Mt. Abe still refining hybrid learning model

ANGELITA PENA, A 10th-grader at Mount Abe, told Governor Phil Scott and other state officials at a briefing last November, “A majority (of students) feel like (hybrid/online) learning this fall is worse or much worse than last fall’s learning.”

People are hitting that pandemic fatigue and things are stressful in schools. What we’re doing is hard. It’s not what we’ve trained to do.
— Principal Shannon Warden

BRISTOL — Mount Abraham Union High School student Isadora Beck doesn’t miss anything from the spring 2020 semester, when schools were shut down because of the pandemic and students went fully remote.
“Spring was very hard,” the Bristol 11th-grader told the Independent in December. “Every day felt the same. Plus there was anxiety about the pandemic and what would happen.”
At the same time, Beck added, “with not being around other people, I felt like I was able to grow in a different way. People I’ve talked to said that they felt more introspective.”
It’s better being back in the school building, even if it’s only two days a week, Beck said.
“Being in class is good. You have the teacher there. You have to be there, listening.”
But staying motivated has been hard, Beck said. “I think this is an issue for a lot of people.”
Mount Abe 10th-grader Sean Davison also prefers in-class instruction.
“I like to be able to raise my hand and ask questions, and chat with my peers,” Davison told the Independent. “I just love in-class instruction.”
Despite only having that two days a week, Davison said he’s doing fine academically.
“We have a big group chat to talk about school work, which is helpful. That’s not something that would have happened without remote learning.”
Spring 2020 was tough for Davison, too, “but going into the fall, it was helpful to have the perspective from the spring.”
With so much time learning from home, Davison struggles with social disconnection and balancing home life, he said.
“I have a big family and they can be kind of loud,” he explained with a laugh.

Beck and Davison’s classmate, Angelita Pena, a 10th-grader from Monkton, is a student representative to the State Board of Education. In October, she helped collect and analyze data from more than 1,000 Vermont students who were surveyed about how they’re navigating school in the time of COVID.
A week before Thanksgiving, Pena and her fellow student rep, Champlain Valley Union High School’s Sophie Brochu, presented their findings to the Board of Education and then briefed Gov. Phil Scott and other state officials.
In general, Pena and Brochu said, students felt school was going better in the fall than it had in the spring, but hybrid learning paled in comparison to in-person school.
“A majority feel like (hybrid/online) learning this fall is worse or much worse than last fall’s learning,” Pena told the governor. “I know people that are really struggling, that are failing their courses… We need to go back into school. There are people that need to go back into school. Students are struggling to do online learning.”
In a subsequent interview with the Independent Pena sympathized with the struggles she saw her teachers having.
“It was a moment of big frustration for me, going back to school and hearing these teachers were like ‘This is hard,’” she said. “This isn’t just hard for me, it’s hard for them as well… They have their own lives. They have their own kids to take care of … and you have to juggle all these students, you have to figure out ways to help all these kids…. I’ve seen those teachers’ emails. They have like 1,000 unread emails. My email — how are you going to find it out of all these staff messages about the next plan?”

“We’ve come a long way with hybrid/remote learning since last spring,” said Mount Abe English teacher Brent Crum, who is co-president of the Mount Abraham Education Association. “We only had a couple of days to transition in March, and we were all scrambling at that point.”
Since that time, the Mount Abraham Unified School District has spent a lot of time and energy ensuring teachers get up to speed, he said.
Still, it hasn’t been easy.
“I give one lesson to kids here, one remotely and then there are the fully remote kids,” he said. “So every class is like three classes. Obviously it’s harder to manage things this way.”
But, he added, “In Vermont, and especially in our five towns, we’re in a great place because parents, teachers, administrators and kids are working together to make it work.”
And teachers and administrators are stepping up like never before, Crum said.
“It’s what you have to do.”

“I think people are hitting that pandemic fatigue and things are stressful in schools,” said Mount Abe Principal Shannon Warden. “What we’re doing is hard. It’s not what we’ve trained to do. It’s not why we got into education — only having kids two days a week … and having to juggle hybrid learners with fully remote learners.”
Just being in the building is different, she said.
“We’re masked all the time. Our kids aren’t using their lockers, to avoid any sort of congregate spaces, so everybody just kind of darts from one location to the next. Classrooms that typically have their tables and their desks set up in groups so that kids can collaborate and talk — everything’s in rows now. Education moved away from that a long time ago, and now we’re back to that, everybody sitting in rows.”
For teachers designing lessons and assessments, who are thinking about their time with students and about what those students will be expected to do from home — likely by themselves — the question becomes, “What’s realistic in a global pandemic?” Warden said.
“For us, priority number one is public health and safety, then social and emotional well-being and then the academics,” she explained. “But some students don’t triage it that way. We have students who are high achievers who are really hard on themselves and who, despite being in a global pandemic, continue to be hard on themselves.”
There are many layers involved in assessing and helping students who might be struggling, Warden said.
“How’s their social and emotional well-being? How are they doing academically? How are they doing when they’re here (in the school)? And how are they doing when they’re at home? You really have to dig down to figure out what’s what.”
One of the great things about Mount Abe is “we know our kids,” Warden said. “We have an advisory program where it’s a very small group of students. Our advisers know them very well, so they know if they’re struggling and they know if they’re struggling academically or if they’re struggling in a social and emotional way, and how to get them the support that they need.”
One silver lining Warden has seen throughout the pandemic is students developing their “transferrable skills” — how to be self-directed learners, how to manage their time, how to advocate for themselves, how to communicate clearly.
“That’s a whole different piece of learning that’s almost forced learning, unfortunately,” she said. “But it’s essential learning.
“I try very hard in my practice not to work from a deficit model, and I think, Yeah, OK, there are going to be some gaps in their content knowledge that they’re getting, but (think about) the gains in their transferrable skills right now, because of the work they’re doing on their remote days — all of those things that are hard to just teach on the day-to-day, when you have them every day and you’re nagging. It’s like the onus of the learning is back on the student, which was the whole premise of the transferrable skills.”
Davison feels like his teachers have successfully made the transition to hybrid learning, he said.
“They’ve been very willing to be flexible. Sometimes I’ve been able to talk assignments over with my teachers and receive helpful feedback, so it feels like maybe there’s more one-on-one time, at least digitally.”
But he knows it hasn’t been easy for them, either.
“I can’t imagine being in their shoes, with the amount of work they’ve done to make the transition.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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