Most U.S. school districts are currently using “hybrid learning”—a mix of in-person and online instruction. The precise nature of that mix, though, varies greatly from school to school, based on factors including the local rate of COVID-19 transmission, the availability of funds to support new instructional approaches, and the willingness of students and staff to return to buildings.
Many students chose to learn entirely in-person or entirely online this school year. Others are spending a couple days a week in person and the rest at home. Some schools have set aside the bulk of slots for in-person instruction for vulnerable groups like students with special needs, English-language learners, and students experiencing homelessness.
These approaches aren’t static. Increases in COVID-19 spread have forced some schools in hybrid mode to revert back to full-time remote learning, while others started out fully remote and are now slowly transitioning more students to some in-person instruction.
Close to two-thirds of district leaders said their school systems are doing hybrid learning, according to an Education Week Research Center survey last month.
As with almost everything schools are doing during the pandemic, hybrid learning has inspired a wide range of reactions. Many parents and students are grateful schools are finding creative ways to bring their children back to school buildings while taking precautions against COVID-19. Others have protested schools’ reluctance to fully resume in-person instruction or expressed confusion over complex school plans that seem to be constantly changing. Some teachers find the new demands of hybrid instruction overwhelming, while others are more eager to adapt.
“Hybrid learning can be a best of both worlds, or a worst of both worlds reality,” said Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, which has been surveying schools throughout the pandemic.
In the best-case scenario, schools can keep students and staff safe while providing them with valuable in-person instruction that gives them the tools to do meaningful schoolwork at home. At worst, teachers are forced to cut corners on instruction, schools struggle to transition students seamlessly from in-person to remote and vice versa, and students who are learning at home get left behind compared with students who choose to spend at least some time in person.
That last possibility threatens to further widen equity gaps along racial lines. In an EdWeek survey this fall, Latino, Black, and Asian parents were more likely than white parents to report their children would engage in full-time remote learning.
Pulling off an instructional approach that’s completely new to most U.S. schools during a pandemic is no easy feat, either. The challenges partially come from a lack of adequate resources: Congress has yet to follow through on plans for a second multi-billion-dollar stimulus package for education, and school budgets are increasingly stretched thin as the pandemic takes a toll on state and local finances.
At Scofield Magnet Middle School in Stamford, Conn., students have chosen either full-time remote learning or a hybrid model with in-person classes a few days a week and remote instruction for the rest. Teachers are not live-streaming classwork to any students who are learning at home. Placing cameras in classrooms was difficult, and connectivity issues were common for the school’s students, half of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
“If you have two or three kids in a home and you have them all logged in live-streaming all day, that’s going to eat up your data pretty quick,” said Scott Clayton, the school’s principal.
The trickiest part, according to Clayton, has been getting students to complete assignments at home, where they might have other responsibilities like child care or a part-time job.
Many schools also have struggled to balance investments in personal protective equipment and other safety precautions for in-person instruction with the technology and professional development necessary to reach students who will be learning at home part- or full-time, Dusseault said.
She recommends schools actively survey parents and students, and try to structure classes to make the most of students’ time either in person or at home, in whatever hybrid configuration they choose.
“They have to be putting resources into everything that it takes to result in a quality classroom experience: the materials, the training, the curriculum,” she said. (For more on how to do this work, visit Education Week’s guides to balancing in-person and remote instruction and pivoting back to full-time remote learning if necessary.)
The ongoing chaos of the pandemic sometimes obscures the lessons schools are learning and the strategies they’re employing to overcome steep challenges. Education Week talked to educators from school districts across the country about how they developed their hybrid learning models, how they’re working so far, and what they have planned for the months ahead. Here is a look at hybrid models in six school districts and the challenges of making those approaches work.
VICTORIA INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Texas
The Model: Students chose at the beginning of the year from two options: Attend school in person five days a week, or attend school virtually five days a week. Teachers’ classes are a mix of in-person and virtual students.
The Challenges: Jennifer Atkins, a 7th grade English teacher at Howell Middle School, typically enjoys walking around her classroom to engage students. Social distancing and masks make that teaching style virtually impossible.
She’s also had to deal with the ongoing evolution of the composition of her classes. When school started, roughly half her students were online. But as parents have grown more comfortable with sending students back to school, that proportion has shifted—roughly 90 of her students attend in person, and 50 are at home.
“I have the same kids, the same roster, but now I’ve got a new group that’s coming face to face that I haven’t met in person,” Atkins said. “They have been away from some of their friends for so long. It’s interesting to see how the class dynamic changes.”
Atkins posts textbook PDFs online because some students don’t have the book at home, even though the school set up times for parents to pick up the books. Grading takes longer because she has to look at some hard copies and then log in online for the rest.
Howell students aren’t required to keep their cameras on during videoconference instruction, so Atkins worries that some students may have logged in at the beginning but aren’t actually paying attention. “Without being here and constantly reminded to stay on task, it is probably enticing to log into the meeting and then just walk away,” she said.
The Benefits: Atkins has been able to use technology tools to keep better track of which students are struggling. If they don’t open an assignment, for instance, “something’s got to be wrong,” and she has a tangible record of the student’s progress, she said.
Hybrid learning has also forced her to consider more innovative use of technology in her teaching. A handful of teachers were offered interactive whiteboards that students can access from their desks, and Atkins accepted. Prior to COVID-19, she might have resisted a big change like this because she saw it as unnecessary, but the rising use of technology as a teaching tool has made her think differently.
A Small Victory: To help students at home hear her voice better through the mask, Atkins logs into the virtual meeting on her laptop and her smartphone, and talks into the microphone on her phone, addressing the remote and in-person students simultaneously, while using a clicker to scroll through PowerPoint slides on the computer.
The Takeaway: “It is nothing short of exhausting,” Atkins said. “It’s basically like teaching two different classes at the same time in one class period.”
SANTA FE PUBLIC SCHOOLS, New Mexico
The Model: The district is gradually bringing students into school buildings based on the number of teachers who are willing to return and the amount of space in classrooms to allow for adequate social distancing. Special education students and English-language learners are prioritized for in-person instruction, and students who eventually want to go back to face-to-face instruction are placed with the teachers who are teaching from the school building.
The Challenges: Managing in-person and virtual instruction simultaneously requires more digital devices than many teachers have in their classrooms, said Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for the district. Ideally, they need one for the lesson, one for seeing the students’ faces, and one to monitor what students are doing on their school-issued devices. Cameras that pivot when a teacher moves are also ideal to prevent teachers from constantly exiting the frame when they move around.
Meanwhile, the digital divide remains a significant barrier for equitable remote instruction. Some students attend day-care facilities with inadequate internet connections for videoconferencing. Other students have school-provided hotspots that may not be sufficient for the amount of strain remote learning puts on the connection. Efforts to determine the minimum bandwidth necessary for what’s required of students learning at home are still underway, Ryan said.
The Benefits: Teachers who wanted to return to classrooms are eager to serve as test cases for how in-person instruction can work during these unprecedented times, said Ryan. Giving teachers the option to stay home engenders more goodwill and prevents people with underlying health conditions from having to choose between their job and their safety.
So far, Ryan’s team has found teachers need a microphone to amplify their voices through their masks, and that simply replicating face-to-face instruction while livestreaming to students may not be as effective as offering online students differently structured activities from their in-person counterparts. Younger students and English-language learners are particularly likely to struggle when they can’t see a teacher’s mouth movements, Ryan said.
A Small Victory: Ryan’s daughter, a 5th grade teacher in the district, said she’s had more robust contact with parents than ever before. One student learning remotely in her class was constantly disrupting the class, pulling out inappropriate household objects, and sleeping on camera. After communicating with his parents, Ryan’s daughter decided to work with him individually after school hours, when his parents could be there by his side.
“I’m not saying I recommend this for all the teachers,” Ryan said. But “there are options that are available now that weren’t available last year.”
The Takeaway: “This isn’t a comparison between online versus face to face. This is between having nothing at all or something that is still engaging the kids and instruction can happen,” Ryan said. “Some are very successful and other kids are struggling.”
MARSHALL PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Mich.
The Model: Elementary school students attend school in person four days a week, and middle and high school students attend school in person three days a week. In both cases, students are split into five groups, with each one having their remote learning on a different day of the week. The district tried to ensure that students who live in the same household have the same remote learning day. A handful of English-language learners, students with special needs, and newcomers to the district attend school in person every day. And some students opted to learn at home full-time for the school year.
The Challenges: “I would say our teachers are very overwhelmed,” said Beth Ritter, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
Each day, teachers have some students who are missing, which means it’s hard to keep all students on the same page. The students who are at home full time could easily get lost in the shuffle if teachers don’t put in extra work to engage them. And the quality of instruction this year needs to be higher than in the spring, when emergency remote teaching set everyone back.
“We have that experience to fall back on, but yet teachers are doing so much more this year,” Ritter said.
The Benefits: Hybrid learning has led to some positive changes. Meetings with multilingual families have gone a lot smoother for interpreters than usual. Rather than having to rush from room to room in the school building on a busy night of in-person conferences, all they have to do is open a new Microsoft Teams meeting to enter a video conversation. Families also appreciate that they don’t have to scramble for day-care options when they need to meet with their students’ teachers.
The hybrid model also forces teachers to be more intentional about how they structure their lessons. Elementary teachers now focus on reading, math, and social-emotional learning when students are in person, while home assignments build on what students learned in class.
A Small Victory: The district has appointed “assurance of mastery coaches” in elementary schools to check in with students during their remote learning day. Students get to have some interaction with the school even when they’re not in the building, and teachers get a small reprieve from yet another responsibility.
The Takeaway: With big changes like a heightened emphasis on social-emotional learning, school administrators need to communicate clearly and regularly with teachers and staff who will be implementing these changes. “We’ve always known it, but we’ve really found that this year,” Ritter said.
MILTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, Pa.
The Model: Students who chose a mix of in-person and remote instruction attend school buildings on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Other students are doing 100 percent synchronous online instruction, or largely asynchronous instruction through the Milton Cyber Academy, which existed prior to the pandemic.
The Challenge: Students learning remotely—particularly the older ones—have been reluctant to turn on their cameras and keep their microphones unmuted. “K-5 is absolutely great—they are happy to see their classmates,” said Cathy Keegan, the district’s superintendent.
But some groups of older students have been very quiet, forcing teachers to get more creative with ensuring that they’re engaged. As of this month, the district is now specifying to students doing synchronous learning that they’re expected to be ready to speak and be seen when a teacher calls on them.
Some parents have fallen behind on notifying the school when their student won’t be attending at-home instruction that day. “We’re reinforcing that,” Keegan said.
The Benefits: Discipline rates in the district have been sharply down this year compared with previous years, Keegan said. “We genuinely believe—this is just a feeling—that kids are just happy to be back,” she said. Keeping them at home might have exacerbated the social isolation that has prompted many experts to urge schools to find safe ways to reopen.
A Small Victory: The president of the district’s teachers union told Keegan she and other teachers were tired of spending valuable time at the start of each class period asking students to type their name in the chat as a means of taking attendance. Keegan’s team helped advise her on integrating a discussion question into the Microsoft Teams platform that teachers can use to jump-start that day’s lesson and take attendance simultaneously.
The Takeaway: Efforts to transform an American education model that hasn’t been comprehensively updated in generations are happening at a breakneck pace, Keegan said. It’s painful and necessary work: “We may still be back here in 2022.”
NORTHERN LEHIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT, Pa.
The Model: Students can attend in-person instruction up to two days a week: Monday and Tuesday for students with last names starting with the letters A through L, and Thursday and Friday for students with last names starting with M through Z. When students aren’t in school buildings, they’re learning at home, and Wednesdays are reserved for one-on-one check-ins for all students. Nearly three-quarters of students have chosen that option.
Slightly less than a fifth of students have chosen to learn from home all week. Some teachers have been assigned to work exclusively with fully online students.
Another less popular option (3 percent of the district’s students) is an existing online program offered by the school but managed by a third-party vendor; the district has revamped that asynchronous online program to include more direct involvement from a district teacher for students in grades K-8.
The Challenge: Teachers have had to adjust to a curriculum that must be more streamlined than usual. District leaders have urged teachers to consider which aspects of the learning material are essential and which could be optional. “We don’t want the curriculum to become a barrier to achieving success,” said Matthew Link, the district’s superintendent.
Early in the school year, many virtual students weren’t showing up or turning in work on time. The district’s professional development efforts have helped teachers get more creative in engaging students who are at home. Still, for certain students, “we need to double down on our efforts to make sure they’re active participants in the process,” Link said.
A Small Victory: District administrators are recognizing more than ever the value of teachers collaborating with each other, said Tania Stoker, the district’s assistant superintendent. One teacher might be using a tool another teacher doesn’t know about it; that kind of sharing is much more common now than it used to be.
The Takeaway: “Know that it’s OK that when you’re developing your plan and you think it’s done, it’s probably not. You’re going to go through different iterations constantly,” Link said. “Don’t feel bad if you have to change something that you thought was the answer.”
WALL TOWNSHIP SCHOOLS, N.J.
The Model: Elementary students are either fully remote or fully in-person.
In grades 6-8, students attend school in person every other day (except Wednesday). Teachers have the same students in their class each day—the only thing that changes is which ones are in person and which ones are online. On Wednesdays, all students learn online.
In-person instruction is reserved for lessons on math, English, and social studies. Next semester, they’ll switch to science instruction. “We had been hopeful and optimistic that we would be in fully live instruction when we really need that practical application in lab,” but that may not be the case, said Lisa Gleason, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.
The Challenge: Simply having a Chromebook doesn’t mean all the problems are solved. The district has found those devices can’t support all the resources and instructional technology programs that teachers use. “We had to pivot and start acquiring more PCs,” Gleason said. The district also was hit recently with a cyberattack that prompted some teachers to work from home until the problem was resolved.
Substitute teachers who think they’re capable of teaching online or comfortable with the health risks of teaching in person have been difficult to find, even as the number of teachers who need to take time off for legitimate reasons is higher than usual.
A Small Victory: Some teachers who are particularly worried about COVID-19 exposure can teach remotely from a separate area of the school building that students don’t visit. Some students in those teachers’ classes are attending school in person, but they are supervised by another teacher who is in a physical classroom with them, while others are at home, in the same Google Meet link as the remote teacher.
“We had really analyzed what our needs were back in late August,” Gleason said. “We were able to craft teachers’ schedules around that.”
The Takeaway: “When you put all your eggs in the basket of technology being the main vehicle for delivering instruction, even in the hybrid model, it takes away that stability of having a human being in the classroom who can deliver instruction no matter what,” Gleason said.
Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as How Hybrid Learning Is (and Is Not) Working During COVID-19: 6 Case Studies