The Waterloo School Board is sticking to a plan it adopted on Aug. 18, in which JEDI is the only year-long virtual learning option for students in 2021-22.
During an hour-long debate at a special meeting on Aug, 23, the board heard from several teachers who spoke out strongly against offering a hybrid option this coming year, where children at home could join a live classroom and interact live with a Waterloo teacher, via their computer screen.
Teachers said they did so on an emergency basis during the 2020-21 school year but the model is not a sustainable long-term workload for them.
The board didn’t take an action. Instead, it effectively said it would stick with the plan to offer learning through JEDI, a fully online school that students from Waterloo and many other area districts have long tied into for online classes.
The decision to not offer hybrid learning follows the school board’s vote on Aug. 18 to make face masks optional when classes begin on Sept. 1.
Optional masks and other COVID-19 mitigation policies became an issue during the Aug. 23 debate, as the board weighed how to keep students learning who end up having to quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure or infection.
Board members and Superintendent Brian Henning ultimately said getting students their homework to complete, and ensuring in other ways that they keep learning if they feel well enough to do so during quarantine, will be handled on a case-by-case basis. That could potentially include chatting online with teachers after school to discuss assignments.
On Aug. 23, the board looked at a survey sent to parents, on learning options for the coming school year.
Henning said the survey results were a broad mix, with some families wanting all in-person learning and some seeking a full-time virtual option. Many parents also said they hoped for a virtual option for when students must quarantine due to a COVID-19 exposure or infection.
Board Vice President Kate Lewandowski said it is important to have a plan for quarantined students, who could miss up to a week of school at a time.
“That is a lot of time out of the classroom,” Lewandowski said.
Henning acknowledged that some families will see JEDI’s schedule as a drawback. Typically, JEDI students interact briefly online each morning with a teacher and then work independently for the rest of the day. It is not a hybrid classroom like Waterloo offered last year, in which students at home virtually joined in a live classroom for the entire day
“Last year (Waterloo) teachers were interacting with kids throughout the day. In a virtual school like JEDI, there is not as much interaction with the teachers,” Henning said.
Henning said, however, that continuing a hybrid option isn’t feasible for staffing and district budgetary reasons.
“I think JEDI is an easy answer that doesn’t put any more burden on our staff,” Henning said. “We could certainly try to do more in house, but the question becomes how do you do that?”
“I don’t know how you would do that with the resources that you have available to you,” Henning said, addressing board members.
“In reality we are dealing with a difficult situation and limited resources,” agreed school board member Charles Crave. “We have to do with what we can reasonably accomplish.”
Henning said video-recording classes for quarantined students to watch on their own time, or simply letting students watch a live class class without actually being able to interact, isn’t really feasible, either, for teachers.
“You are still in a sense asking teachers to run both platforms,” Henning said.
Neither is Waterloo a large enough school district to feasibly dedicate one teacher per grade level to teaching full-time virtually, Henning said.
“Maybe if we had 12 schools that might be the way to do it but we don’t have the resources,” agreed board member Mathew Schneider.
Lewandowski urged the board, neverthelss, to ask teachers to give hybrid learning a try for 2021-22.
“All the teachers did it last year. They did and they worked out all of the kinks,” Lewandowski said. “They have their lesson plans. Can we ask them to do it?
Board President Nancy Thompson said asking teachers to continue in hybrid mode “just isn’t fair.”
Thompson called JEDI school “a good option for those who don’t want to come into school” for the entire year.
And teachers who joined in virtually during the Aug. 23 meeting asked the board to not offer a hybrid option.
First-grade teacher Sarah Schneider said teachers “really do not feel comfortable doing that again. It was two jobs. We did it, and we learned a lot of things and we did it well.”
But, Schnieder said, “it is not something that we can continue to do year after year. Please don’t make that become the new normal.”
Schneider said teachers do now have more tools than ever to communicate with quarantined students individually for a few days, and can use those going forward.
In response to board questions, Henning also said there has been a mix of families recently applying to open enroll out of the Waterloo schools because they’re unhappy with masks being optional, and other families applying to open enroll into the district because they are opposed to their children being made, elsewhere, to wear masks.
“We have heard from both sides,” Henning said.