It is 9 a.m. in Olga Contreras’ Chicago public school classroom in early March, and four second graders sit with their masks on and laptops open. Their classmates pop onto a Smartboard in front of them.
Meanwhile, Contreras is having technical difficulties.
“Can you hear me?” Contreras asks the students on the screen. When they blankly stare at her, she scrambles to fix the technology — restarting, unplugging and replugging.
Suddenly, she lands in the virtual class. Everyone, including her, erupts into applause.
Contreras is one of thousands of elementary school teachers who have spent the last few weeks figuring out how to do two things at once: teach children in person and remotely at the same time.
“It has been very — I don’t want to say stressful — I want to say very challenging, because now I have to sync participation,” said Contreras, who teaches a second grade, bilingual class at Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Little Village on the city’s Southwest Side.
But just when Contreras thought it wasn’t going to work, two of the students in her classroom told her they were so happy to be back. They were really tired of being at home.
“Having those kids in person has been inspiring to me,” she said. “They come and they open their Chromebooks. They don’t need me for the passwords. … They come with a big smile and they are ready. If something is not working, they will say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna just push this.’ They are solving problems every minute.”
The four students in Contreras’ classroom are in what’s known as hybrid learning, meaning they are in person some of the time and remote the rest. The majority of her students — 13 — are still fully remote.
Hybrid learning began for Chicago elementary school students on March 1, joining preschool and some special education students who began earlier this year after a protracted fight with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Starting in mid-April, the school district wants high school students to start hybrid, but officials are still in negotiations over the terms with the union.
For Contreras and other educators, this shift to hybrid learning comes in the middle of a year of one disruption after another. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Public school leaders fought hard to return to in-person, and they say they have invested $100 million in safety measures.
They said that many students were disengaged and had fallen behind academically while learning remotely.
Yet it is unclear the effect hybrid learning will have on the quality of education. National polls show that parents with children in hybrid learning are not much happier with it than those with students who are still fully remote. One study found that only 21% of families rated hybrid as excellent, while significantly more of those parents with children fully in-person or fully remote say it is excellent.
And several teachers tell WBEZ they are struggling, and so are their students. They say it’s hard in classrooms where there are only a handful of students and even then, some students aren’t showing up.
One teacher, Sarah Mertz, said her school doesn’t have the bandwidth for in-person students to be logged into remote classes. This means that she has to go through most lessons twice and some students are doing a lot of waiting. “It is getting easier, but there is a constant back and forth,” she said.
CPS CEO Janice Jackson said schools across the country turned to hybrid as a stopgap. Given the constraints of pandemic safety measures, it is logistically impossible for most schools to offer full time in-person learning. “I’ve said this time and time again — this is not ideal, which is why my goal is to get all students and all staff back into school when it’s safe to do so,” Jackson said.
Lightfoot said on Thursday that she wants all students back in classrooms full-time this fall.
Until then, Contreras’ class provides a peek into how hybrid is unfolding in Chicago.
Online learning in the classroom
Under CPS’ hybrid plan, students are supposed to be split into two groups, with each coming to school two days a week and studying at home the other three. This way classes stay small and contained to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But at some schools, because so few students signed up to return, students can come to class four days a week. Overall, only 30% of students said they wanted to return and CPS has yet to release data on how many are actually attending.
At Saucedo, students are able to attend four days a week.
The two boys and two girls in Contreras’ classroom get most of their instruction through the laptop in front of them, as they would if they were at home. Contreras also is mostly trained on her laptop screen.
Sitting is hard for her. Before the pandemic, she was constantly moving about the room interacting with students.
Contreras has the in-person students answer questions by turning to her and talking. This is partly because, if they were to unmute themselves, there would be a distracting echo.
She wants them to experience being together. Still, sitting 6 feet away from her and with masks on, it can be hard to hear their small, 7-year-old voices. During reading, Contreras has to ask one little girl to take down her mask to make out what she is saying.
At the same time, Contreras is trying to figure out how to provide that attention without getting too close to the students.
“I didn’t realize before how close I was to my students, very intimate like, ‘Let’s do this together,’” she said. “So sometimes I catch myself. It is really hard not to be a human, to move myself back and then we have that sadness.”
“They will have access to me”
Still, there are some advantages for students in the classroom.
Contreras plays music and chats with them when they eat breakfast at their desks. She looks over their papers and corrects them in real time. When they are supposed to be working on their own, she keeps them focused and gives them extra support.
Contreras said some of the parents who chose to keep their children at home worried their sons and daughters were missing out. She tried to assure them she was going to be as fair as possible. But if a child is in front of her, she is going to help them.
“So if they say, ‘Can you check my reading or I don’t understand this question.’ They will have access to me,” Contreras said. “It is not fair to say, ‘I can’t be your teacher because other students are at home.’”
She also notes that many of the students who she thinks could really benefit from getting extra attention are still at home.
Progress amid disruption
Even as Contreras is navigating hybrid learning, she doesn’t want the transition to set her students back in any way.
When the students started in the fall, Contreras said she was “super worried” about them.
Little Village was hit hard by the pandemic. Many of her students’ families experienced sickness and death. Some parents had lost jobs, and she could tell they were stressed out.
At the same time, she noticed many of the children were not communicating or reading the way she would expect in a typical year. Contreras attributed this to the many months away from school, shut in at home, perhaps in front of video games and television.
In October, Contreras tested her students and found not one of them was reading at grade level. In a normal year, at least half her students read at or above grade level
On top of that, her students are still learning English, and by third grade most of the bilingual curriculum transitions from Spanish to English. It was daunting to think how Contreras would get them ready.
But as time went on, Contreras got better at remote teaching. She had great classroom attendance and, while some parents couldn’t be present, many were. When she tested students again in February, everyone had made progress.
Five had catapulted to above grade level. Several were on the cusp while just a few were still well below, but progressing.
“I cannot express with words how satisfied I feel about this collective work,” she said. “It is not only me, it is also the parents. Now we have a full community working together hand by hand.”
Contreras’ students are strong enough that they’re ready for daily English lessons.
Contreras attributes her success to two things. Despite being remote, she managed to create a sense of community and made her students feel safe. Contreras has a daily morning meeting — and says many students show up to school so excited to share. And, any time if a student wants to talk about something, she will stop the class and let them.
She was also able to split the class into small groups to give them individualized help in areas where they struggle. She has the assistant teacher, the school’s bilingual coordinator, a student teacher and the special education teacher all doing small groups.
Contreras said small groups are more difficult with hybrid learning. Instead of everyone in a Google breakout room, the assistant teacher, for example, is in the hallway with one child with another three or four in the virtual room.
Contreras and the others are working on keeping them going as seamlessly as possible.
There is another big reason why she needs to figure this out. Contreras expects that a lot more parents will send their children back on April 19, which is the last date when students who are all remote now can return.
She is looking forward to this, but she also is anxious about managing yet another major change. How will she handle an influx of in-person students, with maybe only a few remaining remote? What will it be like if her in-person students can only come two days a week instead of four, as they are now?
Her principal says each of these major shifts are like first days of school all over again. By mid-April, Contreras and teachers across Chicago will be on their third major change in a school year that has been unpredictable from beginning to end.