Every weekday morning, Paul Yenne sets up five different devices — including two laptops, an iPhone and a screen-caster that projects videos to a large screen — to get ready for the 19 fifth-grade students who come to his classroom and the six who log on from home.
The Colorado school district where Yenne works offers in-person and online classes simultaneously, with one teacher responsible for both as the Covid-19 pandemic touches every facet of education.
Yenne, 31, delivers the day’s lesson, his eyes continuously darting between the students in front of him and those stacked on a virtual grid on a laptop at the front of the room.
Despite his desire to create a seamless classroom experience for both groups, one inevitably gets left out, he said. If the technology breaks down, his classroom students have to wait until he fixes it, and if there's an in-person issue, it's the other way around, he said.
“The most exhausting thing is just to try and hold attention in two different places and give them at least somewhat equal weight,” he said. “What kind of wears on me the most is just thinking, 'I don't know that I did the best for every kid,' which is what I try and do every day when I go in."
While most K-12 schools have chosen to go either online or in person at one time, the double duty model is among the most labor-intensive, according to education experts. Yet it's increasingly becoming the new norm around the country, and with less than a quarter of the school year down, many teachers say they're already exhausted.
They have received little training and resources are scarce, they say, but they worry that speaking up could cost them their jobs.
”I think that kind of exhaustion we had from last year has kind of compounded as now we're being asked to do essentially two jobs at once,” Yenne said. “The big question right now is, 'How long can we continue doing this?'"
Afraid to speak out
While many schools call this form of teaching “hybrid,” experts label it “concurrent teaching” or “hyflex," modes originally designed for university and graduate-level students.
Brian Beatty, an associate professor at San Francisco State University who pioneered the hyflex program, said it was designed to have more than a single mode of interaction going on in the same class and typically involves classroom and online modes that can be synchronous or asynchronous.
The aim was to provide students not in the classroom with as good an educational experience as those who were, and it was intended for students who chose to be taught that way on a regular or frequent basis, he said. The model was created for adults at the undergraduate and graduate level who made the choice and were able to manage themselves.
“The context of the situation at the elementary level is so different than the situation that we designed this for," he said. "A lot of the principles can work but challenges are also a lot more extreme, especially around managing students.”
Sophia Smith, a literary enrichment teacher for kindergarten through third-grade students in Des Plaines, Illinois, said her elementary school allowed little time for training and planning before teachers were thrust into the dual mode.
She said 40 percent of her students are online, and she spends much of her time going back and forth between online and classroom students, leaving little time for meaningful instruction.
"It's extremely chaotic," she said, adding that if school officials were to visit her classroom, they would understand how their decisions about hybrid education really affected teachers.
Smith worries the model will become an accepted norm, mostly because teachers who are struggling to keep up are scared to speak out.
“We're afraid to lose our jobs," she said. "We're afraid that the district will come back and treat us differently or say things differently, like, 'Nobody else is complaining, so why is it you?'"
Smith said she is speaking up now because she wants other teachers to feel more comfortable doing so.
Matthew Rhoads, an education researcher and author of "Navigating the Toggled Term: Preparing Secondary Educators for Navigating Fall 2020 and Beyond," said schools added a livestream component to their curriculum in a panicked effort to offer an online choice to families. But much of the implementation was not thought out, he said, leaving teachers to deal with the fallout.
Teachers are beyond exhausted, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers unions in the country.
“This is the worst of all worlds,” she said. “The choice to do that came down to money and convenience, because it certainly wasn’t about efficacy and instruction.”
David Finkle, a ninth-grade teacher at a Florida high school, said he has not been able to sleep despite being depleted of energy after a full day of online and in-person instruction. The veteran teacher of nearly 30 years stopped running, writing creatively and doing any of the other activities he enjoys when school began in August.
“It's been very hard for me to focus on my other creative stuff outside of school because school is wiping me out," he said, adding that it's difficult to keep up with grading because it takes so long to plan lessons for the two groups.
"I wish I could focus on one set of students," he said.
Teachers are reporting high levels of stress and burnout around the country, including in Kansas, Michigan and Arkansas. In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reported, principals say their teachers are having panic attacks while juggling both.
High levels of teacher stress affect not only students and their quality of education, but the entire profession, said Christopher McCarthy, chair of the educational psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.
"When teachers are under a lot of stress, they are also a lot more likely to leave the profession, which is a very bad outcome," he said.
Already, 28 percent of educators said the Covid-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession, according to a nationwide poll of educators published in Augustby the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union.
Rhoads, the education researcher, said retaining high-caliber teachers is crucial, especially now, but if the hyflex model continues without adequate support, a mass teacher shortage is inevitable.
Such an event would have far-reaching effects, accelerating school district consolidations and causing some states to lower their standards and licensing requirements for teachers, he said.
For instance, the Missouri Board of Education passed an emergency rule in anticipation of a pandemic-related teacher shortage that made it easier to become a substitute. Instead of 60 hours of college credit, eligible substitutes need only a high school diploma, to complete a 20-hour online training course and pass a background check, according to the Associated Press.
Iowa relaxed relaxed coursework requirements and lowered the minimum age for newly hired substitutes from 21 to 20, the AP reported, and in Connecticut, college students have been asked to step in as substitutes.
Paige, a middle school teacher in central Florida who did not want her full name used to protect her job, said teachers at her school received less than a week’s notice that they would be teaching in the classroom and online concurrently. They received no training on platforms or logistics, she said.
Since the beginning of the year, she has struggled with internet accessibility and technical glitches.
“We need greater bandwidth," she said. "I have five kids turn on the camera and suddenly nothing is working in real time anymore. We need more devices."
She said teachers doing double duty should receive improved products, technology training and professional guidance and mentorship. Other teachers said having a day or even half a day for planning would help.
McCarthy, the educational psychologist, said the best support teachers can get when demands are high are the resources to deal with the challenges.
"What's happening right now is lack of resources mixed with a lot of uncertainty," he said, "and that is a toxic blend."