When the squirming third graders sitting six feet apart in her classroom tried to get Abigail Boyett's attention, she pointed to the pair of leopard ears sitting on her head.
Months into the school year at San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District, the Lewis Elementary School third graders knew the fuzzy headband meant their teacher was focused on the other half of the class, the students sitting at home tuning into the lesson through Zoom. Both “roomies” and “zoomies” were supposed to be working independently on multiplication assignments, while Boyett pulled aside two who had struggled to grasp the concept.
“My friends in my classroom, I’m putting on my cat ears. When I have on my cat ears, we ask three before me,” she reminded them last Thursday, looking out at the room of masked 8-year-olds sitting behind plexiglass partitions. “You ask three of your friends before me.”
The rhyme is one of many tools Boyett has devised during the pandemic to teach two groups simultaneously, her attention divided between 11 students on screen and 10 in the room. She is responsible for solving technological issues for her “zoomies,” reminding her “roomies” to stay six feet apart and ensuring each child understands the lessons.
The continual push and pull for attention is familiar for thousands of urban and suburban teachers at a time when 3 million Texas public school students are learning remotely and another 2 million are showing up in person. “I try to treat them as equal as possible, but my roomies sometimes get a little more slack because they are in my classroom. I can see what they’re doing,” Boyett said. “It’s really hard.”
Teachers across the country are struggling to adapt to hybrid classroom approaches cobbled together in response to the enduring pandemic. Many say they’re having trouble reaching the students who need their help the most.
“That model is so brutal for teachers. It’s not fair to students. It’s not fair to parents,” said Benjamin Cottingham, who has studied the quality of remote learning in California schools. “I’m afraid that you’ll lose those people in education just permanently if they don’t change anything.”
Most Lewis Elementary teachers did not want hybrid classrooms. Principal Kendra Merrell estimated that 70% preferred being assigned to solely remote or in-person students, instead of a mix.
But the school didn’t have enough teachers to separate each class. “There was no way that logistically we could make that happen. There were too many kids coming back in person for us to be able to accommodate the in-person learners with the amount of staff we have,” she said. Currently, a little more than half the students in the majority-Hispanic school are learning in person.
Still, Boyett prefers teaching this way during the pandemic. She thinks it gives her a better shot at building long-term relationships with each student, rather than having some come and go if they switch between remote and in-person learning during the year. “We wanted our own classroom because we wanted our kids to get used to us. We wanted our kids to get used to each other,” she said. “Also, if they started with someone else and then came to me once they were in-person, I would have to do everything all over again.”
Amy Moreno worried that her daughter Isabella would be “heartbroken” if she started with Boyett and had to change midyear. She is grateful the school decided to keep a hybrid system. Isabella learns from home, in a room alongside her mother and two brothers. At first, the third grader felt jealous and left out watching her in-person classmates on screen, but she has since gotten used to it.
“She’s doing really well. She’s adjusted to the online experience,” Moreno said. “My husband and I are open to reconsidering it when they go back in January.”
The strength of Boyett’s relationships with her students was apparent Thursday. Students eagerly raised their hands to answer questions and sometimes interrupted to tell moderately relevant personal stories. Boyett once muted a student singing to herself during a lesson, but generally acknowledged those who wanted to talk to her, even when it was distracting.
“Is your face shield more better than the mask?” one student asked, as Boyett tried to transition into a writing activity.“It’s because you can hear me clearly. I can speak better and you can hear my words clearly,” she responded patiently.
Both groups of students spend most of their days looking at computer screens, the easiest way for Boyett to teach everyone at once. She guided them through finding their assignments on the learning management system the school uses, explaining which buttons to click and which virtual folders to enter. In the morning, students pledged allegiance to the Texas and American flags while watching a pre-recorded video of the day’s announcements. When they left for the bathroom or their daily art or music courses, Boyett reminded them to wipe down their desks and sanitize their hands.
When she asked for quiet focus with the classic elementary school “1, 2, 3, eyes on me,” all students visible in the Zoom grid clapped “1, 2, eyes on you” and fell silent. The majority of students had their cameras on, a choice Boyett left to them. At times, siblings or parents could be seen walking through the home or even dancing and pointing at the camera. One student, distracted close to lunchtime, rolled around on his couch at home. And during another lull, a student in the classroom stood up and danced near his desk.
Though Boyett appears to possess endless wells of patience and energy, she was scraping the bottom the day before, as students on screen and in the room repeatedly called out her name. “I was like, ‘OK, Ms. Boyett is one person,’” she recalled. “‘I need y’all to start raising your hands. Students online, don’t forget, I have students in the classroom. Students in the classroom, don’t forget I have students online.’”
On Thursday, Dallas Bassford, who is 8 and usually attends in person, was absent because her family was driving to a wedding in Florida. But she was still able to attend class from the car on her iPad, while headphones barely kept out the highway’s rumble. During the afternoon’s science lesson about the dangers of polluting, Dallas’ answers were repeatedly swallowed by a faulty Internet connection.
Her mother Katy Bassford said Dallas is able to focus more at school, a benefit that outweighed the health risks of sending her in person. “That is one question I asked the teacher before. I asked, ‘Is it going to be like a prison where they just sit there and can't do anything and they’re on the computer?’ Ms. Boyett said, ‘I’m going to try to make it as fun and interactive as I can,’” she said.
Like most teachers, Boyett had little time to plan for this fall after Texas repeatedly delayed and changed guidance for school reopening throughout the summer. She is still teaching parents how to use online programs or how to tell which assignments are required. And she is trying to plan more interactive lessons to keep students interested and engaged, instead of relying on worksheets or online assignments.
Third graders are the youngest students that will have to take Texas’ reading and math standardized tests, or STAAR, in the spring — and those tests are still going forward this academic year.
Boyett doesn’t talk to her students much about the standardized tests coming up, not wanting to stress them out too much. But she has seen their reading fluency decline, with students who are supposed to be reading 100 words per minute reading about 60. “When I conference with parents and tell them, OK they’re lacking a little in fluency, they will own up to it,” she said. “They’ll tell me, ‘You know what? During COVID, we didn’t read. We didn’t do anything. I’m sorry, but we will get back to it.’”
The split in the classroom also takes away valuable learning experiences from students. During the last period of the day, Boyett worked with two students who had not understood how to use a number line to create a multiplication sentence. One sat in front of her at a desk and the other sat at home, a crying baby audible somewhere behind him.
Boyett pulled up a colorfully decorated number line and asked the student in front of her what numbers he would multiply. But he had muted his audio, and while his teacher was able to hear his answer, the other student heard nothing.
“Why do we want kids to have a conversation? Because we’re hoping a kid listens to the other kid and the way they explained it makes more sense,” Merrell said, reflecting on that challenge of a hybrid classroom. “We’re cheating them out of that experience and that conversation and that ability to learn at a deeper level.”Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.