Thousands of Schenectady students will be expected to log in to a new school year Monday, with students in 7-12 grades facing an all-virtual education for the foreseeable future.
District officials said the all-virtual model will look significantly different than the spring, when school abruptly transitioned online and students were never expected to follow a typical schedule of live classes. Students and parents should expect a daily schedule and more consistent plans as educators look to restore a semblance of school routines.
But parents still face enormous challenges trying to balance childcare, work and overseeing their children’s education this fall. A massive round of layoffs in the past two weeks, slashing about 10 percent of teachers and around half of the paraprofessional support staff from the district, will drive class sizes to as many as 32 students at the high school level and 25 students in elementary school, maximum targets under the district teachers contract. In some places, those targets will be exceeded.
Educators and administrators alike have acknowledged the virtual model cannot replace the importance of in-person instruction, but Schenectady officials hope this year’s virtual model will more closely replicate what students would see in a classroom.
“It doesn’t take the place of being in person. I don’t think any of us would prefer this model,” said Carmella Parente, who leads the district’s curriculum and instruction efforts.
Teachers will attempt to replicate classroom strategies – mixing full-class lessons with independent and group work – while also leveraging dozens of applications district officials analyzed over the summer for virtual use.
While elementary students in a typical classroom may all gather together for a read-aloud before rotating through independent and small-group activities, in the virtual model, students may all join a class-wide lesson before rotating between independent work and direct work with the teacher independently or in a small group. At the high school level, virtual students will still have eight-period schedules to follow, moving from class to class in their virtual mode. Students in K-3 grades will be using a platform called Seesaw, while students in the older grades will be using Google Classroom.
“We want to be doing everything they are doing in hybrid [at school] in a virtual world,” Parente said. “The biggest difference is the idea of scheduled livestreaming of your lessons. There’s a major difference between the idea you can post something for kids to read … now we are asking for more live instruction and for kids to tune in for a regularly scheduled class.”
Teachers will schedule breaks for students, with more breaks and shorter stretches of instruction time for younger students, and try to strengthen over time students’ ability to maintain extended focus
“Students still need time to process,” Parente said of offering different types of breaks and chances for students to stretch or step outside.
Parente and Aaron Bochniak, Schenectady’s interim superintendent, said teachers will work to design classes and lessons to alleviate the amount of work that falls on the shoulders of parents. Teachers will work to engage students and monitor their progress, so that parents aren’t forced to sit by their side throughout the entire day. But the new pressures of ensuring students get on and stay in remote classes will fall to parents and guardians, including those who work during the day.
“Teachers aren’t going to 100 percent depend on parents to do the work,” Parente said.
Even before the pandemic, Schenectady educators fought the challenges of chronically absent students across the district. Bochniak said attendance during the spring transition to remote reached a high of around 80 percent after a few days of transition before tapering off as the weather improved and the semester wound down. This school year, attendance will be taken on a daily basis, and for each individual class, Bochniak said, as educators work to maximize student turnout for the online classes. Most teachers involved in the online program will work from home, and students will not be required to turn on the cameras on their computer, a step viewed as too much of an invasion of privacy for families.
“That’s an invitation into parents’ homes, and we need all of our students and families feeling comfortable,” Parente said.
But Parente said teachers will work to build a relationship with students and aim to instill comfort in students to show their face for even short periods of time. Student activities and clubs, including drama and arts, will attempt to restart in the virtual world this year, giving students another draw to log in for school.
“Everything we know tells us education relies on them being able get to know their students,” Parente said.
District officials still haven’t received an order of Chromebook laptops they placed in March, Bochniak said, but the district is working to deploy all of its technology resources as needed. District employees last week started dismantling school computer labs, preparing to distribute desktop computers to students learning remotely if necessary, and have purchased and distributed scores of wireless hotspots to families with limited internet access.
“We are doing still whatever it takes to make sure kids aren’t without a device,” Bochniak said. “We are going to make sure every kid who needs one has one.”