Sunday, March 15, 2020

Can Public School Teachers Teach from Home?

Last Thursday, after getting a series of emails from the school board and OSSTF about concerns with many students travelling over the March Break and returning with an incubating virus that could infect each school, we suddenly found out from the CBC that we're shutting down for the two weeks following the break throughout Ontario. I think that's a very good idea, and I haven't seen any opposition to the decision. But now what should teachers do? So far, we've gotten zero instruction or guidance about what we can or cannot do. I want to set up online lessons pro-actively, but because of current labour disputes, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to do that. Nobody has the answers. So, what should the answer be?

Three ideas have come out of the fray: do nothing now, but work into July; do nothing now, but extend the school day to compensate and have longer classes; and do something now, i.e. teach from home. I prefer the last option. I think I'm in the minority on this, though, because, in Ontario, we're specifically fighting against Ford's mandatory e-learning. Can we work online without promoting Ford's evil plan? Will teaching from home work against everything the union's been doing for us??


Teaching and learning from home briefly is not the same as Ford's centralized e-learning mandate. I've written before (here) about why e-learning is a terrible idea. In a nutshell, it has high failure rates (90% by some measures) from a lack of connectedness that perpetuates a declining motivation on the part of the students. That being said, however, I do think we can teach from home, online, during our two weeks off, home but healthy, and healthy because we're home. We should be able to keep most students going, and then we just have a few to catch up at the end, which we always do. Teaching from home is more like what we do on snow days, or, if it helps, think of it as flipped learning on a very long timeline (aka blended learning). Because we already know our students and made connections, and because we will be getting together again soon - with any luck - most will be motivated to do some work from home.


My concerns with extending the class day with longer classes and also with extending the year into the summer are two-fold: It disrupts everything else, and we don't know how long this self-isolation will last. If things get better soon, then teaching outside our typical time slot disrupts after school sports, activities, private lessons, summer camps, and, most importantly, jobs. Many of my students are trying to work now to save for university. By teaching into the summer, they have less time to get together the money they need to be able to go to school in the fall. And if this "break" is extended, which is entirely possible, then how long do we make the classes? Will we be teaching for the entire summer or maybe into October?

Social distancing makes the virus run its course more slowly. We've all seen this viral graph that shows when we flatten the curve, the incidents carry on for a long period. It's important to flatten the curve so health care providers aren't overloaded, absolutely, but it means self-isolating for a longer timeline.

In Italy, it's been estimated that it will take 30 days to get to the peak. Thirty!
"We can foresee that the cumulative curve of patients who are infected will peak 30 days later, with the maximum load for clinical facilities for the treatment of these patients foreseen for that period."
I'm guessing, based on this information, that we will be home from school for more than the two weeks it takes to see if any travellers might have the virus.


Working from home can also help maintain the mental health of teachers and students. On Friday, my students told me they'll be bored by the end of March Break, and having some structured class time from home will help alleviate their boredom. Yes, really, they actually said that!! Trapped at home, we need structured days of activity after we tire of Netflix. We can offer specific times for students to discuss and connect with each other. Consider the students who don't see others outside of school and don't have people following them on Instagram. For some, school is their only social connection, and online class discussions can give them a forum to stay connected.


This online unit might be a bust for many, it's true. This is a concern for many teachers. Are we going to do the work of putting up lesson that only a few keeners will follow?  Some kids need constant attention during work periods to do their work, absolutely, but they're typically the few, not the many. And for most of my grade 12s, chomping at the bit to move on to the next stage in their lives, we've got some strong buy-in.

On snow days, when we're all stuck at home, we're expected to provide lessons online, and we do without much complaint as far as I've heard. Most kids in my classes do the work I assign those day, but some don't. Much of it is attitude - whether or not we make it seem mandatory or optional. But having a few non-workers is also an issue when we teach right in front of them too. We rarely get everyone on board. So where's the line? If we offer lessons, and students do them, we can finish on time. If we offer lessons, and almost nobody does them, then we have lessons prepped for when we return!


Some are concerned that it's not equitable for teachers because spec ed support teachers will be sitting at home doing nothing while the rest of us are teaching. But, within each school, we have equity, more or less, without ever having anything close to equality. There has always been concerns within the building around things like some teachers marking essays exams at the end of the year, while others are scantroning multiple choice exams. That's just the way this job works, and, in times of questions of how many minutes does each teacher spend working and how difficult is their work, we have to defer to a better question: What works best for the kids? Like I say to people who are very sure teachers only work four hours a day, if you're sure that some teachers aren't doing as much work as others, then transfer to their department for a piece of that easy life! Let me know how that goes. It's an apples and oranges argument.

There's also an equity concern from the student's side: some don't have access to wifi, and going to a coffee shop to use theirs is a no-go. But I'd rather catch up a couple students per class than the entire class. And maybe the government can look into paying for extended data for students in need.


Then there's the opposition from university profs on social media that I haven't yet heard in the high school: We don't know how to do that. Many profs on twitter are scrambling to figure out how to develop lessons online and communicate back and forth with students. They've been given a week-long grace period to get more computer savvy. In my school, I'd guess that all, or almost all, teachers already have a system for ongoing online class communication. We already use Google Classroom or personal websites. After lengthy discussions with my grades 10 and 12 classes on Friday, they told me what they thought would work for them IFF we're allowed to teach during this period: We can film ourselves explaining concepts, uploaded to YouTube set to 'Private,' with a link to a paper version, and students can ask questions and comment below a-synchronistically. And then Disqus offers threaded discussion for some in-class (at home) synchronistic debates. Again, it will be much more like flipped learning except on a very long time line.

Teaching online for a brief period can work for most students. My grade 12s want to graduate in June and work after school and all summer to pay for their next level of schooling. We can make this happen for them.

ETA: I tweeted this yesterday, after hearing that Alberta might shut down until September, and not a single like or retweet! If that's any indication of things, I'm still alone on this side of the fence:

No comments: