By Naomi Vanderlip
Special to The Examiner
For much of last semester, Miriam Romero would teach classes full of both masked and pixelated faces on an average weekday afternoon, an unusual reality for the elementary school teacher that sprang from the San Francisco Board of Education’s decision in April to switch to hybrid learning across The City.
To be sure, hybrid learning had its challenges as schools struggled with creative ways to provide safe environments, keep students engaged and support parents. Condensed school days. Distanced students. Divided cohorts. It was all part of the equation.
What at the time seemed like a daunting, nightmarish scenario, it turns out, has been the source of invaluable lessons in education — so much so that some San Francisco schools will continue hybrid systems when classes resume next week.
Surprisingly, students remained resilient throughout the ordeal, given the weight of the pandemic, said Olufemi Aguda, a teacher at George Washington Carver Elementary in Bayview-Hunters Point.
And they continued that trend when returned to the classroom. By the second week of in-person learning, students were well adjusted, playing contact-free games in the courtyard and mingling within their cohorts during recess, he said. Still, just weeks after welcoming students back, the actual reality of the pandemic on students is still to come, Aguda said.
Like many of his counterparts, Peter Wolfgram, head counselor at John O’Connell High School, remained remote the past school year. So did most of his students. Sensing “fatigue and burn-out” among students, the school developed a care team.
“Folks from counseling, our Wellness Center, parent liaisons, other (community-based organizations), would sit each week and talk about kids that were coming up with referrals (or needed support) and how to mobilize to get them that support,” Wolfgram said.
Wolfgram is certain mental health issues will surface even more in the fall, especially with those struggling in silence. But now his school has these added resources to offer support.
Even with the pandemic’s wide reach, Romero said students felt its effects disportionately. She and other teachers made deliberate choices in grouping students in attempts to limit exposure to the virus, taking into account diversity and gaps in achievement.
“We taught differently on Monday, Tuesday than we did on Thursday, Friday,” Romero said. “I got to do more small-group teaching than I ever can in a regular year, so that was really powerful.”
She found those lacking engagement or support at home progressed much faster in a hybrid setting.
Some students, however, lacked critical interpersonal connections. Students of color, particularly, struggled to stay within the groupings, she said.
“(Students of color) are at a critical phase of identity development as fifth graders, when students are starting to gravitate more and more towards people who look like them, and the individuals who do look like them are in another class,” Romero said.
Distance learning gave way to other opportunities, especially for students of color.
San Francisco’s Rooftop Elementary in the Twin Peaks neighborhood is known as a PITCH school, which receives additional funds to close a notable difference in achievement between white students and students of color.
One way to do that, Romero said, is to first prioritize meeting with students outside of class hours, which has been difficult in the past. “Disproportionately, our students of color are also using our school busing system, and we are not allowed to use PITCH funds for transportation,” she said.
But teachers learned to use Zoom to tutor and meet with students.
“If they will have access to devices [at home], then that will be a game changer, working with those students one-on-one or in small groups when they’re doing their homework,” Romero said.
She added that for some students who are uncomfortable speaking up in class, technology has served as a gateway for participation, allowing some to “really rise to sharing.”
Still, Romero plans to step back from technology in the coming year, when possible.
“I’m pretty excited to go back to putting a piece of butcher paper in the middle of a table where kids are all sitting in a group and they’re creating a poster together with no devices in sight,” she said.
The pandemic highlighted other longstanding issues, particularly communication between teachers and students, said Lincoln High School teacher Gaurav Thayil, who calls the recent, more easily accessible curriculum and teachers being more forgiving as steps in the right direction.
The pandemic also forced teachers to take into account students’ personal situations and individual needs, Thayil said.
“(Students should) do enough work that it’s still a rigorous academic experience for them, but not so much that it’s prohibitive and restricts them from actually going through school,” he said.
For some schools, like Five Keys Charter School, e-learning will become a permanent part of schooling.
After being forced to create curriculum online, principal Steve Good said he and his team will collaborate with developers to rework it to meet student needs, as opposed to putting something together immediately.
Their plan includes three options: fully in-person; a site-based program or hybrid format; and e-learning or full independent study. Each method will be determined based on the needs of the individual student.
Good said hybrid learning served as a lesson and challenge for the resilience of faculty, students and education, which he hopes will strengthen as the upcoming fall school year draws near.