A lot of parents are facing decisions right now – send their child back to school full time or opt for online schooling.

School boards are grappling with how to use available resources yet maximize student health and safety. There seems to be a (debatably) workable plan for high school – but elementary classes are planned to operate at “regular” capacity, raising concerns that physical distancing won’t be possible. Many are calling for smaller classes.

There’s been discussion online that students opting for online schooling won’t necessarily make in-person classes any safer and that’s correct, contrary to what might be intuitive.

The plan as I’ve seen most school boards decide it is that teachers will either be in-person teachers or online teachers – not both.

That makes sense for several reasons: it means that teachers can focus on one mode of learning at a time and it means that teachers who are immunocompromised or otherwise can’t teach in person can be assigned to an online-only group of students.

If there are X number of students divided by Y number of teachers – it will always amount to the same number of students per class, even if some of those classes will now be entirely online.

What If

There’s no perfect solution and there will be pros and cons to any possible model – this idea notwithstanding.

But what if we got a bit creative here.

Let’s say that in order to minimize in-person class sizes in order to meet physical distancing guidelines that online teachers agreed to teach larger class sizes.

Since that wouldn’t be entirely “fair” from a workload standpoint, there would need to be a give and take. Perhaps the online teacher agrees to an increase in students, but a decrease in the number of subjects they’re responsible for teaching and an increase in planning time. There would also need to be a reasonable expectation on the amount of synchronized instruction to be provided (since the teacher may need to split the larger group into several smaller ones for any live activities).

In order to facilitate that online planning time *and* to ensure that students aren’t missing out on educational opportunities, perhaps those other subjects are taught by specialist teachers who agree to teach quite large groups of students, but have no responsibility to assess formally (encouragement and on-the-spot feedback – sure, but definitely no grades).

These specialist teachers could even run those additional courses in an “elective” style. If you’ve seen what the company OutSchool is doing, this could be similar to that. The courses could be short or long term, entirely depending on the aim of the class. Classes could be things like building bottle rockets, participating in a long-term charitable project, learning to paint landscapes, publishing your own book, playing D&D, creating a website, building a bird house, etc. Things that would be engaging and opt-in for students (and yet, the curriculum connections are there, strongly, underneath it all). Groups of students don’t necessarily need to be from the same grade or even the same school.

But Does it Work?

I really am “thinking out loud” here, so let’s do some calculations based on some hypothetical numbers. I’ve simplified some numbers to make these calculations easier to understand at a glance – precise numbers would vary slightly.

Update: My original napkin math had a fatal flaw. If you read an early version of this post – my bad!

It starts to make sense if approximately 40% of students are opting for online learning.

At the primary level, for every 1000 students, you would have approximately 50 homeroom teachers and 10 specialist teachers. Obviously, other grade levels with higher class sizes would have fewer teachers – but I’ll use primary as it’s easiest to calculate to see if it helps (or not). The calculations could be adjusted to figure it out for other levels. But I digress…

If 40% of students opt for online, that’s 400 students online, leaving 600 students to be accommodated in class. In order to reach a class size of 15, that would require 40 teachers. In order to provide enough planning time to those teachers, you would need 7 full time and 1 part time teacher. Without hiring anyone extra, that leaves 12 full time and 1 part time teacher to lead the online classes, creating class sizes of around 40 if you want to leave some teachers freed up to provide online electives/specialty subjects.

But 40% of student opting for online is an unrealistic number. Any fewer than that, and the online classes would need to be spectacularly large. So the conclusion is that larger online classes doesn’t work all on its own. It can help, though.

There are further factors that could impact this plan. Some combination of, or all of, the following could make it even more manageable:

  1. Shorten the in-person school day by 48 minutes/day. This would mean that no specialist teachers would come into a homeroom classroom, further preventing cross-contamination from adults moving from class to class. These specialist teachers would then be reassigned to either online homerooms or online specialist classes. Teachers would “give themselves” their own planning time. If in-person schools needed staggered start and end times, half the teachers could have their planning time in the morning before school and half could have it in the afternoon after student dismissal. This could allow each school bus to do 2 “runs” rather than operating at full capacity.
  2. Assign all OCTs to homerooms (either in-person or online) and have the online specialist courses act like extra-curricular activities. They could be run by non-teaching board office staff, principals, or any teacher that volunteers to run one (though the emphasis should be on others – teachers already have their hands full). Funding could also be allocated to hire musicians, artists, authors, tradespeople, etc., to run some also.
  3. Hire some additional teachers. Even hiring 5-10% more teachers makes a dramatic difference.

Conclusion

As a teacher, I know that operating a scenario like this would require some additional creativity to ensure we remain within the bounds of our collective agreements.

With the online class size being above the class size limit, we may have to look at it like some boards do “flip classes” for French Immersion. For example, in some boards, a teacher may teach one class group for the morning and switch to teach a 2nd class group in the afternoon. In this case, the students would not have a 2nd teacher for the other half of their day – but would have access to the specialist/extra curricular opportunities. It is certainly a compromise for all involved.

Personally, I feel like the give and take required for a creative solution that keeps everyone as safe as possible is worth it.

And since I apparently can’t shut my brain off today, I also published a part 2 with a completely different model.

Categories: General

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