If anything was worse than students and teachers trying to communicate about fractions or phonics over Zoom because of the pandemic, it was a version of school where half the students sat in the classroom while the rest stared at a screen from home.
That mix of one teacher with two sets of students — one group physically in the classroom, the second trying to follow along remotely — was quickly dubbed “hybrid teaching” and was adopted far, wide and fast. It was rolled out during the 2020-21 school year as a Covid-safe answer to the pressure for in-person instruction.
At first, hybrid teaching — also called concurrent or simultaneous teaching — was seen as something of a relief. For parents and students, after months of screen-only schooling, the cautious cracking open of schoolhouse doors, even for as little as two days a week, was a welcome release. Splitting classes in two offered a sense of safety — fewer students in each class meant kids could spread out and social-distance — even if the constant shifting of students from home to school and back concerned some public health experts. For school districts, it was a step toward normalcy for a legion of kids who were floundering or failing, or whose mental health was deteriorating. It also provided an answer to intense pressure from the White House, governors, state lawmakers and parents to reopen school buildings.
But teachers, for whom hybrid was the second or third iteration of pandemic teaching, found juggling students in person and online at the same time to be a near-impossible act. Many didn’t have the technology that would allow them to rove the classroom among in-person students while also allowing online students to continue to see and hear them as they walked. Lessons had to be reinvented to simultaneously make sense for two distinct sets of kids. Despite nicknames — Roomies and Zoomies, for instance — working in small groups or teams felt stilted. The challenges of all-virtual lessons, such as making sure students at home turned their cameras on and weren’t playing Xbox in the middle of algebra, remained, as did spotty internet access and a lack of laptops or tablets.
Most teachers saw it as the worst of both options, and hated it almost instantly. Nearly two years into the pandemic, hybrid classes have been largely locked back into the pandemic toolbox and most schools are open for full-time in-person classes. But a quieter war over hybrid teaching is still underway.
Across the country, teachers are seeking assurances that they won’t ever have to manage a mixed classroom again. In Mankato, Minn., for instance, teachers baked a provision banning hybrid teaching into their new contract with the school district, settled in October.
“Teachers will never have to do that again,” said Linda Wensel, president of the Mankato teachers union. “How do we know there won’t be another pandemic? How do we know there won’t be another variant?”
But state and district leaders learned two intriguing lessons from their forced experiments with hybrid instruction. First, that despite the difficulties, it actually was possible to teach students in person and virtually at the same time. And second, that a subset of students and parents actually preferred the flexibility of learning from home, at least some of the time.
Now, with school systems facing declining enrollments, at least some want to continue to offer alternatives to a one-size-fits-all form of school for students who prefer it. One in 10 school districts surveyed by the Rand Corporation policy think tank said they plan to continue hybrid or blended learning after the pandemic, and one in five already have made virtual classes permanent, or will. And schools are reluctant to close off any teaching option completely, especially as the health crisis keeps evolving.
The tension between teachers and districts over hybrid instruction is rising at a critical time, when the pressure is on teachers to make up for an education interrupted by the pandemic, and pressure is also on districts to keep the students they have and lure back those who have left — sometimes with a shrinking labor force to deploy.
But it’s also a dispute about the future of education, about the role technology will play in teaching and learning. Other parts of the economy and society changed how they operated during the pandemic, embracing the benefits while working to mitigate the downsides.
“If we pretend that technology is going to go away anytime soon, all that does is rob our young people of the opportunity to practice the skills they’ll need to be effective leaders in the future,” said Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, who worked at the Education Department during the Obama administration. “The thought that we should limit students to engage with only the experts in their school is such an outdated model.”
The pandemic pushed the gas pedal on innovation in public education, forcing the system to grapple with the promise and problems of technology. It also laid bare issues about internet and hardware access that went unaddressed for years.
Now, online learning — whether entirely virtual or some hybrid version — is here to stay. Despite all of the shortcomings, it holds huge promise: for students with specific types of disabilities, for kids who face bullying, for older students who work and go to school, for parents still worried about safety or who have seen their kids blossom, and for many others.
Even if the pandemic version of these classes wasn’t optimal, other applications could be better, much better. Education leaders believe they could reinvent the way high school students take classes, for example. And for students for whom online lessons actually were effective, being able to tap into live classes offers a way to stay connected to peers. Concurrent classes also create an opportunity to reimagine the school day and school week.
School system leaders can’t and don’t want to limit that potential.
“I think we’re just at our infancy in terms of how we’re going to use technology in the future and have, really, schools without walls,” said Gustavo Balderas, the superintendent of the Edmonds School District in Washington state. “Kids that maybe have to be, for example, homeschooled for very specific courses or they’re ill or there’s a weather issue happening — we can quickly flip and kids would still be able to access the proper curriculum with a live teacher.”
His district, like many, intended to be open entirely in-person for the current school year, but as Covid evolves, so have those plans. One of the frustrations that has come with hybrid teaching is that it hasn’t stuck for long because of health scares that have forced districts to swerve from that format to all virtual and back again in an endless loop, sometimes with a sprinkling of all in-person classes.
“I just had to close down a school last week,” he said in late October, during a panel discussion hosted by the Education Writers Association. After taking a day for teachers to plan, “now we’re fully remote for all grades for two weeks.”
Ending that roller coaster but keeping hybrid teaching in the toolbox could make it an easier situation for teachers, especially if the health crisis eventually recedes. He noted, however, that every change in how the district operates requires negotiating with 13 different labor unions in his 22,000-student district.
“Education systems are typically not nimble,” said Balderas.
Culatta, whose book, Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World stresses creating a healthy digital culture, is emphatic that the version of hybrid teaching used in the pandemic was hardly the real or ideal version of the format.
“That’s the biggest bit of confusion as we talk to districts and states and unions,” he said.
He likened it to having a blanket and a tarp if you’re lost in the woods. “That emergency shelter in the woods is not a house,” he said. Districts in the pandemic focused on providing kids with devices and internet access and software to make it all work together. In the strain of the moment, they paid the least attention to training teachers. His organization’s training for teachers is all about using technology to engage students in meaningful ways, not about hardware and software.
Now that schools have done a lot of the hard work on those pieces of hybrid and remote learning, he said, “what would be incredibly stupid is to take this tech foundation that has been created through the pandemic and instead of building a house on it, just cover it up with dirt and say ‘Glad that’s over.’”
Unfortunately, he said, “the reality is there are a lot of districts that are filling in the foundation with dirt again. That’s where I’m really worried.”
That tech-driven future is hard for many teachers to see as the pandemic drags on. Some teachers are losing their jobs for refusing vaccines or masks. Fresh and fervid scrutiny of teaching is leading to censorship and firings. Longstanding problems, including difficulty filling some teaching jobs and other school staff positions, seem worse. Unions are winning salary fights in some places but striking in others, and the pandemic has triggered new conversations about working conditions, including about concurrent teaching.
“Hybrid/virtual teaching creates a ridiculous amount of extra work and stress for teachers,” Louisiana middle school teacher Kristen Avocato tweeted in late August 2020. “Today I have been so busy that I have only had an iced coffee and a single pink starburst for nourishment.”
One survey of teachers earlier this year by Rand found that teachers ranked hybrid teaching as their greatest source of job-related stress, followed by remote teaching and changes in modes of instruction.
“What hasn’t worked is hybrid learning,” Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful national American Federation of Teachers, said in a tweet condemning the practice. “Hybrid is disruptive to parents & educators & kids alike and simultaneous live stream & in school learning is an untenable pedagogical practice.”
In Orange County, Fla., which includes Orlando, the teachers union proposed a clear rule: “Hybrid instruction is not permitted,” a memorandum of understanding reads. “Live stream instruction and cameras in the classroom are not permitted.” A district counterproposal strikes that line. Union and school district negotiations, and any formal freeze on hybrid teaching, are at a standstill over salaries.
While at least a few local unions managed to get concurrent classes taken off the table through short-term agreements with their school districts, those may have no bearing on the long term.
“This is not precedent-setting,” said Kyle Arnone, deputy director of the AFT’s Center for Collective Bargaining. “These are temporary solutions to deal with temporary problems.”
Brad Marianno, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has been tracking these temporary agreements between teachers unions and school districts since just before the pandemic hit.
“I actually expected more school districts to formally negotiate memorandums of agreement around pandemic-related working condition changes than actually did,” he said.
Some school districts tried to anticipate the hardships teachers would face with hybrid teaching and head off frustration. In Minnesota, Mankato shrunk the school day so teachers would have more time during working hours to rewrite lesson plans, and the school district cut out “specials” — activities including art and music. Frederick County, Md., schools also boosted teachers’ planning time by about a third when it shifted to hybrid classes.
Osceola County schools in Central Florida offered extra pay to teachers who took on two sets of kids at once, spending nearly $4 million on 950 teachers over a few months, school district spokesperson Dana Schafer said. They were paid as if they each had added an additional class to their days. By the spring, the district jettisoned hybrid classes — both because most students were coming back to school in person, but also because it was so taxing for teachers.
“Overall, the task of teaching both face-to-face and digital students at the same time proved to be a lot for teachers as they didn't want any group to get shortchanged when it came to support and instruction,” Schafer said.
The Frederick County, Md., teachers union also wanted a ban on hybrid teaching and proposed as much when contract negotiations began earlier this year. Hybrid lessons were the subject of no-confidence votes in the superintendent and school board and led to at least one lawsuit in the district. School administrators agreed only to study the issue. A committee of teachers and school system staff created a report that hasn’t yet been discussed publicly, but the teachers union president said the consensus was to try to avoid hybrid teaching.
“Because you’re doing [simultaneous teaching] — kids at home and kids in person — whatever you’re doing with your class has to be able to be done with your students at home without special materials,” said Missy Dirks, the union president. That was especially tricky for art lessons and science classes and younger students with whom teachers use hands-on tools for almost everything.
Without special equipment, just built-in laptop cameras and microphones, her teachers could not effectively keep tabs on both groups of students, particularly the ones at home.
“You walk away from your laptop but they can’t really hear you,” Dirks said. That means “you can’t assist the in-person kids like you would like to. [Teachers] ended every day feeling like they failed students. Nobody wants to end their day, every day, feeling like that: ‘I’m working twice as much. I’m having to duplicate everything. And I feel half as successful.’”
“It’s just demoralizing.”
If hybrid teaching survives teachers’ pushback and evolves in K-12 schools, it could look something like what’s becoming more common at colleges and universities — something educators have dubbed “HyFlex” instruction.
“Students’ lifestyles require flexible, customizable, technology-enhanced learning opportunities that suit their busy schedules,” SUNY Genesee Community College staffers wrote in a prepandemic guide to HyFlex, or Hybrid-Flexible courses. “Students are no longer constrained by geographical location and can engage in high-quality educational experiences from anywhere, at any time, on any device.”
Brian Beatty, an associate professor of instructional technologies at San Francisco State University, created HyFlex teaching about 15 years ago in part as a way to attract students to niche or small graduate programs. The intention was to provide easy access for students, including working adults, to courses, based on a student’s preference and availability. In an ideal set up, students choose between in-person instruction; live and interactive online classes taught by professors also working with students in-person; or online instruction that isn’t live but can be viewed at any time — what are known as asynchronous classes.
The ideal version allows for a seamless shift between different modes of teaching, with students using any format that works during a given day or week.
“The whole point of this is designing for when students can’t be there in person,” he said.
The HyFlex model “grew up outside of the mainstream from the beginning,” Beatty said. “It requires different things — additional support for students, not to mention the negotiations with unions around workflow changes.”
Beatty, a former high school math and physics teacher, said his original target was an older student who is making the choice for themselves about what works and who likely has no issues using a computer, completing work on their own and keeping track of assignments. He noted that higher education faculty teach in a different way — rarely like the elementary teacher who physically goes from group to group of small children or from child to child to check on how they are doing.
And of course, HyFlex was created long before the pandemic.
“The trauma that we’ve all experienced, that’s a huge factor in all of this,” Beatty said.
When K-12 schools were forced to shift quickly to concurrent classes, the amount of time for training was limited, and what training there was may have felt especially inadequate in places without the right technology. Beatty said schools with extra support — an aide or other staff member, even a parent volunteer — seemed to have more success with hybrid classes.
Some teachers didn’t have extra support or even the basic tools to make virtual and hybrid classes work: Baltimore City teachers recently negotiated a new contract that guarantees access to a school-district issued computer.
“Getting its workers the basic tools they need to do their jobs — we shouldn’t even have to negotiate something like that,” Baltimore City Teachers Union President Diamonté Brown said.
Even with the new agreement, every teacher won’t automatically get a computer. “It’s ‘if requested,’” Brown said. “That’s very problematic for us.”
Public schools are under pandemic-induced pressure to continue to evolve even as their every day financial and functional challenges remain: Nationwide, public school enrollment dropped by about 3 percent by the start of the 2020-21 school year. Homeschooling is more popular than ever. And private schools that remained open to in-person classes attracted parents who could afford them as nearby public schools offered either virtual-only or limited hybrid options for much of the last two years.
Experimentation is in full swing in pockets across the country.
In Frederick County, even as concern over teaching hybrid classes simmers, a number of teachers volunteered for a new option this school year: virtual classes for any student who wanted them.
Before the pandemic, the district generally offered online-only classes for students, especially high school kids, who needed to catch up or retake a course, or who wanted a specialized class their home school couldn’t justify offering because only a few students wanted to take it.
The new “Blended Virtual” program provides remote, but real-time teaching most of the day for students in all grade levels. It requires a smattering of offline work. And it allows kids to participate in extracurricular activities in person at the brick-and-mortar school they would have otherwise attended for classes.
“The Covid-19 pandemic taught us many lessons about ourselves as a community, as leaders, as educators, and as learners,” district administrators wrote in explaining the new program. “All of these successes, combined with the knowledge of the imperative of providing personalized pathways for students, provides us confidence that we can and should do this on a permanent basis.”
With the right kind of incentives, support and tools, teachers have gotten on board.
Blended Virtual middle school science teacher Shabana Sayed told the Frederick News-Post she chose to work in the program after seeing some students succeed with remote learning last school year.
“There are some kids who are really going to thrive with this,” she said. “I wanted to be part of something like that.”
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