As the parent of five children, three of whom attend public school in Pinellas County, Amanda Loeffler has been keeping a close eye on school reopening plans all summer.
Loeffler is the sole caregiver for her father, who has lung cancer, so she opted to send her kids back through MyPCS Online to reduce the risk of potentially exposing him to Covid-19. Under the MyPCS Online option, students follow their regular school schedule, only they do so remotely. It wasn’t exactly ideal for Loeffler, who generally tries to limit her kids’ screen time, but it was the best choice for their family under the circumstances.
As Loeffler initially understood it from monitoring school board meetings and communications, there would be two separate sets of teachers. Some would teach online classes to students attending virtually, while others would handle face-to-face instruction for in person learning.
“That was my expectation,” said Loeffler, who has two kids in middle school and one in elementary. “Then, about a week and a half before school started, I started hearing whispers about simultaneous teaching.”
In other words, teachers would be conducting virtual instruction while also tending to a classroom full of in-person students.
“I thought that through and I said to myself ‘that’s impossible,’ she said, adding that she’s concerned that some teachers are being assigned too many students while others have too few. “How are teachers supposed to divide their time and manage both platforms? I also feel for the kids. They shouldn’t be stuck in this awful learning environment.”
In an effort to stand up for teachers and students against what she calls an “unsustainable” teaching model, Loeffler started a change.org petition a week ago calling on Superintendent Mike Grego, the Pinellas County School Board and the Florida Department of Education to make changes. It’s gotten more than 600 virtual signatures, though Loeffler would like to see all of the 98,000 families with students in Pinellas County Schools to add their names to the petition.
“It all came down to money and getting state funding,” she said, referring to an executive order from education commission Richard Corcoran that mandated schools reopen for in-person learning, or risk losing funding. A temporary injunction against the order was granted Monday. “Now that that’s off the table, they really need to go back to the drawing board.”
Pinellas County Schools spokesperson Isabel Mascarenas said that 52 percent of the district’s teachers are doing simultaneous teaching, with 36 percent teaching in-person and 12 percent doing virtual. She also said that simultaneous teaching generally happens for specialized courses and added that class sizes aren’t bigger than usual; they’re just split because some teachers will have students in person while others will be online.
“The first days of school are not perfect, and there will be glitches,” she said. “We ask for a little patience, especially with a new way of learning.”
Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services for Pinellas County, said in a statement that simultaneous classes were introduced to reduce the number of students in face-to-face learning, allowing for greater social distancing and health protections for teachers and staff. Additionally, the decision of whether to offer simultaneous classes was left up to each school based on enrollment, staffing numbers and student and teacher needs.
“We are working to make the best of a less-than-optimal pandemic situation,” Hendrick said. “If we find that is is not working in individual classrooms, with certain groups of students or on a larger scale, we will make adjustments accordingly.”
When school began Monday, Loeffler immediately noticed the impact of simultaneous teaching on her two older children. Her daughter’s classes were cut 15 minutes short so teachers had time to sanitize between periods.
“Now our teachers are teaching kids virtually, dealing with in-person students, and they’re also having to be the janitor,” Loeffler said. “I don’t see how this is going to work long term.”
Despite the challenges of simultaneous learning, Loeffler said the teachers and administrators are doing the best they can to handle the situation. However, she’s going to continue to advocate for them.
“They can’t fight for themselves because they don’t want to lose their jobs,” she said. “I will keep speaking up and out until change happens.”