Class Sizes and Cohorts in a Pandemic

How She Teaches during a pandemic: Safety measures for in-person learning

Class Sizes

An important component of returning to the classroom involved dividing students into smaller sized cohorts. Most years I have classes with between 30-35 students, but this year I am lucky to have around 25 students in each class (much easier for classroom management!). Another characteristic of my classes this year is that students are arranged into core groups. Besides their elective classes, they rotate between their core classes of Science, Math, Social Students, and English Language Arts, with the same group of students. Teachers on a core team share the same 125 students in common. I have opinions on the benefits and downsides for students and teachers using this model, but I’ll save those thoughts for another blog post. I will say that having students already grouped into core teams meant that we had a head start in planning the logistics for the return to in-person learning. With the core teams, there would be less mixing and interactions between students in the school throughout the day, reducing the risk of exposure to and spread of the virus.

Normally, 25 students in the classroom is a dream! Only about 6 groups to plan for and set-up for in labs, as opposed to 9 (re-filling chemicals or supplies for 9 groups during a 5 minute passing period or a 13 minute break will certainly test your speed and agility, let alone eliminate your bathroom break). But 25 students is too many to have in the classroom during a pandemic, when social distancing is one of the main strategies to prevent transmission. So students were further divided into cohorts: A, B, and AB. 

Cohorts: A, B, and AB

The students are divided mostly according to last name. The first half of the alphabet is aligned with the A group. The A group comes to school for in-person learning on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesday is a remote learning day for all. Thursdays and Fridays they do remote learning at home, with the option of joining live Zoom sessions for their classes on set days. The B group consists of students with last names beginning with letters in the second half of the alphabet. Our school made some adjustments to this rule if a student had siblings at another school so they could attend in-person learning on the same days. The B group comes to school for in-person learning on Thursdays and Fridays. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays they do remote learning at home, again with the option of joining live Zooms of their classes. 

The AB group comes to school for in-person learning Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesday is still a remote learning day for all students. You could say that the students in this group have the greatest need for the in-person instruction, and may be the most harmed by the other options that are offered. The AB students consist of English Language Learners who have been in the country for less than two years, students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) and students with 504 plans. These students are the only ones who have the option to attend all of the in-person learning days, and they also have the fully remote learning options as well. 

To accommodate these various learning cohorts, we have been following a synchronous learning schedule. This means that I am teaching something new each day, and regardless of whether students are in-person or working remotely on a given day, they are getting the same lessons and responsible for the same material. This has been the hardest part of returning to in-person learning. It is something I would like to elaborate on in a future post, and I address it briefly under What’s not working? below. 

Full Remote and Virtual Academy

Parents and families also have the option to opt out of in-person learning (wow, isn’t that nice to have a choice during a deadly pandemic, I’m jealous). In that case, they have two options: Full Remote and Virtual Academy. The Full Remote option means that students do not come to school at all for in-person learning. They access and submit work, and communicate digitally with their teachers, mostly through Google Classroom and Gmail. They have the option to participate in the live Zoom classes throughout the week. Full Remote students have the same curriculum as the students who are doing in-person learning.

Virtual Academy is another fully remote option, but is much different than any of the other cohort offerings. With Virtual Academy, students work independently to complete lessons in the online learning platform: Edgenuity. Several teachers are staffed full-time to manage these students, which consists of locking or unlocking various lesson components, and communicating with students and families about their progress and participation (mostly lack of participation to be honest). Although Virtual Academy students are on my roster, I do not interact with them and they are not in my Google Classrooms. Each quarter I simply enter the grade they earn, which is communicated to me by the Virtual Academy teachers. Enrollment in Virtual Academy is less flexible as parents can only enroll or withdraw at the start of each quarter. For the A, B, and Full Remote options, students switch in and out more easily. Each week or two there is usually one shift that happens such as an A or B student becoming full remote. It is not as easy to switch from full remote to in-person because of bus transportation. For this reason, changes to in-person learning mostly occur at quarter changes. 

What’s working?

Because of the different cohorts A, B, AB, Full Remote, and Virtual Academy, class sizes are small. Many families made changes to their learning choices at the end of the first semester. Parents were fed up with the lack of motivation and effort their students put forth to engage in online learning, and were worried about their mental health (kids’ and parents’ alike). They felt more secure in the decision to return to in-person learning, having the benefit of seeing what happened to us guinea pigs in the first semester. But even after the increase in in-person enrollment, my biggest class when we returned from Winter Break was only 10 students. And even with the smaller classes, there hasn’t been a single day when every student on my roster has shown up. Most class sizes range between 3 and 8 students on any given day. Fewer bodies in the room means there is less of a chance that someone is infected, and reduces the likelihood of transmission of the virus

With the smaller class sizes, I have noticed an increased familiarity and comfortability in the students. Students have many more opportunities each day to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences. I see a great confidence in them. They seem to enjoy carving out a bigger space for themselves in the classroom. Each student receives more attention and they know that what they say will be heard. I feel like my classes are more fluid and less rigid than in previous years. With fewer students, there is a better flow in the classroom. It is much easier to get and hold the attention of 5 students compared to 35. I find that we go into greater detail and depth when exploring their curiosities.

What’s not working?

Between the masks and 6 feet of separation, communication and collaboration are a challenge. Before the pandemic, I planned collaboration between partners and groups on a daily basis. This looked like structured student talk with sentence starters, or labs and activities that require teamwork and fulfillment of group roles for success. Turn-and-talk and Think-Write-Pair-Share are techniques I used to get students to interact with each other and share their ideas. At designated times, students turn to their designated partner to process what they just learned, come up with examples, or summarize an idea. I built in turn-and-talk prompts into my lessons when we first returned to in-person learning. At the turn-and-talk prompts, the classroom came alive with muffled shouting. Some students pulled their masks down so their partners could better read their facial expressions, but still had to shout in order to be heard.  I admire the students who gave this their best effort, however it was immediately apparent to me that the turn-and-talk technique no longer suited my needs for classroom discourse. As a big adjustment, this year my lessons consist more of class discussions and individual work. We can hear each other best when the classroom is quiet and we speak one at a time as one big group. I miss the days when students could work on a project together, sharing the work, but it is not safe to do so. Right now it is necessary to maintain 6 feet of distance from one another, and not share supplies. 

Unfortunately, a yearlong trend is that students are not engaged on their remote learning days. There are the dedicated few in each class who have been logging on, participating in Zooms, and submitting work on their remote days as A, B, AB, or Full Remote students. However that is by far not the majority. Most of my students who come to in-person learning as A, B, or AB students do not do any work on their remote learning days. This means that when I see them the following week, they have not advanced in their coursework and are not prepared to continue to build on the concepts we are learning about in class. It is heartbreaking for me when these students reappear as deers in the headlights, clearly lost and overwhelmed. It is also extremely frustrating as their teacher when I want to explore and elaborate, but students feel rushed and voice their confusion. Because of the synchronous learning schedule we have adopted as a district, I feel pressured to continue pushing forward. With so many different cohorts and levels of engagement with the students, it has been challenging to meet all of their needs. Some students are committed and keeping pace, others are missing up to three days of instruction a week and need significant amounts of reteaching. It has been hard to find a balance.

The safety measures in place cannot protect us completely, although positive cases and community spread seem “low.” It’s hard to say exactly because there is a lack of transparency at my school regarding positive cases, infections, and quarantines with respect to staff and students. There is no information given to us about students, and information about infections between staff and teachers has to be deduced from vague communications. I’m aware of at least four positive cases of teachers between Thanksgiving break and early January. There was a supposed cluster of infected 6th grade teachers, but again I don’t know. I only know that on a given day there can be sub coverage for between 5 and 10 teachers (of about 40). The district is a little more transparent with the numbers. For example, the week ending 2/12/21, there were 7 new positive cases at my school. The week before, ending 2/5/21, there were 5 new positive cases. In total, there have been 57 new positive cases in the 7 middle schools in my district during the first two weeks of February. 

I hope I have painted a clear picture for you of the class sizes and cohorts I am working with during this phase of teaching during the pandemic. I look forward to sharing more with you about the logistics of teaching during a pandemic in my upcoming posts in this series. Thank you for reading, and let me know your thoughts or what else you are interested in reading about by adding a comment.

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

2 thoughts on “Class Sizes and Cohorts in a Pandemic

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