Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Safest and Best Education for Our Students

If you read my NY Post piece yesterday, you know I'm less than bullish on Mayor de Blasio's opening plan. In that piece, I give some suggestions on how we best approach September. I'll expand on them here.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's in its third wave of Covid, closing its Disney Park and movie theaters. Chancellor Carranza and Mayor de Blasio appear determined to set us on our second wave.

I've got an inbox full of messages from teachers freaking out over going back. I'd argue a rational fear for your life in a time of elevated danger is healthy, and something worth modeling for our students.

The whole risking your life in order to provide third-rate instruction is not going over well with teachers anywhere. And for those who cheerily say that young people don't pose much risk (even though that's highly debatable), the fact is they have not only teachers to consider, but also families. (Not only do we have them, but our students have them as well.) While advocates for opening buildings stick their heads in the sand, I'm going to lay out an entirely different program.

The notion of seeing ten kids at a time while ignoring the rest is simply unworkable and ridiculous. I'll give it a mention later, but let's look at how we improve the online experience.

1. We need to show our faces. In April, I was pretty surprised to find all the students hiding behind photos of puppies and anime characters. Now don't get me wrong--I love puppies and I'm good with anime, but I'd rather see you. I had one student who never answered questions until someone texted her. Then she'd write, "I don't know," in the chat. She may as well not have been there. She got an NX, but should have failed. We need to make technology available to all, and we need to use it.

This is going to be exacerbated in September when we meet new students. I can't imagine spending an entire semester teaching pictures of kittens and rabbits. I want to see the kids. They see me, so I need to see them too. Of course it won't be as good as seeing students face to face, but it will be an improvement over not seeing them at all. I don't know whether this is regulated on a school level or a city level, but regardless it needs to be fixed.

2. We need real training and real resources. I went in the last three days the DOE mandated in March. I went to a bizarre meeting led by the principal. He didn't actually do anything bizarre, but it was the first time I'd been in a socially distanced auditorium. Others watched remotely in the building or at home. I later tried to get into an instruction meeting on how to use Zoom but it was full. Luckily, I went into an office where a first-year teacher spent a half hour teaching me the fundamentals of Zoom and Google Classroom. That was enough to get me started.

There are, though, other things you can do with Google Classroom. Sometimes when I'm in there checking homework I can see students writing it, My first-year teacher friend says I can do the same with assessments. I haven't yet figured out how, but it would be great to be trained. If I could do that while monitoring their faces I'd be more confident they were actually doing the work. Of course, they could be texting one another answers as I watch, but maybe there's a workaround there too.

I understand there are programs that will catch plagiarism, and immediately identify when students hand in identical papers. I believe they're available with Google Classroom, and I believe the DOE should pay. In fact, colleges use programs that are specifically designed to preclude test cheating. The DOE needs to provide us with programs like that as well. If buildings are little utilized, they'll have money available to do this.

3. Say no to nonsense. It's a nice idea to teach a few students at a time. We break into three cohorts. We teach our classes as we regularly do, except some students are there while others are not. Maybe I won't win teacher of the year this year, but I'm not going in, teaching some students, then going home and teaching the rest. There is no way the mayor is paying me or anyone else to do double work.

In a room in which students are socially distanced, I cannot approach them physically. There is no way I can help them individually. I don't know about you, but when my students are engaged doing anything whatsoever, I'm walking around the room quietly giving tips to those who need them, and obnoxiously hovering over who are disinclined to do any work.

We know that our students are inclined to be social, we know that's their nature, and putting us in the position of policing them is an undue burden both on us and our students. I teach English, and my goal is tricking students into loving speaking, listening, reading and yes, writing. It borders on unnatural to love writing. The socially distanced classroom is like a ball and chain.

4, Let's provide not only real social and emotional support, but also safe social and emotional support. Instead of creating ineffectual classroom or tutoring sessions that are of service to no one, let's use our buildings to support our kids in their time of need. In my school, we could theoretically place 240 teachers in classrooms to serve a thousand students. We could trust that these students would respect social distancing, or cohorts, or staying in whatever prescribed groups the mayor or school sets out for them. We can hope against hope they won't seek out their friends, lovers, or even favorite teachers.

I'd say if we have to use the buildings at all it should be on an extremely limited basis. In our school there are about a dozen guidance counselors and social workers. If they are able and willing to come in, give them classrooms. Let one or two students in at a time. Instead of a thousand students in our building, we could have fewer than a hundred. Instead of minimum social distancing requirements, we could triple or quadruple them. We could make school buildings less risky than supermarkets.

We can offer space and technology, as well as a quiet and safe place, to students and UFT members who need it. 

We could use schoolyards, weather permitting, for limited meetings or sports groups. Let the DOE use yellow buses, regularly disinfected, for all students and save them from the public transportation system.

4. Happy teachers make happy students. I don't know what's in your inbox, but I'm chapter leader of the largest school in Queens. I have multiple messages from teachers with extreme anxiety. I have queries about taking unpaid leave so as not to infect their parents, children, or other family members. I have questions about whether the DOE will retaliate for requesting accommodations. There's a level of mistrust and broken morale that neither the mayor nor the chancellor has addressed, let alone considered during COVID. (This, alas, is what happens when you fail to clean house after a demagogue like Bloomberg.)

Safety is an overarching priority for me and my members. Teachers aren't military and didn't sign up to risk their lives. And even if we had, the cause here, the mayor's ridiculous plan, isn't worth investing a dime in, let alone a life. Let's skip the nervous breakdowns and go straight to a well-planned, much improved online experience.

5. Your ideas. What do you think will be the best experience we can provide our students in September while keeping them, us, and all of our families safe?
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