With third grade back in the building, Meghan Foster was teaching math one recent morning to two classes at once: 14 students who filled her classroom on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and another six children logging in from laptops at home.
To make it work, the veteran teacher from Caroline County used a desktop computer, a laptop and a document camera, adjusting for glitches as she went along. She strove to meld the in-person with the virtual, to strike a balance between children who are near and far.
During a pandemic school year when nothing in education has been perfect, the kind of double duty needed forsimultaneous instruction is its own kind of lesson, Foster says.
“Sometimes, I want to teach them how to multiply, but I end up teaching them how to persevere when things get tough or how to problem solve,” said Foster, 41, who called it the greatest challenge she has faced in 20 years of teaching.
Simultaneous teaching — also called simulcast or concurrent — is what many districts across the country have settled on in an attempt to solve the logistical jigsaw puzzle involved in bringing back some students for in-person instruction while others continue learning from home.
And it’s about to get ramped up in dramatic fashion. Under pressure from President Biden and governors, and facing mounting evidence that schools can reopen if safety measures are followed, districts in the Washington region and nationwide are embarking on the difficult mission of returning hundreds of thousands of children to classrooms that have been shuttered for nearly a year.
Even as the vaccine rollout continues, not everyone will go back to school. Many families are choosing to keep their children home, deeming the health risk too great. Schools may limit in-person days to allow for adequate social distancing, making for a hybrid approach that combines virtual and in-person learning.
Supporters of concurrent teaching say it reduces staffing problems, minimizes disruption by keeping children with the same teachers and allows for a relatively seamless reversion to total distance learning, if a class or school sees an outbreak of the coronavirus.
But the experiences of teachers who have been using the concurrent model since the fall show it also places tremendous demands on educators. Teachers are performing two challenging jobs at the same time — while navigating pandemic-era classrooms where desks are six feet apart, masks are a must and everyone is hemmed in by strict safety rules.
Some teachers maintain the hardships are outweighed by the benefits of getting students back inside classrooms,where they can better connect with peers and teachers and get face-to-face help when they need it.
That’s the way Foster sees it — and she adds a bit of fun, too, calling her virtual students “zoomies” and her in-person kids “roomies.” She says the playful nicknames are a way to bring them together as one class.
But critics say the concurrent model could lead to burnout or even cause teachers to leave the profession. It also doesn’t make sense, they say, because teaching kids virtually requires different instructional methods than teaching in person.
“It is not humanely possible to engage kids in person and online at the same time with the attention that is needed,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Teachers are very, very, very frustrated by this.”
Skeptics also argue there are other ways to provide in-person instruction during the pandemic. Some schools are bringing students into classrooms to do virtual learning, and hiring nonteaching “classroom monitors” to supervise students. Others are dividing their workforce, assigning some teachers to work virtually while others offer face-to-face instruction.
But in much of the Washington region, concurrent teaching is increasingly emerging as the method of choice.
In the nation’s capital, where schools partially reopened in early February, 57 of the school system’s 117 campuses have classrooms following a simulcast teaching model.
In Virginia, some of the state’s largest districts began piloting concurrent teaching in the fall. These systems are now set to scale it up rapidly — to involve hundreds of thousands of teachers and students by mid-March.
Samantha Briggs, a high school literature teacher in Mesa, Ariz., began instructing her students concurrently in September. She was one of the pioneers, at least in her area, and at first felt excited to attempt it.
That quickly faded.
Briggs, 38, had to repeat online students’ comments to the in-person group during class discussions, and vice versa, because technological issues meant they were unable to hear each other. She estimates she lost at least 10 minutes of every class to tech troubleshooting. By the end of the semester, her class was several books behind where they should have been.
Testing was also a nightmare, because Briggs worried those at home were using Google to cheat. Then there was her constant sense of guilt: Whenever she ministered to the in-person students, it felt like she was neglecting the virtual children, and the same in reverse.
“It always feels as though I wind up doing nothing well,” Briggs said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done . . . I was absolutely exhausted, just sort of existing.”
In Minnesota, an October union survey found that educators teaching concurrently were reporting soaring stress levels and considering quitting. The following month, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, issued an executive order saying schools should not require teachers to provide instruction simultaneously to students learning in person and remotely.
Still, others say they have made concurrent teaching work for them.
Rachel Breeding, 38, who teaches first-grade reading and language arts at Greensboro Elementary School on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said pandemic teaching has tested her creativity, problem solving and tech skills as never before. She taught in a concurrent mode during the fall and has been back at it this month.
“Teachers are naturally multitaskers,” she said, “but simultaneous instruction takes it to a whole new level.”
Breeding said she became more competent through weeks of trial and error. Now she uses a computer at her desk to connect with Zoom students and circulates through her classroom with her iPad on, staying in touch as she moves around. She also wears a wireless headset.
It might be easier to assign all virtual students to one teacher, Breeding acknowledges. But in her mind, simultaneous is what’s best for kids - especially at this point in the school year, when relationships are sufficiently established that kids feel safe enough to take risks, ask questions and make mistakes, she said.
Every morning, her first-graders start with a song, waving at each other through Zoom. “I will admit it’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my 17 years of teaching,” Breeding said. “But in my opinion, this year will affect students for the rest of their lives.”
In Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, kindergarten teacher Tawanya Scarboro said the concurrent model “absolutely does work.” Scarboro took part in a pilot program that Fairfax County rolled out to 15 schools in the fall and will begin teaching concurrently again next month.
Starting in late October, she taught her class of roughly 20 5- and 6-year-olds via the concurrent program for about a month and a half, until Fairfax reverted to all-virtual learning just before winter break due to spiking coronavirus infection rates.
The logistics were initially daunting, Scarboro said, but she figured out workarounds: for example, using school funds to purchase a microphone and speaker, so she could raise her voice enough for both sets of students to hear.
One especially helpful strategy involved projecting the virtual students’ faces onto a whiteboard at the back of the room. That way, Scarboro could see her entire class just by looking up — a given in pre-pandemic days.
When remote learners spoke during discussions, she crossed the room and stood closer to their pixelated images. This forced in-person kids to follow along and pay attention to what their remote peers were saying.
Eventually, Scarboro said, “when the person at home was answering a question, the kids that are in person, on their own, started turning to face them.”
She added: “It’s not the same, but the kids do get a sense of closeness.”
Teachers and principals testified last fall that the concurrent teaching model in the pilot required many more hours each week, according to Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association.
The District of Columbia was the first school system in the Washington region to reopen on a large scale. Public schools are using a simulcast model that asks both in-person and remote students to log in to laptops for teacher-led lessons. Students who come to the classroom and are seated just a few feet away from their instructor are nonetheless wearing headphones and staring at screens.
Although it’s still early — with schools reopening Feb. 2 — officials say the approach is allowing them to accomplish their overarching goal: getting students with the highest needs back inside classrooms while most remain at home. And, they say, it minimizes disruption to virtual learners.
Jonte Lee, a high school chemistry teacher at Coolidge High in the District, said simulcast teaching allowed him to maintain the same student roster when only two students returned to the building. During a recent lesson on atoms, he gave the two in-person students physical models of atoms to build while the 14 remote students manipulated a virtual model of an atom on their screens.
“It was a little more work. It did push my creative boundaries,” Lee said of simulcasting. “But whatever it takes to make my students learn, no sacrifice is too great. It just takes a little extra creativity.”
It also takes money: The District’s school system is spending $223,000 on cameras meant to allow teachers to move around and give in-person students a more typical classroom experience that remote students can also follow.
In some parts of Maryland, schools are still choosing their instructional models.
In Montgomery County, third-grade teacher Valerie Coll said recently the uncertainty was making it hard to plan for students’ return. Her school system, the state’s largest, has not focused only on simultaneous teaching but has talked about schools taking combined approaches that include it. Decisions will be made school by school.
Coll said she is not worried about managing simultaneous instruction — she has been a teacher for 32 years — but she hopes a plan will emerge soon.
“I feel like a fluttery bride waiting to see what’s going to happen next,” she said, adding that there remains great variability from school to school and in the overall plan. “It’s the Wild West of classmaking.”
As of Saturday, she said she had not received any training on simultaneous instruction or seen the purchase of related equipment. School system officials said that they will use existing technology and that professional development in coming weeks will include training on the model. The county will begin phasing in a return to campuses for all grades March 15.
In Northern Virginia, all four major school districts — Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Arlington and Alexandria City — have also promised to return all students who choose it to face-to-face instruction next month. And they will employ the concurrent model to do so, despite concerns.
“Concurrent teaching . . . isn’t good for students or teachers,” said Becca Ferrick, president of the 1,300-member Association of Fairfax Professional Educators. “The expectation is that one teacher will provide high-quality and equitable in-person and online learning experiences simultaneously and seamlessly. That’s just not possible.”
The transition will be a big lift, school officials acknowledge, and districts have spent months getting ready. School divisions have drawn on Cares Act funding to procure equipment. Alexandria City Public Schools spent more than a quarter of a million dollars on computer monitors, webcams, tripods and increased Internet bandwidth.
And they’ve sought to prepare teachers. Loudoun offered employees optional trainings in early December, while Alexandria developed “guided presentations on different possible models and structures” for concurrent classrooms, spokeswoman Julia Burgos said.
Fairfax teacher Christine Corbeil Freeman, who teaches music for kindergarten through fifth grade, worries about the logistics of managing two sets of kids when concurrent instruction begins Feb. 23. Over months of remote learning, she live-streamed herself singing and asked children to join in from their bedrooms. But soon strict safety measures will limit her in-person options: There can be no singing, no dancing, no touching of any kind — and no recorders.
Nonetheless, she must give all her students the same instruction to keep things equitable.
“So what am I going to do?” Freeman said. The best idea she has had so far is some sort of listening activity in which she plays music for children and asks them to identify elements of the piece. Virtual learners could respond by clicking a button; in-person children might raise their hands.
“I’m not going to panic,” she tells herself. “I already reinvented teaching once during this pandemic. I can do it again.”