Ms. Bookwalter teaches remote students from her classroom at RV (Photo courtesy of Mr. Maniglia)
Ms. Bookwalter teaches remote students from her classroom at RV

Photo courtesy of Mr. Maniglia

“We have to go to work”: how teacher voices contributed to–and got lost in–the development of RV’s hybrid plan

A closer look at the development of RV's hybrid plan and how teachers have been reacting

February 18, 2021

RV has been operating under a choice-based hybrid model for students since they could enter the building after a short delay in September 2020. The student population was separated into four cohorts which were determined by the students’ last names; each cohort would attend one predetermined day of in-person instruction weekly, with the foundational schedule as follows: Monday- Cohort A (last names A-E), Tuesday- Cohort B (last names F-L), Wednesday- flex day (all students are virtual), Thursday- Cohort C (last names M-R) and Friday- Cohort D (last names S-Z).  

As of Monday, February 1, the cohort schedule was modified to increase in-person attendance. This new schedule is as follows: Monday and Tuesday- Cohort RED (last names A-K), Wednesday- flex day (all students are virtual) and Thursday and Friday- Cohort WHITE (last names L-Z). 

Due to spikes in COVID-19 cases in both the county and school district, this schedule varied on a week-to-week basis. Any possible changes were communicated to the school community via email from RV principal Joseph Martin, who would relay information from the Burlington County Health Department and school superintendent Dr. Christopher Heilig.

To grasp a more complete view of the creation process of this schedule and the mindset behind it, Martin spoke about the original planning. “[Dr. Heilig] started working on that plan at the end of the [first] semester, 2020… as we were still in quarantine,” and that the people that make decisions about the schedule currently is “a team of educators in non-stop consultation with the health department.” 

This group, named the Pandemic Response Team, is headed by Martin himself, among other staff members, and serves as a part of the deciding factor for whether or not it is safe to continue with in-person instruction. Working alongside the health department and in compliance with state mandates and governor’s orders, the team carries out their plan with safety as a top priority, while maintaining their goal of offering as much in-person instruction as possible.

With this goal in mind, administration has been requiring in-person attendance of all teaching staff who do not possess substantial health concerns, while those who do were given the accommodation to teach fully remote. The reasoning behind this is based upon a directive and set of guidelines released by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Department of Education from June 2020 called “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education.” On June 26, 2020, Murphy’s office published a press release that stated, “The guidance announces that, absent a change in public health data, public schools will open for in-person instruction and operations in some capacity at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.” 

This mandate, paired with the aforementioned 104-paged outline, is what continues to guide administration’s decisions on in-person instruction for both teachers and students.

While there is an option available for either hybrid or fully-remote instruction for students, the same decision is not extended to the teaching staff. “At the end of the day, if there was not a mandate for us to absolutely keep schools open… then we would say stay home, but we can’t because we have kids coming to school and we have to be able to teach them and supervise them,” Martin said. “So… if [teachers] haven’t gone through the process of getting excused from school, then [they] have to abide by their contractual obligation to be here, to teach from school.”

Schools are required to physically be open in some format, but in complying with this mandate, there were a lot of different people to survey and opinions to examine. From teachers, to parents, to students, to even general community members, the sentiment of an equal amount of consideration for all is echoed throughout administration. 

“I felt like all stakeholders were thought of equally because… it’s important to keep everybody safe,” Heilig said. 

I felt like all stakeholders were thought of equally because… it’s important to keep everybody safe”

— Dr. Heilig

While ensuring all opinions were being taken into consideration, one of the biggest groups to canvas were RV’s teachers and staff, a job headed by Tony Pietrofitta, President of RV’s teachers union, the RVRHS Education Association. He is an elected representative for RV’s staff and is tasked with communicating their wants and needs throughout the school year. The introduction of this hybrid plan back in the summer of 2020 meant the union needed to survey its members to accurately represent them, however some feel as though this was done inadequately, a sentiment echoed by their president.

“Should we have probably solicited more input? Yeah, but at the end of the day… [staying remote] just wasn’t possible, we were going to come back in some way, as per the governor’s directive and state law, like every other district has in the state of New Jersey,” said Pietrofitta. “There was only so much power we had to influence that decision, and if someone came to me directly with those concerns, I addressed them.”

Navigating the pandemic means health concerns have become a top priority in almost every situation, and while any immuno-compromised staff were quickly accommodated, there were not many other offers made to help hybrid teachers feel more comfortable in this new environment. 

“We’re state employees, we’re paid by the taxpayers; the taxpayers expect a service out of us,” Pietrofitta said. “So if the governor says [we] have to keep schools open and the state department of education says [we] have to keep schools open, unless the county department of health says otherwise, then we have to go to work.”

Although everyone interviewed approached the issue with different concerns, the faces of the high school largely agree; while there is always work to be done, the current hybrid schedule is an effective system of foundational and useful guidelines. However, RV’s administration and the president of the union are only a couple voices that represent the staff at RV, so this wouldn’t be a complete picture without the teachers themselves.

 

“Are we doing a good job?”: teacher voices

New to RV as of 2019, English teacher Steven Burns speaks on his personal experience and perspective on the acclimation to hybrid learning.

“When your learning environment is stripped of that human connection, it can make you feel, especially as a teacher, that you’re doing a crappy job,” Burns said. “We have this sense of doubt like, are we doing a good job? It makes you really question your ability and also makes you question, are my kids learning?”

Many teachers share similar feelings of insecurity citing a “lack of balance,” difficulty “keeping students engaged” and several different technology-related issues from poor connection in the building, to students having/turning their cameras off during class time. While many educational strides have been made since March 2020, many teachers feel as though there are still underlying problems that need to be solved to create a more balanced learning and work environment for all.

This lack of balance affects all students and staff, but especially someone like Burns, who, as a freshman English teacher, gets to see that transition from eighth to ninth grade first hand. From the loss of customary social events to even simple conversations during class, all types of interaction have been affected in some way, so Burns believes that RV should make all efforts to bring students in, while still remaining as safe as possible.

“As long as we continue to follow the protocols that we have in place and keep people safe, we should try to be in-person because I think that the students desperately need it,” Burns said. “They need the structure, they need the socialization, they need the connection. But that being said, to keep bouncing back and forth… is just exhausting to have to keep changing your energy and changing your plans and the kids get confused.”

Although Burns’ point of view is not totally unique and many other teachers share similar sentiments, there is still a large difference of opinions ranging from one side of the spectrum to the other among all teachers. In January, the Holly Spirit conducted an anonymous survey sent to all RV faculty about their opinions concerning the hybrid teaching model. All attempts made to be able to quote specific staff members on their opinions were denied.

“Honestly, I feel like our administration prioritizes our public image more than the safety and well-being of its staff and student body,” one teacher said. “Rather than collaborate with staff and focus our energies on ways to improve virtual learning… ways to make it more engaging, organized, worthwhile…. admin has required teachers to choose between their health/their family/their mental health and their career.” 

Admin has required teachers to choose between their health/their family/their mental health and their career.”

— Anonymous survey response

In fact, of the teachers polled, just over 75% said they would rather choose to teach fully remote if given the option. In many of their opinions, this would solve problems such as limited interaction between online and in-person students, students being confused about their cohort days and overall provide a more dependable and consistent educational environment for both students and staff. This being said, this form also garnered the opinions of those who completely disagreed with the actions of the administration.

“Our leadership has shown they are incapable [of making decisions],” another teacher said. “Instead [they] chose to not make decisions and constantly have to pivot as the situation legally forced them to.”

While there is a positive outlook and perspective maintained throughout most of the opinions of administration, it seems as if there is more of a discrepancy among teachers. Some teachers feel as though they aren’t being listened to and that their opinions aren’t truly being taken into consideration, while others find very little wrong with the hybrid scheduling and think this is the best RV can do right now. 

Another group yet to be brought into the discussion are the people everyone is doing this for: the students (and their families, of course). 

 

“A lot of confusion”: students and parents weigh in

“I really do like the hybrid plan,” RV parent Michelle Kerchner said. “I think that the school, including the teachers and administrators, have really done an exceptional job at making the hybrid schedule workable.”

Kerchner is not alone with her opinion that the hybrid schedule works for a lot of people. For students, it’s a choice of whichever option is more comfortable, convenient and safe, which allows this schedule to be very flexible for them. However, within this flexibility, many find there is too much room for confusion and that the “back-and-forth” can be difficult to keep track of. 

“I like the fact that they’re trying really hard to keep [up with] it, but… it’s really confusing,” sophomore Faith Taylor said. “Suddenly we could be all-remote for a certain amount of time and you think that you’re going in [but] then you’re not. While I like their effort, they’re trying to get people in and get it back to normal while also being careful, I feel like it causes a lot of confusion.”

This confusion is not exclusive to the volatility between in-person and online school days, as there is uncertainty surrounding the teachers’ schedules as well. The lack of choice between hybrid or remote teaching is what some students and community members find fault in, especially in the instance where there is a lack of information about teachers’ circumstances as a whole. 

“It seems a lot harder for [teachers] and a lot more strict on them with when they’re going in and how often they have to,” sophomore Jessica Kerchner said. “I think it’s important to recognize they’re being told they have to go in there… I’m sure there are a lot of teachers that feel uncomfortable doing so and it puts them in a… weird position because they don’t want to… lose their job or get in trouble for [staying home], but they also shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re being forced to go into school if they’re not comfortable doing that.” 

 

From administrators, to students and their parents, to even the teachers themselves, everyone seems to recognize the difficulty of navigating through times like these. But the discrepancy between many teacher voices and administrators’ plans could demonstrate a problematic gap within the staff at RV; even now, as we move into February and potentially look towards bringing more students back into the building, many teachers continue to feel underrepresented and unheard as the administration makes plans for the future.

Perhaps the only sentiment all parties shared was the notion that RV wouldn’t be the same without the people who help keep it running.

“[Teachers] are taking a risk every time they go in there to teach, so they should be included in this ‘hero’ title that so many new people have gotten in their careers,” Michelle Kerchner said. “We used to think of heroes as firefighters and people in rescue and now it’s expanded to include grocery store workers and teachers, and I think it’s definitely merited.” 

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