English teachers are deciding which books to skip. History teachers are condensing units. Science teachers are often doing without experiments entirely.
With instruction time reduced as much as half by the coronavirus pandemic, many of the nation’s middle school and high school teachers have given up on covering all the material normally included in their classes and instead are cutting lessons. Certain topics must be taught because they will appear on exit exams or Advanced Placement tests. But teachers are largely on their own to make difficult choices — what to prioritize and what to sacrifice to the pandemic.
“I have to make decisions constantly about what material I’m not going to cover because it is impossible to get it all done,” said Leigh Foy, a chemistry and Advanced Placement biology teacher at York Suburban High School in Pennsylvania.
School day schedules have been compressed to deal with the challenges of social distancing and remote learning. The pace of instruction has also been slowed by the need to cover subjects that were skipped following the school shutdowns last spring and by students’ virus-related distractions and the difficulty in addressing both online and in-person audiences.
Foy typically has students memorize how to read and write names for chemical formulas. Now she gives them a sheet with the nomenclature to refer to during quizzes and tests. Even though it is an important skill for scientists, there isn’t time this year.
What she teaches is constrained not only by her district’s hybrid model, which leaves her with about 25% less instruction time, but also social-distancing mandates that have forced her to scrap laboratory experiences.
She was unhappy to see the College Board announce that it would not modify AP exams this year to account for the strains of distance learning. The company said colleges expect the exams to reflect the full scope of coursework and there was no consensus about what content could be cut.
The strain shows on the faces of her students, including some who juggle part-time jobs or care for siblings on days they learn from home.
“Students are not dealing with a full tank of emotional or intellectual gas. They’re exhausted,” she said. “All I can offer them is, ‘I am there with you. I’m running this marathon with you. I care about you. I am going to try to be fair, but I need to continue pushing because we all have the same goalpost.’”
In Poland, Maine, social studies teacher Logan Landry placed cardboard cutouts of historical figures like Henry Ford and George Washington at some seats to keep up social distancing at Bruce M. Whittier Middle School, where instruction time has been cut in half by the hybrid model.
Last fall, he discussed the election as it unfolded with his seventh grade students, but he had to trim some lessons on the U.S. Constitution, including a review of documents about how it protects against tyranny in government.
He and other teachers are “in communication with the other grade levels, so they’re aware of what might be lacking in a particular area,” Landry said. “But I’m really hoping that they will get that at a later grade level, especially going to high school.”
The challenge of shorter classes is compounded by attendance problems. Students stay away for weeks at a time for quarantine or other reasons, adding to the amount of material they miss. But in the time he has with students on in-person learning days, Landry said, they are more eager to learn than ever.
“That positivity really helps me in the classroom,” he said.
In every other school year, English teacher Cristin Espinoza in Denver would have her ninth grade students read graphic novels in groups modeled on book clubs. It was difficult for her to accept that the groups would not be possible this year.
“Not only do I love teaching it, but students love learning through a different lens,” she said. “So it’s been really unfortunate to have to realize this can’t happen.”
At her charter school, Strive Prep — RISE, students have been learning remotely all year. Where Espinoza once had students for 90 minutes at a time, she now has about 20 minutes of direct instruction daily after accounting for a modified schedule and the time it takes students to settle.
“It doesn’t leave time for a student for it not to click the first time. And that’s just not realistic,” she said.
One recent Monday, she began class by returning to a segment from the previous Friday on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The students’ written assignments were missing the mark, and she felt it was important to double down on the task of writing strong paragraphs to support their ideas.
“It’s always like, what is highest leverage?” she said. “What are you going to be able to take to the classroom next year that’s going to actually help you become a better reader, writer, thinker, scholar?”
Peter Madsen’s U.S. history students in Española, New Mexico, are learning as usual about natural rights written into the Constitution. But they’re not learning about the progenitors of that philosophy, like John Locke, or how he wrote about those rights in a different way from his contemporaries.
“We’ve managed to cover every topic. There’s just some components that are a little cursory,” he said.
The skill his eighth grade students at Carlos F. Vigil Middle School miss out on in that exercise, Madsen said, is comparing and contrasting text.
The school has been offering instruction remotely for the duration of the academic year. He has 35 minutes of instruction time with students, down from about 55 minutes, and he notices students’ bandwidth seems lower during the pandemic.
“When I’m cutting things what I’m really thinking about is what is essential,” he said. “The things that I’m cutting are usually the things that help to provide more context, that help to give a bigger picture and fill out some of the complexities and details.”