Can Schools Return to Normal?

Can Schools Return to Normal?
In recent few years—partly due to the tumult brought on by Covid, but not exclusively—some things have changed in drastic and troubling ways at local schools. In the image, Fresno High School Building. Photo by Peter Maiden

So what’s been happening inside the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD)? What do teachers experience on the job nowadays, and what’s changed over the past few years?

In recent few years—partly due to the tumult brought on by Covid, but not exclusively—some things have changed in drastic and troubling ways.

In a January 2022 Community Alliance article, “The Decay of FUSD,” instructors made some memorable comments:

“I’ve never worked for such inept people before.”

“When we got back to school in August [2021], it was as if the administration was making it up as they went along.”

“[These days] I go to my job and I can’t teach my subject.”

“This is the worst year that I’ve ever had as a teacher.”

Given a few disturbing news articles that have appeared since January—about raucous school board sessions and the district’s dilatory installation of effective air filters in its classrooms—it seemed like a good time to revisit the instructors from the January article to get their insights on where the district has been and where it is now.

There is some good news. One of my interlocutors was quick to praise the district for making it easy for its employees, credentialed and classified alike, to get Covid shots if they so desired. In addition, by far the majority of students have donned and worn masks when asked to do so.

One teacher also praised the district’s reaction to the TikTok bathroom challenge that hit the digital world last September. Students were urged to trash their school bathrooms, take pictures of their work and then put those pictures online; the district leadership was quick to condemn such incidents and warn that they’d lead to severe consequences.

And yet the picture these teachers provided was far from positive overall. One thing that came up repeatedly—and something that both administrators and faculty members are continuing to grapple with—is what one teacher called the “low energy” of many students.

As he put it, the months of distance learning that students went through “wasn’t real” for them, and many have had a rough time transitioning back to face-to-face education. Some symptoms of this malaise: less participation in class discussions and activities, a diminished willingness to complete in-class assignments and homework, fewer active members in campus clubs and sports, and an increase in incidents of cheating.

The wonders of the digital world have a dark side, one that includes the way that phones can facilitate ways to game the learning system.

This is a problem that all stakeholders will need to work on for quite a while. There’s no panacea that will solve it completely. Something that could play a role: learning environments that are perceived to be safe and that promote and enforce clearly articulated expectations.

And this sort of environment is often lacking in the district’s classrooms nowadays.

It was only a decade or so ago that FUSD touted an admirable goal: to prepare its charges to be college- and/or career-ready upon graduation. Bolstering this effort was the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination), which guaranteed that graduating seniors had acquired a basic (some would argue too basic) competence in writing and math skills.

Rules governing expectations for student behavior—the dress code, tardies, attendance—were also enforced, not that long ago, in a fairly robust way. Efforts were made to limit cell phone use in classrooms, although these were never completely successful.

When the author’s high school was being evaluated one year, for example, the accreditation team dinged the school because the team had observed too much nonacademic use of phones in many classrooms. In subsequent schoolwide meetings, school leadership asked faculty to focus on that to ensure accreditation in the future.

Several years ago, FUSD instituted a strict policy regarding unexcused absences, mandating for a while that students who had acquired seven unexcused absences in a class would receive a failing grade in that class.

Flash forward to the spring of 2022, and it’s apparent that the district has undergone a paradigm shift, one affecting expectations of both academic performance and student behavior. This shift started before the challenges of Covid, but the pandemic and its consequences have accelerated it.

Over the past several years, many teachers have observed a significant move away from an emphasis on academic achievement. California phased out the CAHSEE exam in 2015, and no test has emerged to take its place.

Students can now graduate from high school without having to demonstrate basic competence in core academic areas like writing and math. The pressure once placed on schools to ensure these fundamental skills has dwindled—to the detriment of learning.

Another symptom of this development: the ongoing pressure put on teachers to give fewer D’s and F’s, or perhaps, as some administrators have begun to argue, to do away with failing grades altogether.

“The question that’s posed repeatedly in staff meetings is ‘What can teachers do to raise student grades?’” one veteran instructor said. “The question is never ‘What can students do to improve their grades?’”

In three of her sections this year, fewer than 10 students were earning passing grades despite her efforts to give them extra learning opportunities.

The result of this type of pressure from above? As another teacher put it, “I’ve had to lower expectations.”

Earlier in this school year, the district lengthened the school day by 30 minutes, ostensibly to help students make up for the educational progress that they forfeited during the months of distance learning. The irony here, of course, is that if expectations have been lowered—and passing grades don’t have the luster that they once enjoyed—then students won’t in fact be recovering from the educational slump that the pandemic provoked.

At the staff meetings attended by the interviewees, little time is spent on academics. Students’ social and emotional needs have become a significant concern—an important issue, to be sure, but one that’s virtually eclipsed FUSD’s previous mandate to promote college and career readiness.

“We get the impression that the administration downtown is indifferent to academics,” noted one teacher. 

The district’s message to teachers at the start of this school year, according to several sources, was to welcome students back to the campus and help them feel comfortable again in face-to-face instructional settings. This might be one reason why enforcement of official tardy and dress code policies became lax—even more than they’d been right before Covid.

Administrators at one site announced in January that they’d soon begin tardy sweeps and initiate measures to enforce the dress code, but they haven’t followed through on those plans, and nothing much has improved there this semester.

Most troubling in some ways is the continuing blight of nonacademic cell phone use during class time. Though some sites are working consistently to rein in such activity, such efforts are pretty much nonexistent elsewhere in FUSD.

At one school, for example, teachers who now take a phone away from a student are admonished for “exacerbating” a situation. In effect, they’re remonstrated for trying to enforce a no cell phone policy.

In higher grade levels, many classes are now presented on Microsoft Teams so that quarantined students can keep up with their peers, and students are asked to work on their assignments electronically. Some use tablets, others use their phones, and both devices present opportunities for taking digital detours.

“I have to continually prowl around the room to ‘encourage’ students to stay on the correct site,” one person told me. “For some of the kids, I think it’s just a game of waiting until I pass, then switching, with the reverse happening as I approach.”

Consequences for student misconduct have been trimmed back. At one site, an administration e-mail told the faculty that they should no longer send students to the office for Tier I or Tier II offenses—things like not following teaching requests.

A substitute teacher unfamiliar with this directive phoned the office about such a situation. A member of the campus security team came to the classroom, lectured the student and then left. The student in question experienced no palpable consequences for his actions.

In another instance, a vice-principal entered a classroom where several students were using their phones indiscriminately. They knew who he was but didn’t put their phones away. It didn’t matter to them, an instructor told me: “The kids knew that nothing would happen.”

No improvement in this situation appears likely in the near future. At this point, “we can’t entertain a discussion about banning cell phones in class.”

Although students are “back” in school, it’s hardly the school experience that they had prior to the onset of Covid, much less what they were offered when the high school exit exam was still in place.

“Students need to get back to a normal system,” one teacher told me. “We need to get back to pre-Covid expectations.”

His fervent hope: “The district needs to send a strong academic message about the coming school year.”


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