The experience of teachers at Durango School District 9-R is only one case study, but it is probably not unique.
At this week’s school board meeting, a trio of teachers expressed the stresses and frustrations they’ve felt since school began Aug. 31. They called for the district’s administrators to address problems harming student success as they struggle to cope with demands placed on them in the age of the novel coronavirus.
“We’ve placed unmanageable expectations on teachers,” said Beth Lohr, a fifth grade teacher at Florida Mesa Elementary School. Lohr said she has cried four times in her teaching career, the last time on Monday.
Instead of personal safety from the pathogen, it is the workload needed to teach while COVID-19 lurks in the background that now confronts 9-R’s front lines – the teachers.
Adaptations to teaching methods to deal with the virus compounded by the use of a relatively new learning management system and offering instruction three different ways – either in-person, remotely online or a blend of the two – are all placing added demands that wear on educators.
Lohr was brought to tears, she said, trying to download a class lesson to Its Learning, the district’s new learning management system, which was originally selected by teachers more than three years ago, but is now being used to handle remote, online daily lessons in classrooms.
It took an hour to download a lesson plan into Its Learning, something that would normally take Lohr about 10 minutes to devise and integrate relatively painlessly into Google Classroom, which is free, but comes with security risks and a lack of privacy that some parents have complained about to the district.
Superintendent Dan Snowberger acknowledged Its Learning is being used for purposes it was never envisioned – not only by 9-R but across the country.
9-R administrators are also frustrated as COVID-19 has placed strains on the support services from Its Learning, which Snowberger said has prioritized working to resolve problems with larger school districts where it is used, including the Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas.
Google Classroom is a free service, but was never intended to serve as a learning management system – a software system designed to handle not only teaching functions, but grading and communication between teachers, students and parents.
The issue with Google Classroom is it’s a public-access, nonsecure system that presents security risks, Snowberger said.
Still, Snowberger said if it is taking teachers up to an hour to download a lesson in Its Learning, teachers should feel free to use Google Classroom.
Teachers are taking four hours a night to download four different lesson plans in Its Learning, Lohr said. Professional development days have been eliminated this year because of COVID-19 constraints on the schedule, and that further reduces the opportunities for teachers to become more proficient with the software.
Lohr said teachers were not included in determining how the district would resume school in the era of the novel coronavirus, a painful oversight she said is now all too apparent.
“We should include the union and teachers in decisions moving forward,” Lohr said. “If teachers had been included from the beginning, we would not be running into the problems we are facing now.”
The anxiety the teachers expressed seemed a world away from the eagerness Riverview Elementary second grade teacher Corey Zirkelbach expressed the first week of September, when she was excited that some students were going back to class for real in-person learning.
“In my heart, I was hoping we’d open. I did anticipate we might not be able to open in-person,” she said. “I bought materials to be at home. I bought a standing desk. But I’m glad we opened. To be in my classroom, personally, I think I’m more productive.”
Zirkelbach said she was confident with the safety and health mitigation efforts 9-R had put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
But she admitted she lived alone and was not representative of most teachers. She said she could see the rationale for heightened anxiety among others, who live with their spouses, their families or their grandparents in returning to an environment well-noted as giant petri dishes for germs.
Steve Foster, 9-R social studies curriculum and assessment specialist, told 9-R board members using in-person, remote learning, and a blend of in-person and remote learning is burdening the learning process.
“Myself and others are struggling to provide academic success. Three learning models stretches educational resources and creates problems with equitable learning,” he said.
Foster suggested the district use money from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Stability Act to hire additional teachers to help with the load created by the pandemic.
Especially frustrating for educators is that COVID-19 has increased their professional challenges, yet they still see the value in-person learning brings to students.
Ian Lennox, a counselor at Escalante Middle School, worried some rural students, many of them Native Americans, received inadequate instruction last year because they lacked adequate broadband service.
“We lost a lot of engagement with students last year,” he said. “Some students don’t have adequate access to internet or don’t have computers, and last year everything happened so fast, it was just a quick transition. So my biggest concern going into this year was: How are we going to keep education equitable for all kids and make sure everybody is able to access the education.”
In-person schooling also provides benefits for students’ social and emotional development, something Lennox said is hard to replicate with remote learning.
Still, even with the luxury of students back in the class, problems stemming from COVID-19 keep popping up.
Amanda Ellis, a science teacher at Durango High School, told school board members problems with Its Learning extend beyond teachers.
She said students and parents are finding it difficult to navigate the program.
“Only students with tech-savvy parents are succeeding with Its Learning, and that’s increasing inequity in the district,” she said.
Teachers should have been given five weeks to familiarize themselves with Its Learning. Instead, Ellis said they were given five hours.
“I’ve never been more overwhelmed and discouraged about my profession as I am now,” she said.
Stress is high among teachers, and Snowberger held a meeting Thursday with principals and representatives from the Durango Education Association and the Durango Education Support Professionals to identify ways to address the strain – potentially eliminating one of the learning models at the nine-week mark of the semester.
A mid-semester survey of parents and teachers to discuss the frustrations and problems they’ve encountered so far this semester also might provide broader insight into the challenges the district is facing, Snowberger said.
“People are extremely stressed and overwhelmed, and we’ve got to find a way to deal with this,” he said.