“I forgot to spray the chairs,” Bradley Shafer said out loud to himself, as his beginning brass band class took their instruments out of their cases.
“We’re all going to get COVID!” shouted a student, in an unsolicited response.
“No, I doubt it,” Shafer replied.
Shafer, a band teacher at North Layton Junior High School, is among instructors in the Davis School District who had to adjust their curriculum to fit the hybrid schedule the district adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His unique approach to bringing his students together for practice, though, has garnered attention from outside the classroom.
Since schools reopened Aug. 25, the district has operated on an alternating-day attendance model, in which a student’s schedule is determined by the first letter of their last name. Because many schools in the district run on an A-day, B-day system, students attend each of their classes in person once a week.
If students are only playing an instrument once a week, according to Shafer, it’s difficult to grasp how to play.
“With music, it’s repetitive,” he said. “You learn it, and then you repeat it so you always play it right. So the idea is to get them playing as much as possible.”
To encourage his students to practice as often as they should, Shafer devised a plan. He would use Zoom to allow students to come together with their cohorts who have a last name in the other half of the alphabet on their off-days.
“Alright, let’s see who we have joining us today,” Shafer said to the beginning brass class as he projected a Zoom grid on a screen at the front of the classroom.
“Mr. ‘subscribe to thehappyguy,’ you need a real name so that we know you’re not a weird guy stalking us,” Shafer told one of the virtual students, eliciting giggles.
In this class period, Shafer had 12 students learning in person and four of his nine other beginning brass band students log on to Zoom.
“Kids will come in (on Zoom) anywhere from on time to half an hour late, but it doesn’t really matter because if they can get that playing time, it really helps,” Shafer said. “I’ve noticed that the few kids who are doing the Zoom are the ones who are really getting it.”
Shafer asks his students to practice five to seven times per week. Each student fills out a chart on Canvas, an online learning platform used by the district, indicating how many times they played in class, participated in Zoom rehearsals and practiced at home.
As classes like Shafer’s have shifted to a more remote focus, the district has worked to provide students with the resources they need to be engaged while learning off-campus.
All secondary students in the Davis School District have the option of checking out a laptop from their school so they can participate in distance learning. If a household does not have internet service, a student can also request a T-Mobile hot spot from the district.
Even still, Shafer said, there are limitations to students participating in his class via Zoom. So, he doesn’t make it a requirement.
“At home, there’s so much going on they might not have a space to be able to play their instrument, and if they’re sharing a bedroom or they’ve got three or four brothers and sisters doing an online class, there are circumstances that don’t allow it,” he said.
Shafer began using Zoom not as a way to make his class exclusive, but more accessible for students who could not attend.
“I did have a chance to try this during summer band,” he said. “I had a student that had broken his arm and he didn’t want to come because of, well, broken arm. The mom emailed me and said, ‘He still wants to participate.’ I thought, hey I have this idea, let’s see if it works. So he was kind of my guinea pig.”
Nearly four weeks into the school year, Shafer is still working out the kinks.
As he flipped back to Zoom so students could say goodbye to their peers at the end of class, a shy student who had kept his camera off the entire time turned it on to smile and wave. Another student, however, never turned on his camera or microphone at all.
“There are still things we have to work through,” Shafer said.
Any tweaks to his current system, though, will have to be made in the next couple of weeks. The Davis School District Board of Education voted last Tuesday to begin transitioning toward a full in-person schedule. Starting Sept. 28 for elementary schools and Oct. 5 for secondary schools, students will attend class Monday through Thursday.
The move came just days before the state tracked its highest number of new COVID-19 cases yet. The Davis School District, as of Sept. 12, had 93 active cases of the virus.
On Friday, the Utah Education Association sent a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert saying, “the continued lack of state-level accountability and oversight for the implementation of district safety plans remains a serious concern.”
Shafer is worried about the district’s change of course.
“Obviously, the advantages scholastically are great seeing (students) twice a week,” he said. “But under the circumstances, with our health, that’s in my opinion not the best thing right now.”
In a year of unprecedented firsts, the continual changes can take a toll on both students and teachers. For Shafer, they have presented a learning opportunity — but an arduous one, at that.
“This is my 20th year teaching and I feel like a new teacher again because I’m doing so many new things, except I’m 20 years older now and I don’t have the energy to do what I did 20 years ago.”