The Observer asked Stephen Willingham to explore how the local public school system is managing through the current public health crisis. Willingham began his teaching career as a substitute, before moving into a full-time English position. In 2019, he retired from teaching after working at Musselman Middle School, Jefferson and Washington High Schools.
The author interviewed the Superintendent and also spoke with teachers about their experiences in the classroom and online. In the context of our intent to provide the community a perspective from inside the system and to maintain the confidentiality of the individuals speaking openly about employment conditions, The Observer agreed that the individual teachers could remain anonymous.
Jefferson County Schools Deal with the Pandemic
The start of each school year often comes with both anticipation and anxiety for students, teachers and administrators alike. In 2020, the public health issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic raised both to a new level. “There’s always room for improvement,” Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson, Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools reflected, when asked to give her assessment about how things are going. “We always start with high expectations. But we have not done anything like this before,” she continued, addressing what is termed “re-entry,” as Jefferson County Schools respond to the complexities imposed by the pandemic.
Planning for Change & Changing Plans
Gibson addressed the central difficulty of public education in the face of the largest public health crisis in a century. “People are afraid and wanting the best for their kids,” she said. “We haven’t met everyone’s expectations. But we are trying.” She explained by saying that, as an institution, education is expected to offer everything to everybody. “This is a tall order.” Besides dealing with her high expectations, and those of the community, Gibson is aware of the pressure on faculty to persevere and adapt as new guidelines and information become available. Altogether, the re-entry system requires not only faculty, but also students and the community, to overcome a steep learning curve. “As a leader, I take responsibility, hopefully with patience and humility,” Gibson said. “We are always punching above our level, trying to make things better.”
Looking back to the planning that led up to the reopening, Gibson shared some self-criticism: “I should have pushed back harder on how difficult it was to create a whole new system on the fly. I’m truly sorry too much weight [public criticism] fell on the shoulders of our faculty. That was an unfortunate development.” Gibson resolved that she would try harder to deflect community criticism that she feels has been unfairly leveled at Jefferson County Schools personnel. Part of the problem, she maintains, was trying to get out ahead of all that was happening at “almost a moment’s notice.” One of the teachers who shared their thoughts shed some additional light on the planning difficulties, pointing out that, initially, the virtual side of instruction was going to be handled by the State. But then, inexplicably, before school opened, “everything changed. In July, we were assured [by the unions] that we would not have to do both in-person and virtual teaching, It would be either/or. Not both.”
Another teacher, remarking on the planning, also shared concerns about the sustainability of the model: “I know a lot of work has gone into this return-to-school plan, but I think the horse was put way before the cart in many instances. Unfortunately, those of us in the schools aren’t going to be able to keep up the pace and meet the demands.”
A Complex Schedule
Jefferson County Schools are currently operating on a five days per week schedule for in-classroom instruction with a virtual school option offered for students whose parents elect to keep their children at home. Jefferson County Schools report that 47 percent of students system-wide have opted for the virtual option. Elementary-level students whose parents chose the in-classroom option are attending every day. At the middle and secondary schools, students following the in-person instructional format are split into two groups that attend classes on alternate days to further reduce crowding in the schools’ facilities. This block schedule cycles over each two weeks — in the first week the “A” group will be in school on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and the “B” group on Tuesday and Thursday; for the second week of the cycle, the groups swap attendance days. It seems easy to describe, but as one teacher remarked, “for me, just trying to remember if I’m teaching an A-Day or a B-Day is sometimes a challenge.”
Currently, there are teachers whose classes are all in-person, while others are teaching only virtually. Many, however, are teaching both formats each day. One example of this type of mixed schedule might have a faculty member teach two in-person instruction periods in the morning and two virtual periods in the afternoon. Gibson did note that Jefferson County Schools took efforts to minimize the number of classes where faculty are simultaneously teaching virtual and in-person classes during the same period. This type of instructional model is mainly used in special education where there are smaller numbers of students on both sides of the screen.
A teacher whose classes are all virtual noted another wrinkle: “There seems to be no limit on the size of virtual classes,” commenting about one class with 179 students on the virtual roster. As another teacher observed, “virtual is all duplicate and triplicate. It’s a … lot more work when you have more content. If you try to replicate [virtually] what you do in the classroom, there is just going to be more to it. The same individual, teaching both models, also observed that “my in-person classes are way ahead of my virtual classes,” indicating another potential issue ahead as teachers attempt to present a consistent syllabus for a class and fairly grade students across both formats. The teachers also shared their concerns with the level of engagement with students. In the high school context, with tracks for general studies, college prep and honors curricula, teachers would normally tailor the instructional pacing to fit the specific mix of students in a class. With the virtual format, it’s much more difficult to receive feedback and adjust instruction to better suit student needs. It’s also more difficult to assess engagement. As one teacher remarked, “my in-class students are doing okay; and my virtuals are mostly responding.” Another reported, “a third of my virtual students aren’t responding on any given day.”
Technology — Helping & Hindering
Gibson says that technology and its effective application reflects one of Jefferson County Schools’ most formidable obstacles. “Our greatest challenge for tech is people,” she said. “We have so many varying levels of expertise. People expect the system to make it all happen. We are presently teaching entire families how to use technology.” Gibson noted numerous families who have never previously owned a computer have been opting for their children to participate in online learning. Reliable internet access is an issue for many families also.
In-person classes are also facing their own technology challenges. Due to the demands to spread computer resources to all levels, many classrooms have fewer computers available for students. Where there once may have been two or three computers in a classroom, there is now only one which, more often than not, is the one being used by the teacher. As one teacher remarked, “not only was our extra technology removed, most all [of] the technology within the school for students’ use has been removed to be reimaged for students who don’t have access to computers at home; thus in a world where technology is imperative, we are unable to fully utilize computers [for instruction] in most of our classrooms.”
All of the responding teachers and Gibson agreed that in-person teaching is far superior to virtual teaching and that everyone is doing the best that they can. Nonetheless, teachers are reporting that a myriad of technical problems, steep learning curves, and endless days that often bleed into long nights are having an exhausting effect on them mentally, spiritually, and physically. The Jefferson County Schools administration has been adjusting the initial requirements of the faculty as the school year progresses. While grateful for any easing of demands, the teachers interviewed all reported working 10 to 12 hours a day as they adjust to the new formats and schedules — a frenetic pace that can’t be sustained indefinitely.By Stephen Willingham