what hybrid learning means for their instruction, because it does not change the fact that multiple students are logged in remotely each day. Baumann said that the instruction plans he used during the remote learning period have not changed as a result.

“How am I going to change my engagement with the 10 students in front of me in the classroom yet I still have another 62 students on remote? … I haven’t figured it out,” Baumann told the News.

He did note that he could monitor his students and engage with them a little more when they are there in person.

Baumann’s colleague at Conte West, Musial, did not report making any drastic changes to her instruction either. She said that she projects her whiteboard onto the Google Classroom screen just as she did in remote learning. The main difference, she said, is that she can now walk around the classroom and physically monitor her students.

Myles Ross, a music teacher at Worthington Hooker School, is another teacher who has returned to class for hybrid instruction. He agrees with both of the Conte West teachers that it is very difficult to balance both the hybrid and in-person cohorts. He added that he is happy to see his old students in person again and that he could tell that they were happy to see each other as well. The in-person hybrid instruction has made his students more engaged with their school work and made it easier for him to teach music content, Ross said.

“How am I going to change my engagement with the 10 students in front of me in the classroom yet I still have another 62 students on remote? … I haven’t figured it out.”

—Steven Baumann, eighth-grade science teacher at Conte West

Reconnecting: How to keep students engaged, foster social-emotional health

A year into the pandemic, Ross and other teachers continue battling to keep their students engaged in school work.

“You see a steep decrease in students wanting to have their cameras on [as you move up in grade levels], which I’ve found ultimately ties to the level of engagement,” Ross said. “A lot of times you’re just talking to an avatar on the screen.”

However, the Worthington Hooker teacher and four others have found some ways to increase student engagement: give students autonomy and choice, don’t treat remote learning like “business as usual” and get students moving.

Ross tries to maximize student interaction as much as possible, which often means allowing students to dictate what occurs in the classroom.

Each week, Ross accepts “song of the day” requests from students, which his students enjoy and he incorporates into his lessons. One school day, a student pitched a “song of the day” and performed it on the guitar for his peers to hear, which Ross believes encourages his students to engage more actively with music. The Worthington Hooker teacher also makes it a point to stop in the middle of class and ask his students how they feel about the topic at hand. Ross said that these types of changes require a little more effort on the teacher’s part but go a long way in keeping students engaged.

Ross added that it is also important to “not treat business as usual.” He added that this means giving students ample opportunity for breaks.

Musial, the Conte West fourth-grade teacher, similarly incorporates brain breaks and other fun activities into her lessons. She includes read-alouds of books, virtual field trips, streams of silly videos and rounds of the icebreaker game This or That. Musial said that her small departures from traditional lesson plans are necessary because her students would rather be playing games like Among Us and Roblox than paying attention in class.

Marianne Maloney, a math teacher at New Haven Academy and chief steward of the NHFT, uses a similar strategy, often starting classes with non-academic questions, like how students are feeling and what they plan to do during spring break.

“We’ve been told [at teacher training] to try to include our dogs on cameras so that it seems more personable to the kids,” Maloney said. “To possibly share our own situation with them a little bit. To just try to have personable conversations and not just head directly into the curriculum.”

Lindsey Witte, a physical education teacher at Elm City Montessori School, has worked diligently to keep her students moving in both remote and hybrid instruction.

At the beginning of the school year, Witte acknowledged that not all of her students owned the PE essentials — a soccer ball and a basketball — so she had to get creative, adapting ideas from preexisting online resources.

In one lesson, Witte had her students take a pair of socks to make a sock ball that they used to practice throwing and kicking. In another lesson, she had students use plastic grocery bags to practice juggling. She said that these ideas helped keep her students engaged in physical activity during ECMS’ remote learning period.

Musial agreed, explaining that she gives students time to do jumping jacks and lunges to get them moving and out of their seats.

And Betsy Ross theater teacher Young — one of few teachers in NHPS who has an aide in the classroom to assist with hybrid learning — said that he was able to play a game of “Sound Ball,” an icebreaker game in which students stand in a circle and throw an imaginary ball, on one of his first few days back to school for hybrid instruction. He said that the activity helped students “shake it out” and mentally prepare for the day’s lesson.

But Witte’s students returned to the classroom in November, two months before the first batch of public school students was allowed back to school: ECMS is the district’s charter school and did not have to follow NHPS’ reopening guidelines.

Under hybrid learning, the PE teacher has focused a lot on being outside, which her students have enjoyed.

“They do lessons outside, kids eat lunch outside, their recess is outside,” Witte said. “For 50 percent of the day, kids [at ECMS] are outside, which made it possible to come back at such a full capacity.”

NHFT advocacy

New Haven Federation of Teachers President Cicarella said that the union’s position on school reopening has always been that the buildings had to be ready with adequate COVID-19 safety measures and proper infrastructure before students and teachers returned to classrooms.

During the summer of 2020, union leadership did not feel that school buildings were prepared for in-person learning, so they worked with district officials to implement policy changes.

Due to the pandemic, NHPS leaders decided that all schools should have MERV 13 air filters, which are more efficient at catching potentially hazardous airborne particles than other air filters. However, as recently as February, not all schools had installed those filters. In response to the revelation, NHFT worked with the district to develop a new system to keep track of air filter maintenance, which includes having school custodians sign off on the date when filters are changed. With union support, the district also decided to permanently close the physical West Rock and Quinnipiac Schools, two NHPS schools with aging infrastructure and poor ventilation.

NHFT also successfully advocated for teachers to receive a three-hour work period on Wednesdays to catch up on lesson planning and grading.

The union has also provided surgical face masks and sanitizing wipes to all building stewards in the district. Cicarella said that the union’s work on this front is important because he never wants a situation in which a teacher needs a face mask for their student but does not have one. Cicarella added that the NHFT also sends building stewards N95 face masks upon request.

Similar challenges from Yale students in teaching roles

Yale students serving in mentorship roles with NHPS students also encountered similar challenges to those faced by regular public school teachers: issues with technology, recruitment difficulties and low student engagement.

Danielle Castro ’23 is a Dwight Hall public school intern who works with the Fair Haven School community to provide additional tutoring services for students in an after-school tutoring program for Spanish-speaking English Language Learning students, a student demographic that has particularly struggled during the pandemic. The program matches 22 Yale tutors with about 20 Fair Haven students and meets twice a week.

Despite the challenges her team faces due to the pandemic, Castro has continued to be enthusiastic about finding new ways to supplement the work of Fair Haven’s teachers. Castro is currently working with a Fair Haven teacher to implement Lexia, an online program that gives students learning English personalized practice and support, for the upcoming fall semester. Castro said that the program would allow tutors to identify language-learning areas with the most potential for improvement.

Another student organization, CodeHaven, has worked to bring weekly computer science classes to New Haven classrooms across the city. In a typical year, Yale mentors would teach NHPS students about Scratch, a block-based visual programming language, in the fall, and MIT App Inventor, a website that allows students to create an Android/IOS application, in the spring. This year, mentors have switched to Scratch for the whole academic year.

CodeHaven mentors James Wang ’23 and Justin Chang ’23 both described to the News the challenges that come with teaching Scratch remotely. Chang said that some of his students have struggled to understand how to drag Scratch blocks across the screen.

“If you observe [the students] try it in person, it’s really easy to find out what the problem is,” Chang said. “If [the students] describe it purely over audio, then it might be a lot more difficult.”

Wang agreed and added that other issues, such as tardiness and slow internet connection, have made the 2020-21 school year difficult for mentors. Chang and Wang pointed out that in addition to technological issues, student engagement has been a constant battle.

Wang shared some of the strategies he has employed to keep students engaged, such as playing clean versions of songs by Canadian singer The Weeknd and casually conversing with students before class.

But both mentors said that even with their strategies, they have had to shift their expectations for students, which means not expecting the mentees to finish every single assignment. Still, they said they continue to support CodeHaven’s goal of instilling excitement for computer science in NHPS students.

What a post-pandemic education system might look like

The yearlong experiment with remote learning in NHPS and across the country has raised questions about what a post-pandemic education system will look like.

High School in the Community math teacher Cohen told the News that while the pandemic has been hard for her students, it has helped them become more independent and mature, which will help them succeed in college.

She also plans to keep using some online applications during the rest of the hybrid learning period and beyond, including Pear Deck, a platform she uses to field anonymous student responses to questions, and Screencastify, a software used to record video tutorials.

Worthington Hooker music teacher Ross also plans to carry over some programs into a post-pandemic world. Ross said that while music education is more effective in person because of its cooperative nature, the pandemic has allowed him to teach his students music production through a program called Soundtrap for the first time. He told the News that although it may not be a major component of his teaching, he will likely continue using Soundtrap even when students return to fully in-person instruction.

Conte West teacher Musial said that she and her team of fourth-grade teachers are thinking about continuing to use Google Classroom in the future to supplement in-person instruction. She said that she likes to have all of the students’ information available to her on Google Classroom rather than in a traditional paper portfolio. The virtual database of student information makes it easier for her to tell parents how their child is performing in class, she said, adding that parents are also able to see how their child is doing by logging into Google Classroom.

New virtual supplements for in-person instruction may not be the only innovation that carries over for years to come.

David Weinreb, magnet resource teacher at ECMS, deals with the charter’s school technology and coordinates community engagement, among other roles. He has noticed that new extracurricular activities have flourished under remote instruction.

Weinreb told the News that ECMS, Mauro-Sheridan Interdistrict Magnet School and Beecher School have created gay-straight alliances, or GSAs, during the pandemic. He noted that virtual meetings provide a greater sense of anonymity and safety, which allows more students to participate in clubs like GSA than if the meetings were in person.

The magnet resource teacher said he is impressed by what his colleagues have been able to achieve despite the changes the pandemic has presented.

“I’ve been amazingly impressed by the adaptability and flexibility of teachers … in making learning as accessible as possible. We have a lot of growing and learning to do,” Weinreb said.

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu


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