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Learning Environments

Going Back to Virtual Learning: The Challenges of Reopening High Schools

High schools face unique difficulties reopening, a teacher finds, when her school goes back to virtual learning after a case of Covid-19.

November 10, 2020
Illustration concept for virtual learning
Wesley Bedrosian / The iSpot

On our third day of hybrid instruction, my high school literature class and I played a game of telephone. One of the six masked students in my classroom shared a sentence about an event that day, and one of the 16 students calling in on Zoom tried to understand and repeat it. A “ride on the bus with freshmen” morphed into a “drop-kicked alien in a fiery bus.” Clearly, no one could hear anyone well in my hybrid classroom, where the goal was to teach an in-person cohort and at-home group at the same time.

After a virtual start to the year, my high school had been preparing for months for the transition back to the building. Yellow arrows were placed in hallways to indicate the right direction to walk; buckets of hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes were put in every classroom; the ventilation system was upgraded. Teachers like me felt a mix of excitement and dread: We were ready to see students and colleagues in person again, but we worried it wouldn’t last long. We were right.

A couple of hours after my students got on buses that afternoon, an announcement came over the loudspeakers telling staff to check their emails and then go home. We knew what that meant. Someone in the building had tested positive for Covid-19, and after just three days, we were going back to full-time virtual learning. I threw my books in my giant teacher bag, shut down my computer, and turned off my air purifier.

The Challenge of High School

As I sat in my car with my mask still on, I was stunned, relieved, and disappointed all at once. As much as I dislike my heavily trafficked commute—and questioned how well hybrid learning would work—it had been terrific to be back in the classroom after teaching remotely. While I was beginning to feel comfortable with the tools and rhythms of virtual teaching, I’ve continued to find it challenging to elicit enthusiastic responses from students. In person, I could improvise and connect more easily.

Before driving home, I scrolled through Twitter and came across several writers proclaiming that schools were safer than ever and were not to blame for increased Covid-19 cases. Recent data showed low infection rates in schools opening in studies from Germany, Spain, and Utah, they said, and from one database where schools self-report cases. Yet as a teacher in a high school, I feel that the conclusions drawn in these studies do not account for the unique dynamics of American high schools like mine that make it challenging to implement the research-recommended best practices.

Unlike elementary and middle schools, high schools are rarely able to put students in bubbles or pods, which are supposedly key to keeping rates down and help contain the spread of the virus if someone contracts it. They are increasingly more like colleges, where students choose from an array of classes and then switch between them—except, unlike in college, we’re all mixing in the same large building throughout the day. That means one or two infections can send an entire school home.

Particularly challenging for high schools, as well, is finding substitutes for the teachers in all five or six classes that an infected high school student might have attended in a day—and who now have to quarantine.

Certainly, as the pandemic drags on and cases continue to increase, high schools may have to rethink the buffet option and make cohorts fewer than 400 students and more like 20–40 students, as they are in K–5. They might have to start regular random testing, as some colleges and schools in New York City are doing, which is a notable component of the international school comparisons. High schools also might end before lunch, to avoid having hundreds of unmasked students eating together. And teachers are already talking about how to take classes outside; spring might be the perfect time to try this.

What we have learned so far is that access to reliable and fast testing is critical to community and school safety, that outdoor space and fresh air are more important than ever, and that the quality of tech matters for continuous engagement. We also know that many of our school buildings have needed ventilation upgrades for decades—and it took a pandemic to force the issue.

Thinking Ahead

I will be excited to return to my classroom—hybrid or fully in person—when rates of the virus are lower in the community. If or once we return this year, we are supposed to get better mics and more time to figure out how to teach in two places at once. I think cohort by cohort, week by week, students might even get real copies of books.

But it is still very much a work in progress. The lack of a concerted strategy and guidelines in the United States has led many educators to feel abandoned and overwhelmed; most districts have had to figure things out as they go along. It has taken an enormous amount of energy from nurses and building leaders, who are now spending hours coming up with new protocols for what were once basic practices, like fire drills.

In the absence of a national strategy, the data on Covid-19 cases in local communities will continue to drive decisions in schools, and teachers will continue to serve as frontline reporters on what’s being missed. For families, the issue of returning is also fraught, and they feel very differently about returning in person, depending on their experiences during the pandemic.

While at first my district’s plan was to stay remote for just two weeks, with rising community rates, we will now continue fully remote through the new year. Teachers and students pivoted quickly back to virtual learning—something we’ve become better at since the spring, with our Jamboards and Pear Decks and shared Google docs. But my attic home office suddenly feels slightly more claustrophobic than it did just two weeks ago.

As it gets darker and colder—and motivation to learn virtually is likely to decline—I’m planning to reemphasize virtual projects and exhibitions of work, open conversations, and offline goals with students. As one student said, “It’s really hard to look forward to anything when everything you look forward to keeps getting canceled.” I am hoping that even a class presentation can be a date on the calendar that is, if not exciting, something to anticipate. 

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  • 9-12 High School

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