Changes coming to at-home learning

Final plans are being made for a shift in Abington’s hybrid learning model that will result in those students spending  significantly more time watching classroom lessons live during their at home days.

New guidelines approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education shortly before Christmas require school districts to now provide 35 hours of direct teacher instruction over a 10-day school period. This change will result in a notable reworking of how Abington schools structure their at-home learning days. Currently, cohorts learning at home generally have a couple of daily check in periods with classroom teachers, but mostly work independently. 

At least one Abington School Committee member is critical of the new state regulations, specifically, the extra burden they play on teachers while providing little time to train and prepare. 

Jackie Abrams said as a parent she wants her children to have as much live instruction and access to their teachers as possible.

“As a teacher, I’m sad that the state requirements are simply demanded overnight without proper support, resources or time to plan so that it works well,” she said. “There’s a difference between just doing something and doing something well. This is a new expectation without any appreciation for how hard it is engage students normally, never mind when you have half the students in front of you and half through a screen. It’s now two different jobs we are asking of one individual all while under a lens of public scrutiny.”

Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer said district administrators had been discussing ways to enhance the hybrid learning models over mixed feedback from parents about its rigorousness and accessibility to teachers. The state then released its updated rules, which Schafer said made the path forward clear.   

“This gives families the opportunity for increased engagement,” Schafer said. “We tried to build flexibility in for families with the academics. What we heard from families was that we need more contact time with teachers.”

The exact amount of time students will spend watching classes will vary by grade and subject matter. The regulations exempt pre-k and kindergarten classes. More detailed schedules for Abington students are still being finalized, but will generally follow in-class schedules. 

“Teachers are going to be working on a lesson with kids present and those lessons will be able to be shared through video and audio so that students at home will be able to follow along,” Schafer said.

Part of the ongoing preparatory work includes negotiating a change in working conditions with the Abington Education Association. Schafer and the school committee met in a closed-door executive session for 30 minutes before its meeting Tuesday night to discuss contract negotiations.

Schafer is eyeing a Jan. 19 start to synchronous learning, but that date depends on ironing out all remaining details. He said parents, guardians, and staff will receive additional information ahead of the roll-out. 

A number of local public school districts and private schools have already incorporated synchronous learning into their education plans. Some teachers from those schools have complained about the difficulty juggling the needs of the two audiences, saying it can be the in-person students that get shorted attention. 

Abington declined to adopt synchronous learning back in August citing a number of factors, ranging from student and teacher privacy concerns to the lack of needed technology and classroom internet bandwidth. 

Schafer said each Abington classroom now has the technology to meet the state requirements. 

“The video and audio will be able to capture the benefit of being there,” he said. “It’s not going to be like watching Netflix on a 56-inch screen at home. But we have sufficient technology to pull this off.”

However he cautioned that any benefit from synchronous learning depends on families making sure their students are taking part.

“If families don’t engage, this won’t be a benefit,” Schafer said.

Teachers will have a steep learning curve to become adept at teaching two separate audiences; a fact that has Abrams concerned. 

“As a teacher and a parent and a school committee member, I plead with the community to just be kind while we ride out this school year,” she said. “These people care and they are trying hard for your children under absolutely terrible conditions. I’m proud of us for surviving it.”

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