In-Person Teaching or Remote. Not Both. With Staff Morale Hitting Rock Bottom During the Pandemic, These Alabama Districts Looked For Ways to Rethink Educators’ Workloads

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This article originally appeared at AL.com and is published in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange

Teachers are exhausted.

Last summer, Alabama schools were asked to provide in-person and remote options for learning, effectively doubling the responsibilities for many teachers.

But at least two Alabama school districts gave educators the option to either teach remote students or in-person students. Not both.

A year later, the districts, Baldwin and Talladega counties, say the decision to segment teachers was the right one. Teachers might well still be worn out from the stress and demands of the coronavirus pandemic — but officials hope they won’t be stretched to the breaking point in the same way educational staff across the country are reporting.

“Our way was definitely best,” Baldwin County’s Robertsdale High School Principal Joe Sharp told AL.com. “Anytime you can lessen a teacher’s workload, you’re going to get better results from the teacher. And the overall morale is going to be better.”

That’s not the case in most districts in the state, according to Marianne Hayward, the Central Alabama president of the Alabama Federation of Teachers, who said most teachers she represents are juggling in-person and remote duties at the same time.

Alabama, like many states, already had a teacher shortage in many disciplines before the pandemic. It’s too early to know what the rate of resignations and retirements may be this summer, but mid-year retirements were up significantly. National reporting suggests that teacher burnout is high, with resignations up particularly in districts offering both remote and in-person instruction.

National think tanks already are putting forth policy proposals to address the long-term strains on the teacher workforce. Experts fear the stress of a year of double duty of remote and in-person learning may make shortages worse.

“Doing both is killing teachers,” Hayward said.

Leaning on existing expertise

“I can’t imagine having to do both,” said Abby Bjornson, a fourth-grade teacher at Munford Elementary School in Talladega County.

Bjornson didn’t know what to expect when she volunteered to teach students remotely last August; she was motivated, she said, by an interest in learning new technology.

The year has been difficult, she said, but an overall positive experience has led her to apply to a program for a master’s degree in educational technology from the University of West Alabama.

Talladega County Schools, a 7,000-student district in east Alabama, has a dozen years of digital learning under its belt. Longtime Superintendent Suzanne Lacey understood the potential challenges facing teachers when the district started considering its options last summer.

Lacey took $700,000 of the district’s $1.8 million in federal CARES Act money and dedicated it to infrastructure for Beacon Virtual Academy, a standalone virtual school. Some money went to stipends for teachers to learn new skills to teach online and some went to hire facilitators to help monitor students in middle and high school to make sure they stayed on track while learning virtually.

At the start of the school year, 1,700 students among the district’s 17 schools chose remote learning. Thirty-five of the district’s 420 teachers chose to teach remote-only.

Unlike some Alabama districts, Talladega County has not returned to five days of in-person instruction each week, but follows a “blended” model, in an effort to space out classrooms; two groups of students alternate in-person attendance.

Abby Bjornson, an elementary school teacher in Talladega County in Alabama, volunteered to teach remotely last fall. She has appreciated the chance to focus on new technology and teaching skills, she said, and decided to pursue a master’s degree. Credit Talladega County Schools for AL.com.

While there have been bumps along the way, being able to focus on remote teaching and learning the technology and mechanisms to create and track assignments has been a blessing, she said.

Bjornson stressed the importance of communicating with parents.

“Elementary kids need a little help sometimes,” she said, adding that parents have been very supportive. “They’re always there to back me up, as I am them. I just think that’s one of the biggest keys to virtual learning being successful.”

Winterboro High School teacher Vonda Ashley, also in Talladega County, teaches in-person. The district’s blended model allows her to work with students directly, but still gives students a chance to learn independently at home.

“My greatest fear in the beginning was that I was going to be asked to do virtual,” Ashley said. “I was thinking Lord, how would I do that. I was so grateful when they said I’m just doing blended.”

Ashley teaches math to sixth, seventh and eighth grade students.

Her students have a weekly plan, including a list of assignments they can do at home. And even while students are working at home, Ashley is available to meet when students or parents need help.

Vonda Ashley, a teacher in Talladega County, works with students at Winterboro High School. She did not want to teach remotely, she said, and has worked in-person throughout the school year. Talladega County schools chose to let teachers choose between leading in-person and remote classes, rather than asking them to do both. Credit Talladega County Schools for AL.com.

Expanding virtual school to younger students

In Baldwin County schools, segmenting the teaching force was a no-brainer.

Other options wouldn’t have been good for students, Baldwin County’s Renee Carter said. She has nearly 30 years of experience in teaching, but this year is her first as dean of academics for the 30,000-student district.

“I felt like our children would suffer on both sides because our teachers would have been very stressed,” Carter added.

Principal Joe Sharp said asking teachers to work both in-person and remotely would have pulled them in too many different directions. Monitoring remote learners requires a lot of energy, he said, as does teaching students in person.

Students worried about returning to classrooms could choose to enroll in the district’s existing virtual school.

Baldwin County has had a virtual school for middle and high schoolers for seven years, but previously did not allow younger students to enroll. Enrollment at the virtual school ballooned from 300 students before the pandemic to 8,000 students in the current school year.

Carter said the district didn’t pull many teachers away from classrooms to teach remote students, but instead posted virtual teaching positions and hired as needed.

The majority of remote students moved back to in-person learning after a short buffer in the start of the spring semester, Carter said. Enrollment in Baldwin’s virtual school is down to 3,200 for the start of the second semester.

‘Real struggle’ to manage different types of teaching

It comes as no surprise that the national transition to remote and hybrid learning models was not easy, according to a recent report. Many remote teachers simply replicated their classroom teaching style through video calls, a pattern researchers at the Christensen Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches technological innovation, called “striking.”

Thomas Arnett, an analyst with the group, said remote instruction requires different skills and types of teaching. Teachers doing both types, understandably, struggled.

“You’ve got a class in front of you and you’ve got a video camera and you’re trying to teach to students remotely and in a classroom all in the same class session,” he said. “That seems to be a real struggle.”

Teachers are reluctant to publicly discuss the challenges of doing both in-person and remote live teaching, but one elementary teacher in a large county district who is managing both told AL.com her anxiety levels have skyrocketed since the start of the school year. She said she has broken down in tears after teaching in-person and remote students simultaneously.

“I went in the closet so they wouldn’t hear me cry,” she wrote in a message to AL.com.

Why didn’t every district segment teachers?

Despite some apparent successes in districts that separated teachers into remote or in-person learning responsibilities, state leaders say such an approach may not have made sense everywhere.

Last summer, the state Department of Education asked all districts to offer a virtual and an in-person option for students, but didn’t mandate how to do it.

School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth said schools were essentially left on their own to figure out how to get schools reopened this fall. Under the best conditions, getting teachers and schools ready for remote learning would take a year of training, he estimated.

“We didn’t have that,” Hollingsworth said. “We had what, maybe 90 days?”

Districts with some experience in digital learning, like Baldwin and Talladega counties, were ahead of the pack, he said, when it came to setting up classrooms and teachers in the most practical ways. Larger school districts also naturally had more teachers and other personnel to work with, giving them more flexibility when it came to assigning teachers to students.

AFT’s Hayward said letting local principals handle the decision — rather than focusing on the district as a whole — and not knowing how many students would choose remote learning undermined schools’ ability to make good decisions.

“There should have been more of a conscious effort to [assign teachers to] do one or the other,” Hayward said.

By requiring teachers to do double duty, she said, districts have pushed teachers to their limits.

Talladega plans to return to in-person learning on March 15; all students will return to campus except those that have chosen to do all of their learning remotely.

Superintendent Lacey said Talladega’s decision to segment teachers into two workforces was the right one.

“Overall, teachers have been positive and appreciative of the blended learning model this year.”

It’s too early to assess teacher retention rates or standardized testing rates statewide, but teachers who were able to focus on one method of instruction said they feel better, and they feel like their children learned better, than if they were juggling both.

“I have noticed a lot of growth in my students,” Bjornson said.

She said she hopes everyone will give students, teachers and parents an extra measure of understanding for the difficult year.

“I don’t think it’s fair to compare this year to last year,” Bjornson said. “Not only is this a new learning experience for me, but it also is for the students and parents. We have to give them grace, too.”

Trisha Powell Crain is an Alabama-based education reporter for AL.com.

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