Does it count? School hybrid models run afoul of mandated minimum instruction time

  • Lucinda Snyder, 9, studies at the kitchen table of her father’s home in Hillsborough.

  • Kristin Doyle gets her twins, Bradley (left) and Jackson started on their homework at the family dining room table on Thursday, October 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Twins Bradley (left) and Jackson Doyle play with their older sister Abigail in their family room in Pembroke before the three settle into their afternoon homework on Thursday. Below: Abigail logs into class on her laptop at home. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bradley (left) and Jackson Doyle work with their mother as their older sister Abigail studies in their Pembroke dining room. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Abigail Doyle, 10, works on her school computer at the dining room table in their Pembroke home on Thursday, October 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Twins Bradley (left) and Jackson Doyle work with their mother as their older sister Abigail Doyle work at the family dining room in Pembroke on Thursday, October 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jackson Doyle plays with his older sister Abigail Doyle before they do their homework in the family dining room in Pembroke on Thursday, October 29, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor Staff
Published: 10/31/2020 1:09:28 PM

Nine-year-old Lucinda Snyder of Hillsboro loved school last year.

Lucinda, who has a budding interest in science and a zealous curiosity about the way the world works, enjoyed her combined third and fourth grade class at Henniker Community School, where she could interact with the other students and with her favorite classroom teacher.

But this year, Lucinda’s average school day is spent at home, doing work remotely from either her mom’s house or her dad’s house. While her eagerness to learn is as strong as ever, her mother, Ally Snyder, says Lucinda has been struggling with boredom during remote learning and with the lack of social interaction.

Lucinda’s remote learning is a mix of face-to-face lessons with a teacher on a computer screen and independent solo work time.

“Usually in school, when we are actually in the classroom, we’d go off alone in our own spot and we’d work but we’d be able to hear when the teacher calls and says it’s time to come back to our desks and interact with everybody,” Lucinda said. “But in home school, we’re going off and working alone. Sometimes we just turn our camera off and go do it but still be in the meeting, but usually we go off the meeting.”

The actual number of instruction hours when she is face to face with a teacher is a fraction of what it was last year. The decrease in instruction hours is a common problem in school districts across the state and runs afoul of a state mandate that students need to be in front of a teacher for close to 1,000 hours for a school year to meet minimum standards. COVID-19 is changing what New Hampshire defines as an adequate education.

Henniker Community School gives students the option of being fully in-person or being in a fully remote class that is combined with students from the Stoddard and Weare elementary schools. Both Lucinda’s teachers come from other schools, and there are only three or four students in her Zoom classes that she recognizes.

She also says it’s been harder to get feedback.

“When we’re in the classroom, we can raise our hands and get help from the teacher, but when we’re not, we can’t have any help with spelling or knowing what something means,” Lucinda said. “In real school, you could meet with the teachers and stuff, like right after class. But if you have something that you want to talk about with the teachers in remote learning, usually you have to wait until Tuesday or Friday.”

For New Hampshire students, instruction looks different this year, and the state Department of Education is allowing school districts a lot of flexibility in deciding what counts toward state-mandated instruction time.

New Hampshire law requires a minimum of 990 hours of instruction time for middle and high schools, 945 for elementary schools and 450 for kindergarten. It can also be counted as 180 days.

Before the pandemic, that time referred to hours students were in school, attending class and learning. Homeroom periods, snack and lunch breaks and passing time are subtracted from those hours because it isn’t considered instruction by the state.

The required number of instruction hours has not changed. But now that many schools are using some form of remote or hybrid learning, the New Hampshire Department of Education is allowing districts to be much more flexible in how they define “instruction.”

The Department of Education released a guide for schools in October that revises the definition of instruction time to mean “the period of time during which pupils are actively working toward achieving educational objectives under the supervision or an educator or other staff member.”

Nate Green, administrator for the Department of Education’s Bureau of Educational Opportunities, works directly with school districts to help them follow the state’s instruction requirements during the pandemic. Sometimes districts reach out to him with schedules to see if they fit the new definitions.

“There is quite a bit of flexibility,” Green said. “What I’m looking for is, what is the level of instruction and communication, and what is the level of engagement? Are students progressing through the curriculum in a way that would normally progress through the curriculum if they were in the classroom?”

The way the N.H. Department of Education is now defining it, an instruction hour could be a live video class, where a teacher conducts a lesson with students over Zoom or Google Hangouts. But it could also be time spent on independent work, where a student does an activity sheet assigned by the teacher on their own.

“We can’t just hand them a pack of work and say, ‘see you in a month,’ ” Green said. “But I think there are many ways an asynchronous class can work. I would say if those students still have access to resources and services at the school, whether that means being able to send an email to the teacher or reaching out to support staff, then certainly.”

According to Department of Education’s October guidelines, the availability of resources is what makes hours count as remote learning.

The guideline sheet reads: “A good demarcation, particularly for circumstances when students will be working independently, is the availability of an educator or staff member to respond to questions. We want to avoid circumstances where students are assigned work to do without supervision to support them in the event they get stuck or have questions.”

Abigail Doyle, 10, of Pembroke, only interacts with her teachers every other day in the hybrid model.

Abigail is in fifth grade at Three Rivers School, which is using a hybrid model that has her in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and learning remotely on Wednesdays and Fridays. She and her younger twin brothers, Jackson and Bradley, age 8, do their remote learning at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Suncook.

For Abigail, remote days are full days of solo work time, completing worksheets and assignments on Google classroom. The Boys and Girls Club provides a structured day of supervision for the kids that includes food breaks and movement activities, but it does not provide instruction. Abigail doesn’t receive any live lessons on remote days, because her teachers are busy teaching the other cohort of students.

“I like having a whole day of doing schoolwork,” Abigail said. “Sometimes I get the whole weekend too, because I have Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It feels kind of like when I’m at school but just doing homework.”

Jackson and Bradley, who are in second grade at Pembroke Hill School, use Seesaw as their remote learning platform, and have some live video interaction with their teachers on hybrid days. They both said they like being back in the classroom two days a week, but sometimes have trouble with the masks and the distancing rules.

Their mother, Kristin Doyle, said the biggest challenge for the family is finding time to fix the students’ work at the end of the school day.

“They go to the club, they do their work and we come home and we check their work. A lot of the times the teacher has returned the work back because the kids misunderstood something or they didn’t complete it entirely, and then we end up having to finish up the work at home,” Doyle said.

According to Green, the defining characteristic of instruction time during COVID-19 is communication and resources: if a student could, theoretically, reach out to a teacher or get services from the school during that time, it counts as an instruction hour, Green said.

“For many districts it’s that engagement piece,” Green said. “It becomes more about schools providing more interaction with teachers in addition to providing work that is rigorous and high-quality.”

The Department of Education is working with schools to advise them on how to achieve the correct number of instruction hours, but for the most part, districts are holding themselves accountable for meeting the requirements. The state approved district schedules at the beginning of the school year according to the usual protocol, but this year is unpredictable, as schools may be forced to deviate from those pre-approved schedules due to COVID-19.

Green says he suspects there will be some type of state review at the end of the year, to take stock of how the year went and to see if each district met its requirements.

Some schools have missed instruction hours already this year, due to the pandemic. Harold Martin Elementary School in Hopkinton canceled classes on Oct. 13 after two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and the school was not prepared to pivot immediately to remote learning.

However, in cases like this, schools have a safety net: according to state law, all schools are required to schedule an extra 60 hours of instruction time to use in case of snow days or other unexpected circumstances. Green said schools can make up for pandemic-related loss of instruction hours by using that snow day reserve.

Lucinda Snyder is looking forward to being able to return to school in the future, but in the meantime she is getting used to her remote learning schedule.

Her mom, Ally Snyder, says COVID-19 has allowed more time for Lucinda to pursue learning outside of school. The latest thing she’s become interested in is inventing a cell phone battery that doesn’t need to be charged.

“We go to the library all the time and they picked out some books for her on electricity and batteries, and she is just plowing through that stuff and exploring her own interests,” Snyder said. “That’s actually been because of coronavirus. We wouldn’t have had time to do that otherwise.”




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