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Community Perspective

School district’s plans to reopen ask too much of students, teachers

A few days ago, the Fairbanks school district announced its plan for starting school this year. As a teacher and parent, I am extremely concerned that this plan’s learning pace will require too much from students and families.

Teaching a whole semester in a nine-week quarter is twice as fast as normal. When school was canceled last spring, the district kept saying to teachers that “remote learning is difficult and families are stressed, so it is important that teachers go slowly.” The mantra was a slower teaching pace of “half-of-half,” but, even so, it was still stressful and many students and families disengaged from the whole process. The school district, teachers’ union, and an outside for-profit educational company (Ed Elements) that costs millions of dollars have decided that teachers should teach at twice the normal pace.

For safety concerns, the district is having middle and high school students divide into two separate groups (A and B) that meet teachers face-to-face 2.5 out of every five days. The catch to families is that those 2.5 nonschool days are not “free days”; teachers will provide remote learning opportunities for the student and they will be graded, but the teacher will be busy teaching the other group and will not be able to help them. That means parents will have to make sure their student is not wasting that day or help teach the material when they get home. The burden will fall on parents and students, because teachers will have no flexibility while teaching at double speed.

Three months ago, the district said to slow down during this chaos, and now the district is saying teach faster. The justification is that students will only have three classes each semester but that they will be compressed. The major catch is that students are expected to spend 80 minutes of remote learning per class during the 2.5 nonschool days each week. Every middle and high school teacher I know expressed how disengaged students were last quarter and how ineffective remote learning is. Parents need to know that the district’s whole plan relies on remote learning for five days out of every 10, due to the compressed schedule, and that they will be held accountable regardless of internet issues or family support. Because this will disproportionately affect our at-risk students, we are contributing to institutional racism. Our most at-risk students who do not have as much family support and technology access are significantly in danger under this plan.

The district leadership did not learn any lessons from last spring. Because teachers will be teaching at an increased pace, there will be no room for adjustments if school moves into the “red zone” and closes — students and parents must be ready to learn completely online, as the curriculum must still be covered. Without flexibility built into the plan, are families ready to help teach their kids for a week while the school does a deep cleaning? Remember that closing a school for a week is now like your kid missing two weeks. Do you have the bandwidth, skills, and patience for that amount of remote learning?

Speeding up the class pace and expecting students to learn twice as much in the same amount of time is pure folly. The district will argue that it is getting the same amount of instruction minutes in nine weeks as they did previously in an entire semester; this is misleading, because it is only true if you count the remote learning time, which is not the same as face-to-face instruction. No amount of Zoom meetings or Khan Academy videos can take the place of the teacher going desk to desk, helping individual students — and this is assuming all students are fully engaged in remote learning, which did not happen last semester — many students chose not to engage fully or at all in the fourth quarter, even when they had appropriate technology.

Secondly, the district has already acknowledged that in sequential subjects like math, the current pace is already too much for some students. That is why the district decided to offer a two-year algebra class, which slows down the pace to half as fast. This slower pace has helped a lot of struggling students become more successful and earn the math credit they need to graduate, and now we are not only taking that option away from them but also expecting all students to learn twice as fast?

As a math teacher, I watch huge proportions of freshmen struggle in algebra, and now I’m being asked to go twice as fast and have them learn remotely on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way. Please call or email the Fairbanks school board and express your concerns before it is too late.

Daniel Hackett is a parent who is also a teacher in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

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