Faculty members hesitant about hasty return to school

February 10, 2021

Although many faculty members are excited about returning to in-person classes, they remain confused and nervous about the reopening, leading several faculty members to fear the return will be chaotic. 

The hybrid model under consideration would limit in-person student attendance to 50 percent to maintain social distance. Thus, students opting into the hybrid model would be distance learning half the time while those who opt-out would remain distance learning every day.

Science teacher Sharon Housinger is concerned about the lack of time before March 8 when faculty and students in grades 6-12 are set to return to classrooms.

“We just don’t have any time to figure all this out,” Ms. Housinger said. “The university hasn’t told us anything about how hybrid will work. That’s a real problem because we need to figure out the best ways to teach everyone while keeping people safe and healthy.”

In addition to the lack of details from the University of Chicago about the return, teachers are unsure whether the benefits of going back in-person outweigh the loss in academic rigor during the adjustment. 

“With all the downsides of virtual learning, we’ve all gotten more or less used to it and are getting through much of our material,” English teacher Christine Himmelfarb said. 

Ms. Himmelfarb is also unsure that switching to a hybrid model will have a significant effect on student mental health, due to a potential lack of interest among students in returning.

“If it’s about student mental health, I’m not sure how much this will help,” she said. “I took a poll of my class and only two students said they would definitely go back. Of course, I don’t know if that’s representative of the whole school, but neither does the administration. If we go back and it’s just me there with a couple students all six feet apart in-person and everyone else on Zoom, what’s the point?”

P.E. teacher Deborah Ribbens believes that teaching P.E. using a hybrid model presents unique challenges.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into changing the curriculum to fit online, and I’m not sure there’s enough overlap to provide a good experience for everybody,” Ms. Ribbens said. “The biggest problem is that we won’t have the same equipment, so even if we figure out the logistics of setting up hybrid, we have to plan out another curriculum more than halfway through the year.”

Logistically, neither Ms. Ribbens, Ms. Housinger nor Ms. Himmelfarb knows how they will teach in-person and online students simultaneously. According to them, the school has not provided a solution to this problem.

“I’ve thought about this a lot and I just don’t know how I can teach both in-person and virtual students,” Ms. Housinger said. “Either the students at home will be almost entirely asynchronous, or my in-person students will also join on Zoom. There’s just no way I can give my attention to both groups at the same time, and that gives me a lot of stress.”

Ms. Housinger, who is also vice president of the Faculty Association, is concerned that students who choose to remain online may not receive a comparable educational experience to those in-person.

“This is also an issue of inequality,” Ms. Housinger said. “If you’re wealthy and you live in Hyde Park, you’re more likely to come to school and receive in-person attention. If you live far away, or don’t want to take public transportation then you’re online and have to settle for less.”

Ms. Himmelfarb believes that with faculty input and more time, it would be possible for a plan to be devised. Therefore, she understands the Faculty Association’s request to delay in-person learning until after negotiations between the FA and the University of Chicago.

“There are things that we could learn from the Booth School that partially reopened and other schools across the country, but finding innovative solutions take time and input from everyone involved,” she said. “I don’t get the sense that we will get that time from the university’s actions, so I understand where the FA is coming from.”

Even though Ms. Ribbens is also concerned about the short amount of time before March 8, she is excited at the prospect of seeing her students in person again.

“I really want to be optimistic and excited,” Ms. Ribbens said. “Going back is what we’ve all been dreaming about for a year — going back and seeing the kids. I’m just not sure how this will work, so I am also nervous that the return could be chaotic.”

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