Teachers union to school officials: Dual instruction platform ‘unsustainable’

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St. Augustine Report | by Colleen Michelle Jones | October 1, 2020

Beginning Oct. 14, teachers in the St. Johns County School District will be given almost an hour extra every Wednesday to catch up on grading, planning or other responsibilities related to instruction.

But with the added workload of teaching to both brick-and-mortar and distance learners, some teachers in the district say the concession doesn’t go far enough and are looking to administrators for relief.

Michelle Dillon, president of the St. Johns Education Association, said: “While I think it is wonderful and know it will be a challenge schedule wise, it is just one step in the right direction. Our teachers are absolutely overwhelmed with the dual platform.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, not all teachers — but many — are leading what is called “simultaneous instruction” lessons for students at home and in the classroom and making adjustments for each group. In many cases, that also means more students to track through attendance, homework assignments, tests and grades.

Marsha Sanford, a longtime science teacher at Nease High School, said the extra burden doesn’t leave much time for anything else in her life.

“We have a 7-1/2 hour [daily] contract, but most teachers are working 10, 12 or 16 hours a day, working evenings and weekends,” Sandford said in an interview with The Record Tuesday.

Sanford said much of that time is spent answering emails from students and parents.

Superintendent Tim Forson issued a letter to parents Sept. 9 acknowledging teachers’ new roles in “an educational model that is complex and very demanding.” Forson also asked that parents not try to contact teachers during school hours because it was a distraction. 

In a phone interview Wednesday, Forson recommended teachers might instead use time before or after the instructional day or planning periods to respond to emails, and that he was not suggesting teachers had to do so on their own time.

“I know we have amazing teachers who hold themselves to very high standards, but we have to try to keep balance in our lives,” Forson said. “The complexity [of dual instruction] is a challenge, but it still is the same instructional day and they [teachers] should try to manage their time the best they can.”

Forson said not all teachers were required to teach to both platforms and those decisions varied by school and level, based on the number of students enrolled in brick-and-mortar or distance learning and enrollment in core classes or specialty electives.

Dillon said the teachers union would like to see the district designate teachers for classroom-only instruction and those for virtual-only instruction, or at the very least allow teachers to tag-team for online instruction in a kind of cohort.

Forson said he didn’t see this as possible at this time, especially given the fluctuating numbers the district is seeing in students moving back and forth between home-based and brick-and-mortar instruction. That includes students under mandatory two-week quarantine, which is currently at about 400 district-wide.

Forson also said next semester could look very different from now depending on how cases of COVID-19 are trending.

Dillon responded: “No doubt, it will be a challenge logistically, but the current situation is just unsustainable. I have teachers who have been at this for years, who are talented teachers and coming to me saying, ‘I can’t do this’. … I feel like we are at a breaking point.”

In the meantime, Dillon said teachers continue to weigh their options.

Danielle Rapoza, for example, will resign from her position as a special education teacher at Timberlin Creek Elementary School Friday.

Rapoza, who has been a teacher for 10 years, said of the experience of simultaneous instruction: “It’s not for me; it’s been chaos.”

She called the district’s shift to online education last spring “baptism by fire” and said not much had improved when the school year began in August. Having to stop to deal with technical difficulties like log-in issues and audio and visual glitches, “There’s little time for actual instruction,” Rapoza said. 

“We are anxious, stressed out, exhausted, and the mental health of our teachers is really starting to crumble,” she said. 

Rapoza has accepted a job with the Florida Virtual School, which she said has curriculum and scheduling designed solely around distance learning. 

Sanford said she has too much invested in waiting out an early retirement.

Forson knows school officials will never be able to make everyone happy during this challenging time.

“It’s not going to be a perfect world,” Forson said, “but I can tell you how much respect I have for our teachers, our school staff and the support we’ve received from all our families.”