PHOENIX – Family members were at high risk of COVID-19, so Norma Hernandez said she had no choice but to keep her three kids at home for the school year, rather than send them to school in person.
It’s a decision most parents have had to contemplate this year, but the virtual option comes with worrisome trade-offs. In Hernandez’s case, her son's fourth grade class in a virtual program in Gilbert, Arizona, has as many as 55 students, an “overwhelming” load for his teacher, she said.
"My son is lucky he has me at home," she said.
While some students returned to classrooms around the country, others remain at home and could stay in the virtual classroom for the next year or even longer because of health concerns.
School districts responded by launching online programs at an unprecedented scale. Parents, caregivers and educators said they're dismayed by online class sizes as high as 100 students in some school districts.
Those organizing virtual programs said larger classes are acceptable, in part because students often work at their own pace in virtual classes. Some programs require a few hours of live instruction a day or even just a few check-ins every week. Experts said some instruction should be live, so kids can see their friends and feel a part of the class.
Many districts with fledgling online programs are learning what the right teacher-student ratio is, said Diana Sirko, superintendent of the Mesa County Valley School District in western Colorado.
"It was like starting a completely new school," she said.
Others worry that ballooning class sizes are a sign of worsening teacher shortages in parts of the country where schools struggled to hire and retain quality teachers even before the pandemic.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman wrote in a statement that she has anecdotally heard of more teachers leaving the field.
"I am deeply concerned about our critical teacher shortage, worsened by COVID-19, that continues to create larger classrooms whether those classrooms are virtual or in-person," she wrote.
Classes with more than 100 students
Valerie Lim has two kids in Gilbert schools. Her first grader's class began the year with 70 kids, and her fourth grader's class started with 53. Lim has asthma, and other family members have health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, so the family chose virtual school.
"The teachers are overwhelmed," she said. "There's literally no way that you can form the types of connections that you would want to make as a teacher with your students."
Though Gilbert's virtual program includes the promise of one-on-one time between teachers and students, Lim said the time amounts to about 10 minutes a week. It seems like teachers have to "triage" students, she said, and prioritize helping the ones who need it the most.
The heavy workload for teachers raises questions about the virtual experience for students who don't have a parent present to help or who don't have ready access to additional resources.
Gilbert Public Schools teachers work with students in smaller groups and individually on some days, district spokesperson Dawn Antestenis wrote in an email.
"Online teachers have time available to teach more students," she wrote.
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Some districts struggle to keep up with the demand for virtual education.
In Great Falls, Montana, 40 to 60 students are on a wait list for spots in virtual middle and high school classrooms in the public school district, according to Heather Hoyer, an assistant superintendent.
Roughly 1,000 students in grades K-6 enrolled in remote education this year, making class sizes in those grades well beyond 100 students, according to the district.
Hoyer said students who don't actively engage in their remote courses may be asked to return to a face-to-face setting to accommodate students on the wait list.
“If they’re not engaging, something’s not working, and we need to get them back into a model that works,” Hoyer said.
Balancing dozens of students
In West Virginia, one fourth grade teacher was expected to teach math and science to 82 students virtually, said Tega Toney, president of the American Federation for Teachers in Fayette County.
Toney said West Virginia caps class size at no more than 28 students at that level.
“Some districts are trying to skirt this rule by saying virtual classes don’t really apply,” said Toney, who serves as vice president of the state teachers union.
“It's not really fair and equitable," Toney said. "I would contend that students taking classes virtually would need even more one-on-one attention.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, said virtual crowding makes it more difficult for children to learn, especially those who are already struggling.
“Cramming 50, 60, 70 or more students onto a Zoom screen or a Google classroom shows there’s no intention for teachers to get to know their students and no intention to stimulate real discussion,” Weingarten said.
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Teachers of special subjects such as physical education and art are accustomed to working with large numbers of students throughout the day. In normal times, they can attend to everyone face-to-face. Engaging everyone is harder when trying to teach kids remotely and at school, said Rachel Mita, an elementary physical education teacher in Florida’s Pinellas County schools.
“I teach 147 students online and 166 students face-to-face,” she said.
Mita does not have to teach her in-person and online students simultaneously, like many of her colleagues. The Pinellas County Teachers Association launched a petition to end the practice of simultaneous teaching, which educators said is difficult and doesn't serve all children well.
Because the virus prevents the use of any PE equipment, Mita's classes consist of one large group exercise in which she weaves in necessary standards. Workdays stretch longer because so many at-home students email questions, usually pertaining to how to log in, she said.
“I only have time to copy and paste directions I’ve already given them, so I can move on to the next student,” she told the Pinellas County school board.
More students for virtual classes?
It's common for virtual schools to have larger class sizes than in-person school. The National Education Policy Center reported in 2019 that virtual schools had an average student-teacher ratio of 44 students to one teacher, while the average for in-person public schools was 16 students to a teacher.
The report recommended that virtual schools reduce student-to-teacher ratios, finding virtual school students often performed poorly academically.
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Sirko said it was difficult to anticipate how many of her Colorado district's 22,000 students would opt for the virtual option over in-person. About 3,000 students ended up online at the beginning of the school year. About 1,000 said they preferred online in a survey the district distributed over the summer, she said.
Elementary teachers were in charge of as many as 75 students, Sirko said. The district is working to bring that number down, but hiring teachers to fill open spots is a challenge.
Colorado schools struggled to find qualified teachers even before the pandemic, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
"It's just hard to find applicants," Sirko said. "And even more difficult when you're in rural Colorado, even though we're a fairly large town."
Many teachers lead virtual classes that are more or less the same size as in previous years.
Some educators experience the opposite problem: small online classes because students are missing.
Some days, fewer than 10 students show up for teacher Juli Caruso’s virtual eighth grade science class at Star Spencer Mid-High School in Oklahoma City, where everyone is learning remotely through the first quarter. It's not the same small group of students every day, Caruso said.
Adapting to new technology eats into everyone's learning time, she said.
"It's a work in progress," Caruso said. "But right now, it's slow-going."
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Class of 100? COVID-19 overwhelming teachers with huge virtual classes