Pandemic Schooling Is Overwhelming. Here’s How One School Lightened the Load.


From personal health concerns to worries about students who’ve fallen off the grid, the toll of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic can be immense. Many educators say their schools have done little to lighten the load. Not everywhere, though. In a MindShift survey this fall, some of our newsletter subscribers described structural changes at their schools that were making the year more manageable, such as shorter class periods or having one day per week devoted to teacher planning.

Principal Sarah Gillam of West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, was among those who responded to the survey. In a typical year, her school operates on a six-period schedule, with students changing classes after the first semester. This year, students are taking three classes at a time for just one quarter. Student feedback drove the change, Gillam said. In a survey last spring, students resoundingly reported that six daily virtual classes was overwhelming. So faculty and staff devised the quarter system, along with other adjustments, including:

  • A shortened instructional day — Students start at 9:15 a.m. instead of 7:45 a.m.
  • A common prep period for teachers — This 60-minute period occurs before the student day.
  • An additional section of classes for each teacher — Since the prep periods occur before students begin, there’s no prep period during the student day. Gillam said this change was made with the need for physical distancing when in-person schooling begins, and it brought class sizes down to around 25, compared to the usual 30.

When civics teacher Amy Gallaway heard about the proposed changes, her first reaction was relief. Trying to recreate brick-and-mortar school for seven hours per day online was “untenable” for both students and teachers, she said. But after relief came something else: “What was that feeling? Trepidation.” 

Gallaway, who is Alaska’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, said that she wondered “Can I do this, and can I do it well enough that my students learn something really meaningful and their time isn’t wasted?” Toni Hawkins, a math teacher at West Valley, alighted on those questions more quickly. “With math, you can’t really go onto the next concept until you’ve really solidified what the previous one was,” she said. “So I got really nervous about it.”

Hawkins joined a committee to help redesign core math courses for the fall, and Gallaway got busy reinventing her U.S. government course. After two quarters, both teachers said the compressed schedule is full of challenges, yet holds benefits beyond reducing student and teacher overwhelm. It also has led to increased emphasis on higher-order thinking, more connection with individual students and an opportunity to make bold changes.

During the summer, Hawkins worked with other teachers to distill their Algebra I sequence to the essentials. Statistics, for instance, is usually a stand-alone unit, so it got the boot. And while students normally learn to solve systems of equations through multiple methods, this year they might only learn one. Hawkins said the teachers created a document of suggested changes that served as both a guide for colleagues and a record for future years to know what was missed.

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