Students learn about science in the garden at Independence High School. Photo courtesy of Anastasia Klafter.

When teachers at Independence High School found out that the district planned for students struggling with online learning to do “Zoom in a room” when they returned — taking virtual classes from teachers while sitting in a schoolroom — they sprung into action.

Led by math teacher AJ Johnstone, the teachers approached the school’s administration, offered to return to school and developed a plan to shuffle students’ schedules that would allow teachers to run both distance learning and in-person classes.

The outcome? The 50 returning students are back, and they’re loving it.

“It’s been great. Really great,” Johnstone said. “Kids who haven’t ever logged into a Zoom class are coming to school. We’re relearning how to work, and talk and take risks with each other again.”

But this is not how the return to school is going for the approximately 2,000 secondary school students of the 5,000 students eligible to return as a part of the district’s “Phase 2B” of reopening. This group is comprised of homeless and foster youth, students in public housing, newcomers and students who have attended less than 40 percent of their online classes. 

The majority of these students, who are from populations with the lowest attendance rates and well-being reports, are instead doing Zoom in a room for their last few weeks of school. The district officially refers to this setup as a “blended instructional model,” where students remain in remote classes with their teachers while receiving in-person support from another staff member at the school.

Actual in-person learning is a unique casualty of the district’s partial return. The return gives at-risk populations some form of in-person support and socialization. But, because in most cases the 2B students are spread across hundreds of class sections, it would be difficult for teachers to split their time instructing only a few students in person while also helping the rest in distance learning. 

“That model is not ideal for anyone,” said Independence principal Anastasia Klafter. “And the big schools will tell you the same as I will tell you: that we would rather have kids in classes.”

As an alternative school in the SFUSD system, Independence was able to make the return work by moving kids to different classes or combining groups to make large enough cohorts to justify in-person instruction. But larger, traditional schools have less flexibility to make such swaps. 

Students at Independence are also taking two longer classes instead of four or six shorter ones, making consolidation easier — for instance, a humanities teacher might teach their in-person cohort in the morning and their distance learners in the afternoon, while a science teacher working with the same group of kids does the opposite.

Zoom in a room is not a setup that only affects Phase 2B learners. Some students in pre-kindergarten through fifth who fully returned in Phase 2A are also experiencing Zoom in a room, because about 500 educators requested medical exemptions to not teach in person. And, much to the chagrin of parents and students, other school districts across the country, such as New York and Los Angeles, are also experimenting with blended instructional models.

In response to a question about how many of the returning students are experiencing Zoom in a room, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick wrote that “It looks different in different classrooms given that there are many variables, including what programs students are a part of, how many staff assigned to serve a group of students are able to return to teaching in person or who received accommodations to continue to teach remotely.”

A spokesperson for school reopening advocacy group Decreasing the Distance said a majority of kids returning in the priority groups are returning to Zoom in a Room. The exceptions are newcomer and special education students who are not dispersed through multiple classes with non-returning students.

At Mission High, physics teacher Andrew Libson said students returning there got Zoom in a room — “Mask, headsets and computers. Like a giant telemarketing center or something,” he said.

Most students, he said, took down any plexiglass barriers that were put up. While students might not like being on computers, some appreciate the chance to socialize and see their friends, he added. But for students not surrounded by a friend group, many went back to distance learning at home.

“I am not a fan of this approach,” he said. “But I do see that it represents less isolation for some of our students.”

With about three weeks left in the school year, it’s unlikely that, for many students experiencing blended learning, their situations will change.

But the kids at Independence are very happy.

Mira Raykova, a science teacher, said when her students returned, they spurned their phones and computers and requested she print out their worksheets, since they were so excited to be back in person. 

She’s integrating hands-on activities as much as she can, running classes in the school’s garden where students plant fava beans, clear weeds and learn about the organisms that live there — “No one even went to the bathroom or made an excuse to sit down.”

“They were students who never logged in or logged in once for the whole year,” she added. “It’s now a whole different story.”

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Kate Selig

Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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