Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee hears remedies to remote class size, live instruction issues

Oct. 8, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – On Oct. 1, just two weeks into the hybrid learning model in the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, the school committee was apprised of elementary school schedule and personnel changes aimed at reducing remote class sizes and increasing live instruction time.

Superintendent Albert Ganem said, not for the first time, that the hybrid model is the most difficult and expensive to execute, compared to attending school in a fully remote model or completely in person. The district has added four new teachers, with another still in the hiring process. The goal of these new hires, who will begin hands-on, in-class remote teacher training on Oct. 6, is to double the number of classes and cut class sizes.

The teachers who instruct students from cohorts A and B on their remote days, as well as full time remote students in cohort D, presented the updated schedules for each grade.

During the first two weeks of school, Katie Godbout was engaging in live instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with between 85 and 93 kindergarteners. She said that it was not a sustainable model because of the children’s ages and that they were exhausted by the end of the day.

Moving forward, Godbout explained that after the morning meeting time in which teachers check in with students and do some social-emotional learning, direct instruction time will be interspersed with independent work sessions. Students will spend 15 to 30 minutes with their teacher and then work on assignments in a physical packet based on their instruction, before rejoining the teacher for the next subject.

While cohort A or B, depending on the day, work independently, the teachers will work in small groups of five or six cohort D students. The small groups are new for cohort D, which until now has not had direct instruction with teachers in the way that cohorts A and B experience it in the classroom. Godbout said that the next step in the evolving curriculum is to work small group instruction into cohorts A and B.

For kindergarteners and grade one, Godbout said the new kindergarten remote teacher, Amanda Shute, has prepared Google Slides and videos with which the students can engage, “to give families another option.” She said that students can use the slides and videos to review a lesson or for instruction if they are absent.

After the lunch period students spend the last two hours of the day in a rotating “exploration” block, which includes music, art, science and physical education.

First-grade teacher Jessie Donovan shared a similar schedule for that grade. On Oct. 22, teacher Amy Bernard will take over instruction with cohorts A and B. This will bring class sizes down to 38 for the fully remote first graders and 70 for the hybrid students’ remote days.

Like the kindergarteners, the last two hours of the day are an exploration block of related arts, including social studies. First graders also have access to the slides and videos to supplement their remote learning. Donovan emphasized that the material was not a replacement for live instruction.

Grades two through five will be restructured to break down into morning and afternoon groups, as well as separating hybrid and fully remote students into their own classes. The a.m./p.m. split took effect on Oct. 7. After the morning meeting, in which all students participate, the students divide into their groups. During the first half of the school day, the a.m. group receives live instruction while the p.m. group engages in “directed learning” away from Zoom. After the lunch period, the two groups switch.

This structure will further reduce class sizes to between 16 and 39 for grades two and three, and  up to 41 for grades four and five.

Stony Hill School Principal Monique Dangleis explained the importance of Wednesdays.

“Wednesdays are primarily a day for our classroom teachers to build connections and community. These are cohort A and B students who have never been face to face [with the other group], these are cohort D students who have never met their teacher in person. It’s so important for these morning meetings and small group sessions – these students are having fun,” Dangleis said. “This is that healing piece. We’ve been apart so long. These students have been through so much. The teachers have, too.”

Dangleis said that the instruction on Wednesdays, which is a full school day, deliberately includes social-emotional learning as well as related arts content. In the afternoons, she said kids should be on the IXL program for 15 minutes or more. While the content is fairly general now and mostly consists of skills practice, “As we get to know your kids better, we will be able to target their needs better,” Dangleis said.

School Committee Member Patrick Kiernan recognized the amount of work that teachers were putting in and that many of them hadn’t seen much of their families over the previous two weeks, but he stated that he had concerns.

“Most of these changes, these kids are going to lose 20 to 25 percent of the year,” before the changes take effect on Oct. 22. “And they're going to be in class sizes anywhere from, let’s say, 55 at the best end, based off some of these changes that we saw at [Oct. 22], to 115 to 120, I think there’s 124, right now in the fifth grade.” Kiernan said, adding “Let’s see how much attention you get in the class size with 110, 124 people.”

He continued, “And we have cohort D students who are dealing with this every single day. Even if we took a regular schedule, based off the quick math I was doing, students are only seeing their teacher 40 percent of the time.”

School Committee member Bill Bontempi responded, telling his colleague, “We are not alone. This is a problem that is not unique to us.” He said, “The biggest problem is warm bodies and not enough people to hire. We have the CARES Act funds,” with which to hire teachers, Bontempi said referring to federal coronavirus relief funding. Bontempi said there are inherent difficulties and that until students are learning fully in-person, “meaningful education is going to suffer.”

School Committee member Sean Kennedy asked each of the teachers if they were receiving enough support from the administration and what could be done to help. All of the teachers reported that the administration was supporting them as much as possible and that the one thing teachers need is the continuing patience and understanding of the communities.

Godbout said she receives 25 to 40 emails a day from families who are struggling with remote learning and Donovan sees five or six messages each day from families still getting the hang of the technology. Soule Road School has teachers who are setting aside time to help parents and caregivers with the platforms.

Kennedy asked if there is a way to call on kids equitably in classes that large. The teachers have been creative in solving that problem, using class lists, the Zoom chat feature, and pulling student names from a jar.

“We know that kids want to be seen and heard, and we want to see and hear them, because that is the best way for us to assess their learning,” said fifth grade remote teacher Meaghan Ferrera. Godbout agreed.

“In a perfect world, I want to be able to touch base with all learners and really be able to get to know them,” she said. “We’re doing our very best, I can promise you that.”

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