WICHITA, Kansas — Less than a week into the new school year, the warning came: the school district’s COVID-19 learning plan expected too much from teachers.
“It’s unsustainable,” Greg Jones, a representative for the Kansas National Education Association, told the Wichita school board. “We don’t think that things can continue as they are.”
All that must happen while teaching twice as many kids to compensate for the split between in-person and online classes.
Some educators warn that they can’t do right by students — or their own families — under the current conditions. Unions said teachers are already leaving.
“It’s becoming such an overwhelming challenge that many teachers are resigning early,” said Marcus Baltzell, the spokesperson for the Kansas National Education Association. “Many are just outright quitting.”
In Sarah Westbury’s 10 years of teaching, she says she’s never worked this hard.
“It’s honestly not best practice for our students,” she said.
Westbury teaches fourth and fifth grade — remotely this year — at Franklin Elementary in Wichita. Tech problems have plagued her classes since the start of the school year. Students keep getting booted off district-provided internet devices. Some kids had never opened a laptop before. Teachers still battle with the Microsoft Teams platform.
While the tech problems are taking longer than expected to get over, educators expect them to get better. Inflated online class sizes are a more stubborn issue.
Wichita Public Schools says about 15 students is the ideal number for a class doing the normal number of in-person lessons. But Westbury has nearly 40 kids in one class, which she has managed as tiny squares crammed into a computer screen.
In Wichita, elementary students were allowed to sign up for in-person classes. Middle school and high school students must learn online for now. The district needs more teachers for in-person classes to keep them small enough to leave room for social distancing. That means the few teachers available for online lessons must take on more students, often twice the norm.
And those students could come from different grades. Westbury teaches both fourth- and fifth-grade students at the same time. Some lessons crossover between the grades. Yet as the year goes on, what those students are supposed to learn drifts farther and farther apart.
Between the class size, the different tech needs of each student and teaching two grades at once, Westbury does not believe she or other teachers can deliver what’s best for students.
“Lord knows, we’re trying,” Westbury said. “But we definitely can’t sustain this with the staffing that we have.”
They’ve made improvements since the spring’s sudden move to remote classes. But despite having a summer to prepare, districts didn’t mandate teacher training until about a week before the first day of classes.
Districts like Wichita that delayed their start until after Labor Day had more time to train teachers for the new school year. But many teachers didn’t know if they would be teaching online until just before the first day of classes. That left them unsure if they should be spending their training time on online classes or if they should focus on in-person learning.
On Friday, Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said remote teaching is not sustainable for the rest of the school year because the quality just doesn’t match a physical classroom. He suggested schools look to outside facilities like hotels and old shopping malls to let more students learn in-person while staying six feet apart.
Watson said that also requires finding more teachers. That includes recruiting retired teachers and making principals take on classroom duty.
“Everyone is going to need to be a teacher again,” Watson told the Kansas Association of School Boards. “All hands on deck.”
Kimberly Howard, the president of United Teachers of Wichita, warns of declining mental health of teachers.
“We keep telling them you got to take care of yourself,” Howard said. “There’s got to be self care and things just might not get done.”
Some teachers are deciding the job’s not worth the stress.
The Kansas National Education Association reports it’s getting weekly news from its offices across the state of teachers resigning. That’s despite many Kansas school districts fining teachers thousands of dollars for quitting outside of a specific summer window.
Wichita Public Schools administrators acknowledge this is a tough year for teachers, but they say they’re working on providing more support for teachers.
“We want to support anyone that feels that there’s too much on their plate to accomplish what it is they want to accomplish,” said Gil Alvarez, assistant principal of secondary schools for Wichita Public Schools. “We’re feeling the same change, anxiety from our levels as well.”
Some in-person teachers say they’re just happy to be back in the classroom, especially after the online spring struggles.
“My stress level is much less being in this building than it was teaching from home,” said Rae Lauxman, a preschool teacher at Shaner Early Learning Academy in Topeka.
Shaner Early Learning Academy Principal La Manda Broyles said the district’s summer preparations let the school avoid increasing the workload for in-person teachers.
“We are educating kids in the same way we did last year,” Broyles said.
Circle Public Schools, just northeast of Wichita, also said that its teachers face more pressure now than in the past. But the district doesn’t have the same online classroom size problems that large districts like Wichita do.
Despite in-person generally being easier for teachers than the online option, some educators at Lawrence Public Schools protested Monday the decisions to switch from all remote classes to a hybrid model. Members of the Paraeducators Union of Lawrence argued the district isn’t being transparent about how to hold physical classes safely.
Westbury, the fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in Wichita, said she enjoys the challenge of figuring out the tech side of online learning. But the long hours have her worried she’ll reach breaking point this year.
Westbury said that if remote teachers don’t get more help, more will resign before the end of the year. And she might be one of them.
“When I start missing out on doctor’s appointments and football games and things like that — that’s when I have to say no,” Westbury said. “My family comes first.”
Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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