As a school year like no other approaches, principals and teachers are experimenting with new staffing arrangements that are designed to provide support for the deep academic and emotional needs of children who are returning to school—physically or virtually—after the coronavirus threw their lives and learning into disarray.
Education Week asked instructional leaders around the country about their plans to rework their staffing to provide those supports in virtual or hybrid environments. In late July, most schools hadn’t finalized them. Many were discussing their ideas with their teachers’ unions or awaiting clearer state guidance. They also knew they might have to revise their ideas before school begins, since pandemic planning requires constant revision.
Even as they struggled with uncertainty and strained bandwidth, the leaders shared their ideas in the spirit of contributing to the stew of possibilities that might better serve students. The approaches below are just a sampling of the many options to be explored.
Divvying up remote and in-person duties
Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, said separating remote and in-person teaching jobs is a common approach. He offered this scenario as an illustration: In an elementary school with 100 students in four 5th grade classes, one teacher handles remote instruction for 50 students who are at home while her three colleagues teach the remaining 50 children in the building.
This approach allows for better support through small-group instruction in person, Domenech said, and could free up teachers to work with interventions and special needs.
The Sumner County school district in Gallatin, Tenn., plans to use a version of this approach in its 49 schools. Scott Langford, the district’s assistant director for instruction, said the district has hired a corps of teachers who staff the districts’ all-remote option, called the Virtual Academy, from brick-and-mortar classrooms. Across the hall, others will teach students in person as part of the district’s hybrid option. Only half the students who choose the hybrid approach will be in school buildings at any given time.
In addition to enabling small-group and one-on-one interactions, the model reduces the burden on teachers, he said.
“We wanted to create a system where teachers didn’t have to manage face-to-face and virtual simultaneously,” he said. “It’s a lot to ask of them.”
Creating cross-grade support structures
One way to better blend missed content or skills from last spring into the current year’s grade-level work is to have teachers collaborate across grade levels.
Guidance from the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, suggests that districts consider looping by grade or subject, which would let teachers keep the same student groups they had last year into this year. As of late July, few districts appeared to be considering looping. But Langford’s district was thinking of a variation: creating vertical teams in which teachers of similar content areas communicate and plan together across the grade levels. The trick? Somehow factoring that planning time into busy schedules.
In some schools, teachers have formed two-grade teams, sharing 2nd and 3rd graders, for instance, so they can divide teaching duties targeted to their needs, and fluidly regroup them as they progress, said Beth Rabbitt, the CEO of The Learning Accelerator, which runs a network of organizations that coach and advise school districts.
Rotating content leads
Some schools are using the idea of a “content lead” to reduce the load of teaching all subjects remotely. In the Fenton Charter School network, which runs five elementary schools in Los Angeles, teachers developed the plan after leaning on one another for help in last spring’s sudden switch to remote learning, said David Riddick, the network’s chief academic officer.
“They found themselves doing this out of survival,” Riddick said. “They were saying, ‘I’ve gotta spend an hour with José, can someone do math for me?’”
This fall, when Fenton returns in an all-virtual mode, teachers in each grade will take turns serving as content leads for four to six weeks. In that role, one teacher will design the videos, assessments, and lessons for the whole grade in science, for instance, while colleagues handle them for other subjects. Riddick says this allows teachers to focus in depth on one subject and ensures that students don’t miss all subjects in a given day if a teacher is absent.
Adding social-emotional support roles
Educators are acutely aware that many returning students have experienced pandemic-driven hardships. Experts are urging them to become trauma-sensitive and weave social-emotional supports into their teaching. Staffing arrangements can play a role in addressing students’ emotional needs.
Janice Schwarze, the principal of North High School in Downers Grove, Ill., said the two high schools in her district built their hybrid schedules to ensure that their 5,000 students get daily class sessions with teachers; it jettisoned the idea of class connections only two or three times a week. Teachers will start the week with planning and professional development Monday mornings, then spend the afternoon in 25-minute remote check-in periods with all their classes. The rest of the week, they’ll alternate between one-hour class sessions in-person and 25-minute sessions online.
The idea is not only to keep students connected and engaged, but to use those frequent instructional contacts to help them process their pandemic experiences, Schwarze said. To do that, the district is planning PD that will focus in part on how teachers can talk with students to acknowledge and name their feelings, and to “let them know they’re not alone.”
Jon Rybka, the CEO of RePublic Charter Schools, which operates six elementary, middle, and high schools in Mississippi and Tennessee, said his schools have built a new advisory period into the start of each day to address students’ emotional needs.
Pre-coronavirus, advisory was a 20-minute “logistical, does-everyone-have-paper-and-pencil” exercise, but now it will be redesigned as a 45-minute virtual period in which teachers will review the day’s upcoming work, follow up on pending or completed assignments, and inquire about anything else students need, from technology troubleshooting to food or medical support, Rybka said.
That information will help teachers reach out to students’ families to connect them with the help they need, Rybka said. Building this skill set will take training; it’s on the network’s before-school PD schedule.
Extending the reach of excellent teachers
One teacher-leadership model is sparking increased interest as schools grapple with how best to support students. It’s called the Multi-Classroom Leadership model, and it was designed by the education advocacy group Public Impact to help excellent teachers reach more students. More than 200 schools in 10 states use it, according to Bryan Hassel, Public Impact’s co-president, and he’s been getting “a lot of calls” from districts asking for details since the model was highlighted as promising in a couple of recent papers on school reopening.
In this model, a teacher with a strong track record of student growth is trained as a “multi-classroom leader” for five to eight teachers. The MCLs work with their teams to design instruction, co-teaching, and coaching along the way. They also help their teams analyze and respond to data on student learning and are evaluated in part on the learning growth in the team’s students. For those roles, they earn pay supplements of 20 percent or more, which come from their schools’ budgets, Hassel said.
The multi-classroom leaders play many roles at Washington Montessori Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C. Some work across all subjects, while others specialize. This year, one of the MCLs will support 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers in math, while the other works in reading, a move that will help teachers learn a new reading curriculum, said Principal Paul Travers.
The MCLs will also support teachers in remote learning, since they were trained as experts last spring, he said. In a year when his attentions will probably be spread very thin, the teacher-leaders will be able to provide a layer of support that he likely cannot, Travers said.
They work with teachers to define the next steps in instruction. They brainstorm about how to reconnect with students who aren’t logging in. And they provide daily or weekly observations and feedback “at an intensity level” he couldn’t do with 22 teachers, Travers said.
Redeploying teachers, coaches, and other school staff
A wide range of moves could fall into this bucket, but the uniting idea is funneling staff members into areas of need.
At RePublic Charter schools, for instance, teachers of history, science, and computer science may be asked to help reading and math teachers with interventions, and would be trained to do that, Rybka said.
The 300 instructional coaches in Florida’s Miami-Dade school district might be asked to shift their roles a bit too, said Marie Izquierdo, the district’s chief academic officer. They’ll coach teachers virtually, but they might spend more time doing direct instruction with students in remote breakout rooms, she said.
At North High, Schwarze’s school, teaching assistants or paraprofessionals might staff classrooms where students are physically present but teachers must work at home for medical reasons. While the teacher conducts the lesson by Zoom, the TAs or paras could circulate among students and funnel their questions to the teacher via technology, she said.
Her school is also considering redeploying supervisors from the testing center—the room where students once went to take a missed test—to help teachers with interventions, or to its bus fleet, to help ensure that students wear PPE.
Rabbitt, of The Learning Accelerator, says that she’s seeing some schools ask “specials” teachers, such as those in art, music, and media, to play new roles, such as tutoring in math or reading classrooms, or overseeing groups of students working independently in media centers or cafeterias.
Little Guidance, Much Uncertainty
As they work out their staffing arrangements, many schools and districts have little clear advice from their states. As one analysis recently found, most state guidance documents treat teaching and learning considerations as an afterthought. States are focusing on staffing arrangements that respond to health and safety concerns far more often than on those designed to support instruction.
The Council of Chief State School Officers issued staffing guidance that was more detailed than that of most of its members, encouraging districts to try models that match teachers with roles that draw on their expertise in instructional content, remote learning, or social-emotional support.
But even with that advice, education technology advisor John Bailey worries that schools are so overwhelmed with logistics that they haven’t devoted enough time to designing instructional staffing models that work well in remote and hybrid environments.
“The risk is that we’re squandering the months before school starts again to get staff prepared to make some of these instructional models better for kids and teachers,” he said.