Flagstaff Unified School District Chose One-On-One Instruction Over Virtual Group Classes. Here's Why

By Jill Ryan
Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 8:35am
Updated: Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 8:40am

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laptop surrounded by school supplies

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools across Arizona to rethink their teaching methods. Some schools turned to Zoom and virtual group teaching, but the Flagstaff Unified School District took a different approach.

When the routine of sending kids off to school shattered, in came distance learning. But the Flagstaff district became increasingly concerned with how to balance student privacy as Zoom and other video conferencing software became commonplace. 

Flagstaff Education Association President and English teacher Derek Born says the district decided to have students work alone and have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with their teachers; but not in groups. At first, he wasn’t happy with the decision not to use Zoom but he says ethical issues arose because of the district's diverse economic class. He says worst-case scenario students in tough family situations, extreme poverty or experiencing homelessness or even abuse, could reveal that environment to their classmates if left on Zoom in a group setting. 

“Eventually some horrible thing is going to be revealed and not only could it be a FERPA privacy violation on our part potentially, but [it would reveal] potentially damaging information about a child to their peers," Born said.

Zoom room
Harry Croton/KJZZ
Many Arizona schools opted to use Zoom to create virtual group classrooms.

FERPA stands for the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the act doesn’t prohibit virtual group classes but Flagstaff Unified spokesperson Zachery Fountain says the district is also concerned with possible violations of their technology-use contracts.

“And so we made the decision that we were going to do the one-on-one conversations as we needed to be able to coordinate with the parents and then also respect the privacy of their homes," Fountain said.

Students instead are either virtually sent their work from their individual teachers or they can go to the district’s newly built Digital Learning Hub. Fountain says the Hub is baseline content and resources for students and family to access. It is categorized by grade level, program and name of resource. 

“I think it would be helpful and important for them to be able to see and hear their teachers,” parent, Heidi Mortensen, said.

Mortensen, who has two kids in the district, she says online learning is no replacement for an actual teacher in the classroom. She adds that this new system of learning asks a lot from parents. And if online learning continues, parental participation will be necessary for kids to get the quality of education that they need. Other parents, like Glynis Bustamante, agree.

“My children need to be in a school learning, and it’s definitely been hard as a parent to help them. I think they learn better when someone else is trying to teach them and encourage them,”Bustamante said.

Her son, Zach, a seventh-grader, also finds the experience stressful.

“I feel like when you’re in a classroom you can talk to your teacher whenever you want, but with online learning when you want to ask a question, you have to send them an email or something like that, it’s just a lot more difficult to do that,” Zach said.

But in the Flagstaff district, at least for now, student grades can only go up. Bustamante has two sons, Zach and Lukas, and their third-quarter grades are locked in as the minimum grade they can get. Until school lets out for summer, any work they may complete that helps raise their grade will. And Bustamante says it’s helping motivate her kids to do the online work.  

“I’m obviously glad they’re not going to be lowering the grades because I think that would be definitely hard on the children, with what’s going on, it would be even worse. But I think that’s fair that they have the opportunity to improve their grade from the third quarter.” Bustamante said. 

Mortensen agrees, but she says that if the virus had happened at any other point in the school year, or if it continues into the fall, she will begin to worry about how that policy will impact her kids and other kids’ futures. 

“If it does have to stay virtual or go back to virtual at some point and it’s not the end of the year, I mean my kids aren’t in high school and but grades are really important,” Mortensen said.

District spokesperson Fountain says the district decided to keep third-quarter grades and essentially make further work optional because of guidance given by the Arizona Department of Education.

The Department of Education says it has urged schools not to be punitive against the students, and grades were one way that advice was interpreted. In Flagstaff, physical education is optional.

Wendy Hunter is a gym teacher without a gym, but she, and other PE and fine arts teachers from across the district, created weekly challenge videos and activities for her kids to try. She teaches kindergarten through fifth grade, but so far, only two students have posted videos.

Regardless, she says the district made the right decision to make the work optional for the rest of the year, and also acknowledges students who are without internet access.

"I miss school a lot, and I really want to go back, but I know we can’t until next year."
— Lukas, Flagstaff fifth-grader

"And so if the kids can [do the work online], they do. If they can’t, they can be provided paper resources but they haven’t been directly from me,” Hunter said.

That is because those students will get hard copy lesson plans from the Digital Learning Hub, and Hunter is only responsible for writing one week’s lesson plan for PE as she shares the planning with other gym teachers in the district. Born says that the catch is these packets aren’t accepted back, “because of concerns of contamination.” 

But with only about a month left, Bustamante and her son, fifth-grader Lukas, hope that school can return to normal soon.

“I miss school a lot, and I really want to go back, but I know we can’t until next year," Lukas said. 

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