Tricia Martin’s fiancé made fun of her last spring for buying and arranging everything early for their October wedding.
Facing the COVID-19 crisis, the Socastee High English teacher wasn’t taking any chances.
“Now, if I had not done that, we probably wouldn’t be able to have an actual wedding,” she said. “I have not had time for wedding stuff.”
Martin, who has been teaching for 29 years, feels overwhelmed with the workload weighing on her and other Horry County Schools teachers.
Teachers now have to be in class earlier and stay later, and she said they were asked to download a message board app to their phones as well as Google Voice, which gives parents the ability to call or text anytime because it goes to their personal cell phones.
“We have to be in our rooms at 7:45 a.m. to babysit our students until 8:25 a.m,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to get work done. Some teachers are having to watch other teacher’s classes during their planning periods because [substitutes] are hard to find.”
But from the beginning, she said her administration and guidance at SHS “has been amazing.”
“I have heard the same thing from other English high school teachers across the county [about their administration],” Martin said. “But I feel part of the problem is with communication and preparedness.”
She said she knows it could not be helped that teachers didn’t know what model they would be using until the last minute, and she felt teachers should have come back in August as normal to begin preparations.
Over the summer, school district officials gave parents a choice: their children could return to schools for in-person instruction or enroll in a virtual program. Since the first day of school on Sept. 8, students attending physical schools have followed a hybrid format with two days a week in a classroom and three days at home with distance learning.
Using guidelines from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), HCS in-person students will attend classes this way through the end of next week. More than 14,000 students in the district signed up for HCS Virtual K-12 through the district, according to HCS officials.
Earlier this summer, S.C Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and her AccelerateEd planning group said that teachers would not be made to teach virtual classes and face-to-face classes in the same day.
Edi Cox, the school district’s executive director of online learning and instructional technology, said the district’s interpretation of that guidance meant that teachers should not be asked to simultaneously be responsible for teaching students face-to-face while also live streaming lessons for students assigned to distance learning on any given day.
“Ideally, all teachers in a full-time virtual program would be full-time,” Cox said. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to do this considering the magnitude of the program and the instructional needs of our brick-and-mortar schools.”
Once Martin agreed to take on virtual students, she was initially told that it would involve keeping up with students, keeping them on track, as well as communicating with parents.
Due to the high number of HCS Virtual students, a few teachers at Martin’s school were asked to teach one virtual class and two face-to-face classes, including Martin.
“I specifically asked about having 50 students because we had been told that was the cap,” Martin said, and her administration said they would not have that many.
Cox did not comment on whether a cap on students was put in place, but said “the teacher-pupil ratio varies widely among grade levels and courses.”
Martin reiterated that she knows her administration was honest with her, and school staff told Martin and her colleagues what they believed to be true at the moment, but what she was told turned out to be false.
She eventually had 52 virtual students, and one other colleague had as many as 65. Other teachers on social media mention virtual class sizes over 100.
“Some class sizes are larger than anticipated,” Cox said. “While many assignments are computer-graded, HCS Virtual teachers are expected to grade assignments that are unable to be graded by the computer. HCS Virtual has never indicated otherwise.”
The first English assignment, ironically, was collaboration.
“So, between calling parents and answering emails from students about how to do a collaboration piece when they don’t even know who is in the class, last Wednesday virtual teachers were told to stop calling parents because rosters would be straight by Friday,” Martin said. “Parents were not told that teachers were told to stop calling.”
She emailed all of her parents and was able to call about half of them, but she said it has only gone downhill from there.
Last Thursday, Martin was told they had to do MAP testing with all of their virtual students. That assessment lets teachers know what the students have retained from the previous school year or semester. Sometimes, MAP results determine if students are eligible for gifted and talented classes.
It isn’t usually used for high schoolers, Martin said, but she thought maybe it was being given to everyone to see where they were because students have been out of the classroom since March.
They were trained Friday, in between having to juggle distance learning for their face-to-face students and preparing Google Classroom for others.
“Of course, the hybrid face-to-face class schedule is also a new experience we are learning along the way,” Martin said.
Over the weekend, she started receiving alerts that there was work to be graded for her virtual students, including short answers, essays and paragraphs that had to be graded by the English teacher.
“I graded Saturday and Sunday afternoons,” Martin said.
MAP testing began Monday. Martin credited two district employees who she said were supportive, consistently answering her emails and questions.
Martin made it through MAP, but Tuesday was another story.
“Of course, there were massive problems – my email going crazy, I can’t get in, I have a white screen, it kicked me out,” Martin said.
Another upsetting event took place when her classroom’s Google Meet was “hacked by a flash mob” that entered the Meet and said vulgar, suggestive things in front of everyone.
“I went to my principal crying. It was horrible,” Martin said, noting she heard she was not the only teacher in the district who dealt with a similar hacking.
Last Monday, the school board announced that students in HCS Virtual would have a small four-day window to request a transfer back to brick-and-mortar schools. Approvals for that transfer would be made according to available space in those students’ base schools, and over 3,000 students requested to make the move.
“Now students can change their minds. As far as the teachers around me, we are full in our classes with social distancing,” Martin said. “I have 13 [in both Group A and B]. I can’t fit any more students in class and maintain social distancing.”
Cox said that while the first week of HCS Virtual was to ensure successful logins, and week two was for state-mandated assessments like MAP, week three would be different.
“As we approach week three, our goal is for teachers and students to get into a weekly routine that is consistent throughout the semester,” Cox said.
Martin said there is no teacher lunch break, and they have lunch in the rooms with the students with no masks while eating. She is thankful her third block class (which includes lunch) is virtual, although she said some days, she skips lunch.
“I am so busy with them,” she said. “They are so sweet and full of questions. They are freshmen and need to know there is someone on the other side of that screen who cares and is listening.”
Her schedule is hectic.
“I drive home with my phone chirping for school stuff,” she said. “I sit down in my dining room and grade work, answer questions from my hybrid students. I cook dinner, but honestly since school has started, DoorDash [meal delivery] is my friend. I make myself close up my computer at 8 p.m. I can’t silence my phone due to my mom being in a nursing home. I get dings when students turn in work. I don’t sleep well. I have bad dreams. I think about a student and wonder, ‘Did I get that done for him or her?’”
Last Wednesday, she got word that MAP testing was being extended to help students who missed or had problems, and students could make arrangements to take it the next morning or Friday.
“It makes teachers look like we don’t know what the heck is going on,” Martin said.
Morale among the teachers isn’t great, she said, but they are supporting each other.
“We are keeping each other going,” she said. “We are sharing what we learn … sharing what went wrong and how some things were fixed.”
Martin is quick to thank parents for their support during this rough time, saying that parents blaming teachers for the problems is definitely in the minority.
“I have had emails in the last week that have made me happy-cry, from both parents and students,” she said. “We know things are not perfect. We are honestly working as hard as we can. We are very thankful for those parents and students who are being so kind, supportive and patient. Also, if we tell you one thing today and another thing tomorrow, it isn’t us. It is coming to us way above the schools.”
Martin noted that this confusion is rare, because Horry County Schools is usually on top of things.
“However, they have dropped the ball,” she said. “I am disappointed and keep thinking if I can get through this week, next week will be better.”
She loves her students and loves her profession, but now she said she is grading nights, mornings, and weekends.
“I am exhausted and I hurt to my bones,” Martin said.
Her children are older and on their own, but she feels for those educators with young families.
“I don’t know how a teacher with young kids is able to keep up this pace,” she said. “My heart really goes out to them, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to speak up. I feel the school, meaning teachers, guidance, admin and staff, are being thrown under the bus and we are the ones working the hardest.”
Martin originally planned to get married over fall break, so she would only miss two days with her students, but she worries about the fact that now without the break, she will be away for four days.
“I offered to at least keep up with my virtual kids,” she said. “[The principal] very nicely told me no. He didn’t want me to do that on my honeymoon.”