By Sebastian Fortino
PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia’s new school year begins on September 2, but it will be virtual, for now. In late July the school board voted 7-1 to keep students learning virtually until at least November. In-person learning in public schools has been suspended since March 13, though distance learning still remains far from ideal. How have teachers adjusted to the challenges of Zoom classrooms, and what are they concerned about as their schools try to adjust to the realities of COVID-19? PGN spoke with four LGBTQ educators on how they feel going in to the new school year.
Maddie Luebbert has been teaching for four years in the City of Philadelphia. They currently teach English at the Kensington Health Sciences Academy. Luebbert and many other school teachers across the city were grateful when the school district of Philadelphia announced that classes would be 100% virtual for now. Initially, a hybrid model was suggested with students coming in on alternating days, but this didn’t sit well with the teachers involved.
“Many of us knew that [reopening physically] would take strong district leadership, tons of supplies, and equitable oversight to be successful, which added major doubts: our district has a pretty bad track record on doing what it says it will when it says it will,” said Luebbert. “The change to a virtual start happened after an outpouring of debate and critique from the community.”
Luebbert hopes the district will gather viable epidemiological data before making the decision to reopen classrooms. Even though they would like to see students coming back to school, Luebbert says teachers are already too familiar with overcrowded classrooms, supply shortages, and other stressors which would most likely negate the benefits of having the students back.
“My number one priority is safety, and I think it is unacceptable for even one School District of Philadelphia staff member, student, or parent to die because we rushed to go back, even if we are at half-capacity or ‘limiting’ casualties. Unfortunately, I’ve lost faith in our city’s leaders during this pandemic.”
In terms of the quality of education Luebbert and their colleagues are able to provide during the pandemic and shutdown, their school was able to distribute Chromebooks to students who fall into the low-income category. Luebbert says this describes all of their students, who mostly come from the West Kensington, Harrowgate, or Fairhill areas.
During the pandemic, the idea of students “falling behind” is irrelevant to Luebbert. Firstly, they consider the constructs of keeping up or falling behind as being a racist, socio-economic concept borne out of standardized testing. Secondly, their students are always considered behind because schools like theirs in Kensington receive far less funding.
Luebbert said that “every student in America is experiencing schooling that is impacted by this crisis. Falling behind is an imaginary landmark that shifts with the times. Finally, dead kids can’t be successful. Dead kids can’t live out their dreams.”
While they are happy to see virtual teaching remain the standard until mid-November at least, Luebbert does not see this as providing the best educational experience for all of their students. Without seeing their students face-to-face, they can’t be sure students are getting what they need in terms of grasping the material. As a queer person, Luebbert also worries about gender non-conforming, questioning, or otherwise non heteronormative students having a rough time at home with no other outlet or adult to talk to.
Across the river in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy has left the virtual or in-person decision up to each individual district.
Marc Mucci has been teaching kindergarten through eighth grade for almost 20 years in the Camden County School District, though he and his husband make their home in South Philly. Mucci’s district will open schools in-person on September 2nd, though he wishes the governor would keep classes remote until a vaccine is found.
“A lot of the teachers I talk to are stressed and are going through a lot of anxiety,” Mucci said. “The challenges are going to be proper ventilation when the winter time comes and windows are closed. Also it will be difficult to get children to socially distance themselves from one another and wear masks.”
The CDC has recommended that schools “ensure ventilation systems operate properly to increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible.” But the recommendations are less stringent than those for dental settings and hospitals, for example, despite the fact that the virus spreads the same way in any location.
Duncan Busser works as a middle-school Language Arts educator for the Philadelphia Performing Arts Charter School, a member of the String Theory School system. He has enjoyed and found mostly success in teaching from his home in Wynnewood, though his school operates differently than public schools. Students have an extended academic day at Busser’s school, with 90 minutes devoted to their major, and there is a co-teaching model in which two teachers lead a classroom.
While many teachers have found it understandably difficult to grasp student progress virtually, Busser shared a story about a child’s reading level improving substantially after beginning at-home learning. The student had been suspended over behavioral problems in the past. But by working from home, where he is unable to interrupt class with what Busser calls “shenanigans,” he has begun to improve.
“He actually went up two grade levels in reading. He and I had a very good relationship already, and that helped a lot,” Busser explained. “His mom and I were practically in tears over Zoom when his reading test at the end of the year showed that he was actually on grade level.”
It also helps that Busser’s school is a technologically savvy one. But unfortunately, even with the ease of iPads and other electronic devices, some students can still find virtual learning difficult. Colleagues from other schools have told him they fear students regressing a few grade levels over time because of limited access to in-person education.
“I worry desperately about those kids,” Busser said. “Will the kids who aren’t able to be engaged in distance learning ever want to go back to school?”
Francesca Pase, a Philadelphia native, is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia.
Pase doesn’t think children necessarily need to be in a school setting to learn, but she admits there are drawbacks to younger students being at home.
“Peer interaction right now is a bit different than peer interaction when we don’t have a novel virus floating around and killing people,” she explained. “Especially for young children or slightly older children who are less verbal than their peers. They rely heavily on body language, facial expression, touch, and gesture to engage with each other. Facial expressions aren’t easily read in masks, and touching is a no-no. Material engagement with peers (playing with toys together) is also really important. For example, kids sitting together on the floor building a tower with wooden blocks is a rich learning experience.”
But, Pase understands that curious early-education students will engage with dirty hands, put those blocks in their mouths, and potentially increase the spread of COVID-19. Teachers must then take time away from teaching to spend time cleaning and policing students, perhaps across all age groups. She says this is far more damaging developmentally than having children interact with their friends via virtual education.
“But I don’t see school as a building. A school is part of a community and the environment,” Pase added hopefully. “We can take school outside of the walls and provide opportunities for children to have support from teachers to learn more about the world they live in.”
Overall, teachers are all grappling with the new realities, both virtually and in-person, of a COVID-19 world. While virtual learning is the safest option to help quell virus spread, difficulties do remain for both students and teachers.
“I miss walking up to a student who is struggling with a particular concept and being to speak directly to her,” Busser said. “I miss walking through my classroom and checking in with each kiddo individually. I miss the craziness in the hallway when the students are switching classes, when I can see students I don’t directly teach but have still connected with. My co-teacher and I keep our Zoom room open throughout the day, and kids would “stop by” and say hi sometimes, but I miss seeing their actual faces. As far as appreciation goes, I can say that once we go back to school, I will desperately miss the Mute All button.”
Sebastian Fortino is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.