Story by Kathy McPherson
It’s a milestone that if you asked teachers, administrators, parents or students about in August — no one was sure we would reach. By Jan. 29, Durham Academy had notched 21 straight weeks of school, with only two of those weeks fully remote (both by choice). No one knew how long school would last when DA transitioned from its fully remote, lockdown model last spring to DA Hybrid this fall. There were still so many unknowns — would schools be able to keep students and faculty safe with layers of safety protocols, would students be able to navigate their multiple learning environments and platforms, would families be able to sustain learn from home days, would teachers have the stamina to endure one of the most challenging and exhausting seasons of their careers? Fortunately for DA, the collective answer was yes.
DA Hybrid was built to bring as many students “back to school” as possible, as safely as possible, prioritizing the youngest learners first. All Preschool and Lower School students were on campus four days a week and learning remotely on Fridays, two rotational groups of Middle and Upper School students spent two days a week on campus and three days learning remotely, and about 11% of students school wide started the year as stay-at-home learners — a model supported by an army of educators, administrators, support staff and volunteers who spent two and a half months planning schedules, curriculum, technology, facilities use, logistics and equipment.
Teachers became students and spent the summer studying. Every DA faculty member took at least one online course to bolster their tool belt for remote teaching. Many teachers completed four or more courses in anticipation of a school year like no other when classrooms opened to students for the first time since spring break on Aug. 24.
The first weeks of the school year felt innovative and also overwhelming:
“We're all sort of back in the role of being first-year teachers again. As somebody who’s been at this for 25 years, I have to remind myself I'm not used to everything feeling so new. … We're all stretching our skills and trying new things, and I think that naturally leads toward a collaborative spirit of let's see if we can figure this out.”
Lower School technology coordinator Michele Gutierrez
“I sent my kids a video of myself reading a book the night before school, which I've never done before because I didn't need to know how to read [aloud] on a computer. All these things that I did, I would have never done had ‘corona’ not happened. I feel like collaboration is up 100% because we are always popping in. Everyone has to contribute to all of us. … People reach out, [and] we're all saying, hey, I can show you how to do this.”
Second-grade teacher Ashley Hinton
“Teachers have to split their focus. … It really ups the time commitment for teachers exponentially to have to do both [in class and remote] at the same time.”
Preschool/Lower School librarian Michelle Rosen.
Rosen was one of several teachers who helped peers become more proficient in the platforms they used to connect students from home to school, to connect students and teachers to their classwork and to connect parents with their children’s educational experience. Lower School teachers become adept with using Seesaw, a digital portfolio and feedback platform for student work that they initially used during the spring lockdown.
For the first time this fall, and in anticipation of the potential need for employing multiple instructional models over the span of the school year, all Preschool students were outfitted with iPads and trained in how to use them. Rosen also trained Preschool teachers to use Seesaw with their students.
One advantage of the hybrid mode and the increased emphasis on digital learning, Rosen said, is “we have never been better at meeting the needs of a variety of different learners. … A student can respond to a question in a way that best suits their learning, so they can give a video response if they prefer that to writing. They can really show what they've learned in the way that suits them best.”
The distancing required by COVID-19 safety protocols was another challenge. Hinton likes her students to be able to move around the classroom to decide how and where they learn best, so she provided plastic lap desks to give them more latitude while still keeping six feet apart.
Sixth-grade language arts teacher Patti Donnelly asked one of her students, a stay-at-home learner, how it was going. “He said the thing he's most grateful for is that he's included. And that to me, touched my heart. We have to give big kudos to the tech team and leadership for making that resource available to us to make that happen. I have a gooseneck clipped to a chair that's at a desk. The iPad is sitting there as if the students are sitting at that desk, so they get a feel for what they would see in the room and hear it.”
Kindergarten teacher Lori Hanks seconded that. “The best part is seeing the children in the classroom connect with those who are at home and the opportunity for those kids at home to connect with the kids who are in the classroom.”
Hanks’ class mascot is an owl, and at the beginning of the school year each of her students made an owl in the classroom. “One of our online students called in, and he followed right along with us and did the exact same project. Each child got to go over to the iPad and show him what they had made. He showed them what he had made and so the connection was really great.”
Seventh-grade science teacher Melissa Mack and the Middle School tech team helped train faculty to use streamlined technology tools to communicate as effectively as possible with students.
“We wanted to make navigating this new environment a little easier for the students because they have to be in a lot of different places and use a lot of different platforms,” Mack said. “I hope that makes navigating all of this is a lot easier because we're doing all of this for the kids, to really make their learning as wonderful as possible.”
Middle School Digital Learning Coordinator Karl Schaefer, Middle School Director Jon Meredith and Middle School counselor Chrissie Bushey created a remote assistance team that reached out to stay-at-home learners. “Having people who are consistently checking in with our remotes, I think it's really important,” Mack said.
Bonnie Wang, who teaches Upper School Chinese, already felt adept at teaching online. In the spring, she hosted workshops focused on remote learning, and 150 Chinese teachers from around the world attended her first webinar. As her webinars continued, she drew more than 600 teachers and thinks she reached most of the Chinese teachers in the United States who were eager to learn at the beginning of remote teaching. But her experience with webinars more fully resembled a remote model of teaching, and did not prepare her for the incredible challenges of hybrid, a challenge experienced by teachers nationwide.
“... hybrid teaching is so difficult. I have two students in my class for Advanced Topics in Chinese Culture and I have two students at home [cohort A and cohort B, which come to campus on different days],” she said. “They never see each other altogether. When I log in, I have three devices. I have an iPad. I have a laptop. I have the Apple TV. I have to make sure that when I want them to look at the same screen, they should look at the same screen.
“So the typical day when I come in, I need at least 20 minutes before a class to really figure out, oh, this is what I'm going to do first and second,” Wang continued. “And I need that 20 minutes without any distraction … because if I have someone step in, this whole schedule is messed up, then the whole class is going to fall apart and people are waiting and they're waiting either online or waiting in the classrooms looking at me. And I don't want that to happen.”
But despite all the difficulties of hybrid mode, kids, parents and teachers were committed to making it work.
“Despite the hectic situation that every teacher faces, I really appreciate the time, patience, reactions, love and support from my students, advisees and their families,” Wang said as she reflected on the experience in December. “They brought in so much hope and optimism. The year of 2020 has changed me so much, personally as a Chinese and professionally as a teacher. I grew from more differentiated instructions, quality one-on-one meetings and inspiration from conversations with my students.”
“Teachers are so happy to be back with their students, even though we can't see the smiles,” Rosen said. “It was a little stunning at first, the fact that their mouths were covered and you couldn't see them smile. Kids are so expressive. I will say that teachers love that, they love having the kids in the classroom, even if it's with a mask and not being able to see the expression on their faces. They're still with them. And, you know, when we get them all back, that will be the icing on the cake.”
“Looking back on our first semester, I am grateful for the time we have had to work with students in person and proud of the innovation and collaboration that can be seen in all aspects of teaching and learning,” Gutierrez said.
Ashley Hinton noted that nothing can replace having all her students in the classroom, but said “I've been so impressed with what my students have been capable of this year. They've blown me away. This year has stretched my creativity, but it's been worth it to see the connections I have with both my students here in person and my students who have worked from home. We have still built that community we all love.”