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Half-Empty Classrooms, Hybrid Teaching Models Mulled in Mount Greylock District
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:00AM / Tuesday, June 09, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Much is unknown about how the start of school will look in the fall, but the Education Subcommittee of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee got one definite piece of information on Monday morning.
 
"Is it possible that we might be in a guidance situation where we could have a full classroom of students?" Chair Steven Miller asked Superintendent Kimberley Grady.
 
"No," Grady answered.
 
"It’s going to be reduced class sizes."
 
How schools go about reducing numbers in the classroom is yet to be determined, and districts like Mount Greylock are waiting for further guidance from the commonwealth’s commissioner of education that is due to come out some time next week, Grady said. Social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic is a certainty.
 
"They’re not talking about a full opening with 100 percent of the students in any of the conversations that they are having at this point," she said.
 
"If we stay all remote [learning], it will look differently than it looks now. We’ll begin to have conversations with [the local teachers union] about what remote learning will look like in the fall. … The hybrid model is what it would look like if we had a partial opening of a percentage of students and faculty and we had alternating days and weeks of when students would be getting remote versus in-person presentations."
 
The state has asked local districts to begin preliminary planning for operations in either of those scenarios.
 
Mount Greylock has designated seven planning teams to begin looking at various issues within those scenarios: governance, instruction, technology, facilities, operations, wellness and parent/community/student. On Monday, Grady discussed with the subcommittee who will be leading each of those working groups.
 
"With instructional components, [union head Marty Walter] had reached out to the teachers for us, so we do have a building-based rep just to have them in the ground level conversations," she said. "Then we will have smaller groups, and we will need additional teachers to be covering things within our roadmap of what reopening looks like.
 
"We do have one teacher from each building to be on the instructional conversation as well as Pat [Blackman] on tech, [Lanesborough Elementary’s Juliann Haskins and Williamstown Elementary’s Rebecca Leonard] potentially on tech, social workers, psychologists, guidance counsellors and nurses on wellness. Our parent/community/student group, we have eight or nine parents, a representative from each of the three schools, and at the middle/high school, Mary [MacDonald] has reached out to some students to participate in that component. They’ll be assisting with getting some feedback from the communities as well as a survey that we’ll be sending out."
 
As for the district’s first foray into the world of remote learning, the Education Subcommittee members were struck by the results of a late April survey of teachers about student engagement with classwork since the closure of the school buildings.
 
According to data presented to the committee on Monday, a little less than 30 percent of the students at all three schools were completed more than 75 percent of their assigned work (based on 75 teacher responses).
 
"Just over half of the students were participating in virtual classrooms at least 75 percent of the time, and not even 30 percent were completing three quarters or more of the assigned work," Alison Carter said. "The numbers could go up, they could go down. I’ve seen in my children’s classrooms, one of them seems to be pretty consistent in terms of participation, and one seems to be just a few kids dialing in now.
 
"I’m sure there are a lot of conversations going on about how to get these numbers up. It might be interesting to hear some reflections on what the thoughts are around engagement and how we can -- for those days that likely will be remote -- how to make sure students aren’t just falling off."
 
WES Assistant Principal Elea Kaatz talked about the steps teachers and administrators take to reach out to families when pupils are not engaging in their remote classrooms. If emails or phone calls to a family are not answered or returned, Kaatz said she will visit a child’s home or even ask the police to do a wellness check.
 
But she noted it can be difficult for parents to step into the role of teacher.
 
"In a lot of cases, parents are in touch with us and say, 'I’m working from 8 to 4, and I’m doing my very best to get dinner on the table and do schoolwork at 7 o’clock, but then I have to get my student to bed,’ " Kaatz said. "So we’ll work on a strategy to say, 'OK, right now, they’re not doing any work. Let’s get them back on track doing an assignment.
 
"We’re making sure we can give families supports to get re-engaged because sometimes it’s really hard. Of course, we want 100 percent work completion. We would love that. But in reality, we know we have to support parents in developing those strategies at home, giving them checklists.
 
"The rate of work completion is something we have to think about and evaluate, but I also know we have a lot of families who are doing their very, very best to balance. Supporting them in every way we can has really been our mission since we closed."
 
WES Principal Joelle Brookner noted that as late as last week she was still distributing Chromebooks to families. Sometimes families began the remote learning process thinking they had adequate devices only to realize later that they needed school-issued hardware.
 
"Any plan we have for remote learning [in the fall], we will be right away giving people devices," Brookner said.
 
MacDonald, the Mount Greylock principal, said that from her conversations with teachers, the lack of engagement has led educators to re-evaluate "not just how they’re teaching but what they’re teaching."
 
"I think we went into this really full force saying, ‘What are the most important components of our curriculum? How do I turn that into digital lessons and get students engaged and give them the opportunity to address and achieve the standards?’ " MacDonald said. "You hear these conversations at all levels of education. Now we’re stepping back and saying, ‘What is the pedagogy? Let’s not worry so much about replicating what we do in class because the critical teacher isn’t there in the same way.’
 
"So you’re beginning to say, what are the standards, how can I do it? I may not be able to do something that’s been beloved by the students and successful in the past in a face-to-face model. We’re going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about how do I reorganize that curriculum."
 
Looking to the 2020-21 academic year, School Committee Chair Christina Conry asked whether too much of a burden was going to be put on teachers who will have to plan for both in-person and remote instruction simultaneously.
 
"As for teachers having to do two sets of lessons, that’s not necessarily the case," Grady said. "There’s a lot that has to come out in the commissioner’s guidelines before we start thinking. All the ‘what ifs’ create a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety for faculty and staff. That is why we’re talking regularly with the [union] so as we’re learning things, they learn things.
 
"I don’t want them thinking they will have twice the amount of work to do. They may just be an in-person teacher and have a colleague in a co-taught model who is doing the week that the students aren’t here in a remote platform. There’s a lot of conversations that have to happen before we make people think their caseload has doubled or tripled."
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