‘Not a sustainable model’: A peek at how one high school handles its COVID-19 challenges

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14 mins read

Ryan McKinnon
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Published 5:00 AM EDT Sep 16, 2020

SARASOTA, Florida — Mackenzie Altman was trying to get her Booker High School students excited about the role of government.

“What do you think is the most important thing for the government to do?” the social studies department chair asked recently, throwing out several options.   

It was a standard “bell work” activity for her American government class, geared to get students interested in the day’s lesson and spark conversations. She leads this type of discussion every day, but with COVID-19 restrictions in place, nearly everything about it was different.  

Everyone was wearing masks, except for a group of students in a Zoom meeting box projected on a large monitor at the front of the class. Most of these “remote learners” seemed to be sitting in their bedrooms, and many had angled their laptops so that just the tops of their foreheads were visible. 

The in-person students tried to keep their binders and textbooks on their desk without knocking off the new tri-fold divider shield they are required to sit behind.

Still, Altman bounced back forth, interacting with the in-person class and the remote learners, getting input from both groups and not letting the strange surroundings dim her enthusiasm for different forms of nation states.

Like most teachers across the Sarasota County School District — and others across the country experimenting with variations of in-person and online learning — Altman is still figuring out how to teach “concurrently,” meaning she has a group of students physically present in her classroom and another group watching from home via a livestream.

That, and dozens of other changes, have made the 2020-21 school year uniquely challenging, since Sarasota reopened to students on Aug. 31.

Students play sports during PE while wearing their regular school clothes and a face covering, to avoid having to use germ-prone locker rooms. Teachers use tape markings on the floor to remind them to stay socially distanced from the students. Indoor cafeterias are strangely quiet, as students sit apart and behind their tri-fold screen. 

The countless new policies are being tweaked, updated, and in some cases reversed as teachers and administrators discover what works and what doesn’t.

“I’m bolting the doors on the plane while I’m trying to get it off the ground,” said Booker High English teacher Rebecca Prozzo.

Technical issues

Just weeks into the school year, one thing has become clear: A defining attribute of an effective teacher has become remaining even-keeled despite technical difficulties.

“Good teacher or bad teacher, if you are not tech-savvy, right now is very difficult,” Altman said.

During the first week, her district-issued microphone stopped working, so the remote students couldn’t hear her. With nearly every teacher across the district livestreaming their classes and thousands of students watching from home, the internet kept crashing, and just loading a simple presentation that she had posted to her Blackboard page took several minutes.

Altman has adjusted. She spent $70 of her own money on a high quality Bluetooth microphone, and she is learning how to split kids into groups on Zoom so they can work together.

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History teacher Gail Foreman said many of the “more seasoned” teachers aren’t as comfortable with the new requirements, so she helped start a training program to deputize students as technology assistants. The students learn how to troubleshoot the programs their teachers use, and serve as volunteer tech support.

“I am not a technology guru, but these guys are born with technology in their mouth, so I take advantage of their skills,” Foreman said.

Foreman was giving a history lesson on the Gettysburg Address recently. An aide translated her lesson into Spanish for one student, six other students watched on Zoom, and the rest of the class followed along as she gave instructions.

A boy named Dennis in her seventh-period class was one of the first students trained, and he sat by Foreman’s desk, doing his work but also keeping an eye on his remote classmates to make sure things were running smoothly while Foreman ran the class. It’s an approach that makes sense, given the split attention required of teachers, Booker Principal Rachel Shelley said. 

“Cognitively, you are in two different places with behavior, with management, with assignments,” Shelley said. “And we’re not even talking about teaching the lesson yet.”

Prozzo, the English teacher, said she is confident she can make it work. A recent lesson about “The Most Dangerous Game” short story elicited plenty of input from her remote learners, and she’s adapting her old tricks to the new format.

But she began crying as she talked about trying to build relationships with her ninth-grade remote learners.

Normally, the first two weeks are when Prozzo would get to know the wide-eyed freshmen who will be part of her life for the next four years. Now, many of her students are just foreheads on a glitchy Zoom call, and she knows they are lonely and clueless as to what high school normally feels like.  

“I can’t hear them, I can’t see them. I try to be playful, try to engage,” she said. “It’s going to happen, but it is slower.”

Overloaded system

But even as teachers adapt, there is nothing they can do about an overloaded network that was not built for every user to be streaming interactive audio and video.

Bronwyn Leggett, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Sarasota Middle School who is learning remotely, said she gets kicked out of the program two or three times a day. When she does talk, her voice often comes across choppy, and her classmates, most of whom she has never met, say they can’t understand her.

The new format has turned some of the old rules upside down in some of Bronwyn’s classes. Raising your hand is out. Interrupting is in.

“I’m always raising my hand, but they never really call on me,” she said. “And I don’t like having to interrupt people so I can say my stuff. They tell us to, but it still just feels wrong and rude.”

Bronwyn’s dad, James Leggett, is a former teacher in the district, and he said all three of his children who are remote learning are constantly getting knocked off of the platforms, or they are unable to hear or see their teacher.

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Earlier this week, one of Bronwyn’s classes sounded like an auto-tuned nightmare, as the teacher’s voice sped up, slowed down, hummed and buzzed, all due to technical glitches. Bronwyn’s voice is the only clear one, as she asks “What is happening here?”

Leggett said he feels awful about the decision he is preparing to make because he knows how the system works. Students mean money for the district, and he doesn’t want to hurt his former coworkers. But after two weeks of constant crashes and glitches, he is ready to pull his kids out.

“We are leaning now toward home schooling our younger kids,” Leggett said. “They just aren’t getting anything out of Sarasota’s remote system.”

Pooling resources

Principal Shelley’s top goal this year is creating a safe environment so COVID-19 doesn’t spread and parents feel comfortable sending their child back to school.

To do that, like all principals, she has had to be resourceful.

Each hallway in Booker has homemade dividers to keep traffic moving one way, made out of rope strung between PVC pipes mounted in buckets with cement. Shelley got Lowe’s to donate the materials and a team of volunteers and students assembled them and set them up.

She solicited donations to buy each teacher a sturdy plexiglass shield, and donors bought the school seven air purifiers, which went to the most at-risk teachers.

Shelley plans to reinforce the new protocols until they become the normal way of operating. One boy popped into football coach Baraka Atkins’ classroom to ask him for a football form, and when he left, he dutifully turned right, walked all the way to the end of the hall, made a U-turn and walked past Atkins’ classroom on his way to the stairs.

The lunchroom is far quieter than a normal cafeteria would be, with the COVID-19 rules putting a damper on conversation. Students who eat indoors have to remain behind their divider, and seating at each table is limited to a few students. Several students sat by themselves, masks tucked under their chin, eating their chicken nuggets quietly behind their divider.

Outside, the lunch had more of a normal buzz, with students not required to wear masks while eating and some of the social distancing rules relaxed because they were outdoors, but they were still limited to four at a table.

Despite the list of new do’s and don’ts, freshmen Ronnie Thomas, 14, and Kamauri Smith, 15, said they didn’t mind the structure. It felt totally different from middle school, and they liked it.   

“You can’t get away with anything here,” said Thomas.  

Senior Erick Reynoso said that while some of his teachers are overwhelmed by the technology, the day-to-day operation of the school was smooth. Students weren’t objecting to wearing masks, they followed the hallway dividers and he said he felt safe.

“The first couple days of school have been pretty organized,” said Reynoso, 17. “It’s definitely something I didn’t expect because of all this chaos. Teachers are stressed out, students are stressed out, so I didn’t expect it to be so organized.”

The bigger question will be if students can learn, and how teachers will handle the new requirements of teaching at-home and in-person students concurrently. Altman said she is hopeful her colleagues can overcome the technical challenges and adapt to the new , but she does not expect it to produce great results or be a lasting solution.

“It just takes a lot more practice to get there,” Altman said. “But it’s not really a model.”

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