Public education, COVID, and the future

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on July 19, 2021

It's been several weeks since the 20-21 school year ended here in Paso Robles, Calif. My wife and I are moving to the Central Valley so she can return to teaching at her alma mater—a public school that pays better than any public school district on California's Central Coast, and in an area with a much more affordable cost of living compared to the coastal areas of the state.

In theory, there shouldn't be much disparity between various school districts and teacher pay in California, since school funding is based on average daily attendance, but there is. But that's a subject for another post.

What public education looks like in the COVID pandemic

For the last three months of the school year, I spent four days a week in a physical classroom with real live students. Not that I could have identified any of the students in a lineup, since masks were required.

The district had so-called hybrid learning Tue-Fri of each week; Monday was online-only. The hybrid learning consisted of even-numbered periods Wednesdays and Friday, odd-numbered periods Tuesdays and Thursdays. Each day was also broken into cohorts so that half the students came in the mornings and half in the afternoons.

I was the in-person, long-term, substitute teacher for four classes taught by two different teachers. I also did more traditional substitute teaching the remaining two periods each day for other regular teachers who were doing in-person learning and typically coaching a variety of sports.

One of the teachers is a younger man who has a pre-existing condition that compromised his immune system so that being in even a COVID-distanced room was a concern. The second teacher is older, and slated to retire at the end of the year, so why risk his health?

For both these teachers, I was the State of California-required credentialed substitute responsible for ensuring that the classrooms did not turn into a "Lord of the Flies" situation while the regular instructors appeared remotely, projected on a screen and able to see the class through a webcam set up on a tripod in the corner.

I wasn't qualified to "teach" either class (technically I'm not qualified to teach any class) but AP Physics I and French are two classes I'm especially not qualified to teach.

AP Physics I

The students taking AP Physics are some of the top students in the school. Mostly juniors and seniors, with a handful of really brilliant sophomores, these are the kids its a pleasure to be around. These are the students that care about learning; the ones who will likely end up earning at least a Bachelor's degree—and potentially more.

Even with these classes composed of more driven, higher performing students, the months of distance learning and lack of socializing with their peers and teachers had an effect on their work output and ultimately their understanding of the subject. The in-class labs and experiments that they would normally do in a non-pandemic environment were nearly completely absent. Physical distancing rules prevented students from sitting closely to one another during lecture time, let alone working together in the closer quarters often required for these experiments.

Instead, when they could be done, labs consisted of the regular teacher recording himself doing the activity and having the kids observe—little different than they could get from the Khan Academy or a YouTube search. Both the regular teacher and I graduated from Cal Poly SLO where the motto is "Learn by Doing." We both know that this wasn't the best way for the kids to learn or to prepare them for the AP test, but with the health rules the way they were, what was the alternative?


The French classes were, for the most part, even worse. With the regular French teacher retiring at year's end, that option for students was disappearing anyway. Even with the return to limited in-person instruction, the interaction necessary to semi-seriously learn a foreign language really wasn't there. The French teacher was using the Edgenuity program to run the classes for the most part, since there were still a number of students on full-time distance learning, with some additional customized assignments that students did outside that program.

Edgenuity is an online curriculum and coursework service that offers virtual instruction on just about every K-12 subject. It's not bad, but it's not great either. Most importantly, it's really not a very good solution for the students who have failed an in-person class with a certificated teacher. It's more difficult to learn any subject this way for those students.

Unlike the Physics classes, the students in the French classes were a more representative sample of the student body. There were a handful of those top students who are driven, and with the proper resources can learn under just about any conditions, more middle of the road students, and those bottom tier students who would be hard-pressed to pass even in a normal, pre-pandemic classroom environment.

With the Edgenuity course, several of those more driven students were able to finish the class with a few weeks to spare, allowing them time to work on other classes, rest, or do whatever else they wanted to do.

Other students, who'd done little to nothing during the first semester of distance learning and continued this practice into in-person instruction, were a problem. It was bad enough that they weren't doing much of anything, but once introduced to a semi-normal classroom environment with other students, they seemed to have little difficulty distracting and inhibiting the progress of their slightly more driven, but more borderline, classmates.

In consultation with the regular teacher, we looked at their grades in other classes and identified one or two classes these students were taking that they could potentially pass with just a little more work. Those students were pulled aside and given the go-ahead to work on those other classes during French class in the hope that would be one less class they would have to re-take during summer school or during the regular school year instead of one of the more desirable elective classes.

While well-intentioned, I suspect that these offers helped few to none of the students who were offered this opportunity.

Still a substitute

With the school schedule the way it was, I was still "available" to substitute for other instructors for Periods 5 and 6, and it was relatively common that I would make appearances in all sorts of other classes.

One of the more troubling of these additional substitute gigs for me was a direct result of the effort by California schools to squeeze an entire year's worth of athletic competition into just four months. This meant that numerous regular instructors were gone for a significant portion of the in-person part of the school year for athletic competitions.

For about 15 freshmen who were taking science Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, that meant that the teacher they saw in that in-person class was me…for a month. You see, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were the same time as tennis competitions were held, and so he was gone. In a normal year, that would mean they would still be physically present with the teacher three days a week. But with the hybrid/cohort schedule, these 15 kids didn't see their science teacher for a monht.

I was more qualified and prepared to teach this class, though the instructor could've done more to make it a little easier for me. Students were studying DNA, RNA, transcription, etc., and I still have a pretty decent handle on the subject when we're talking about a high school freshmen introductory science level. The Internet, and a little reading, filled in some of the blanks that had intruded on my memory with age.

But I also realize that I am not the equivalent of full-time science teacher. I can explain things and follow a PowerPoint deck to a certain extent, but I may not know the best way to explain this subject to 13- or 14-year-old kids. (I probably didn't immediately inspire confidence when I pronounced DNA "dinnuh" and RNA "rinnuh" the first day in that class.) Anything short of a retired science teacher with 30+ years of experience running this class for a month was a disservice to these kids.

Unfortunately, that's the way it was; another sacrifice made to the COVID gods that resulted in another sub-par educational experience.

It's all about the numbers

As Finals Week rolled around, Paso Robles High School knew it had a problem. Grades for seniors are due one week before the end of classes, so students know if they'll be graduating and allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. When administrators ran the numbers over that last weekend, they discovered several seniors who wouldn't be graduating without some serious help.

That "help" was to enroll the students in so-called "credit recovery" courses in Edgenuity. By the time I was called in on Thursday to the computer lab to monitor students who were still attempting to pass the necessary course(s) to graduate with their friends was down to just a handful. These students had been coming in first thing in the morning, staying until school ended for the day, and then (hopefully) going home to continue working to complete a course (or courses) that would normally take them at least an hour a day, five days a week, for months to finish—and that's just the in-class time.

Students could stop when they'd completed at least 90 percent of the course and had a 60 percent or better grade for the entire course. That meant that the last 10 percent could be a zero and they'd still have 60 percent overall. Otherwise, they'd have to complete more of the course to make it so they receive at least a D– to pass.

One student was re-taking a senior English class, ERWC, the California State University system's model course for high school seniors. ERWC stands for Expository Reading and Writing Course (or Curriculum). Fortunately for this student, the Edgenuity course had been set up in such a way so that the writing assignments (which are supposed to be graded by a actual human credential teacher, though the system does "suggest" a grade) were just 10 percent of the overall grade. Then many of those assignments had been set up to be bypassed, so the student didn't need to attempt them to move onto the next assignment (they did effectively get a zero for bypassed assignments, but it's only 10 percent of the grade).

What did this mean? It meant that a student received a passing grade, a D–, for a college prep English class, and he didn't need to write a single sentence. Yay! A high school graduate. However, I'm not sure exactly how much that diploma is worth, or how much any of them are worth if he received one for that work.

Another student had several classes to make up, including a full year of 10th grade world history. While I was there, she completed the first semester, but with a grade of just 53%—not enough to pass. A second attempt was given on the final exam, and she was encouraged to study before re-taking it. But she still had the second semester to complete, and at least one other course, before Friday afternoon.

When I covered for another teacher during summer school a couple of weeks later, this same student was in one of the classes, still trying to pass the courses necessary to graduate.

This process was all about getting those graduation numbers up; it wasn't about students learning, and it continues in summer school.

Up until last week, there were hundreds of students sitting in classrooms for two or four hours a day taking online courses—only a fraction of them were likely learning anything.

A misguided public education system

When I graduated from high school more than 30(!) years ago, most core classes had at least three classifications that students were sorted into: Remedial, Applied Arts, and College Prep. There were a handful of Honors courses that included Advanced Placement courses, but those opportunities were miniscule compared to the opportunities today.

(Even those Honors courses nowadays aren't necessarily the intellectual safe-haven they once were for high-performing students, since there's no prerequisite testing or performance requirement to get into those courses. So, you do have instances of students enrolling in those classes and then getting left far behind.)

The advantage to sorting students into classes this way should be obvious. Trying to focus a lesson on widely varying levels of understanding likely means that some students are still confused, others are bored, and only a handful of students learning at their optimal level. But this is the misguided education system we've been given because of this foolish idea that all students need to go to college, whether that's a J.C. or a four-year university.

Despite efforts to expand opportunities to allow students to explore various trades involving auto repair, welding, woodworking, health care, and more, there is still a not-insignificant portion of every student's class load that presumes that they will be attending a four-year college.

We are not serving our students well.

What does the future look like?

Despite the science that indicates masking is unnecessary for those people who are fully vaccinated, it appears that the California Department of Health will require everyone to be masked in public schools at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Again, this is based not on science, but a concern that some students might feel bad because they have to wear masks because they're not vaccinated.

As has been an issue for the past several months: This does not provide any incentive for the so-called "vaccine hesitant" population to take the dive and get vaccinated.

It appears that the six-foot social distancing requirements will end since they're unworkable in a typical classroom setting (you can't put 35 kids in a classroom and maintain six feet of distance between them), and they aren't really science-based when you're talking about anyone under the age of 18.

I hope these are the only intrusive COVID restrictions in place for the coming year. This is something that most students can cope with. Despite what one woman claimed on my Twitter feed this has been a lost year of education. These summer school courses where students show up, but take an online course did not make up for that lost year; they were an exercise in COVID education theater, nothing more.

If you want to catch students up, these online courses cannot be the answer. They don't work except for that top 10-15% who are the high-performing kids who are driven to learn.

One thing is sure: We'll be talking about this for the next decade.


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July 2021



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