Children in an elementary school classroom. (Getty Images photo)
Keith Posley, Milwaukee’s school superintendent, proposed at a special October 27 school board meeting that the board consider the possibility of using a hybrid of online and in-person instruction for Milwaukee schools starting in January. His suggestion could not have come at a worse time as virus infection rates spiked across Wisconsin. At the meeting, the majority of the speakers were teachers who opposed returning to any form of in-person education, even on a part-time, hybrid schedule.
Rachel Ida Buff, an instructor at UW-Milwaukee spoke in favor of maintaining virtual education, both from the standpoint of an educator and as a parent. Her daughter is a junior at Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School and doing well in virtual education. She also raised concern about the implementation of hybrid education. “I have grave concerns for the teachers on the ground to teach and implement the very complicated [hybrid] model.”
Angela Harris of Milwaukee’s Black Educators’ Caucus raised pertinent questions: “What data do we have that hybrid learning yields the results that we intend? How will hybrid learning solve the issues that parents have … issues with access to childcare? Hybrid learning increases their need to spend their time in other places like daycare, after school care when they are out of school which increases their potential exposure to the virus. How will we limit that?”
Board members did not want to even consider setting a possible January date. Instead they authorized the superintendent to bring back reports in November and December allowing the administration to plan for the possible implementation of hybrid education some time in the future.
It sounded like a good idea
The questions Harris raised are the exact questions being raised by medical and educational experts around the country. The hybrid model is mostly theoretical in terms of its safety and effectiveness. Up until this fall, hybrid was rarely used in the United State, a little longer in Europe and Asia. Large scale, longitudinal studies are nonexistent.
Health experts said the best way to keep the virus from spreading in schools was to have everyone wear masks and keep social distancing. But some say there is no such thing as a safe distance for social distancing, pointing to the lack of ventilation in many schools.
Few schools can adequately social-distance students given the limited space. Educators hit upon the idea of having half the students come in on two days such as Monday and Tuesday, the other half on Thursday and Friday. Everyone would learn remotely at home the other school days. That would allow the students to spread out in the building. It sounded like a good idea, and the hybrid model spread across the country.
Combating virus spread
“There’s a real chance a hybrid model could advance the spread of the virus,” Dimitri Christake, pediatrician and epidemiologist, editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics told Wired magazine in a July 6 article.
“The hybrid model is probably among the worst that we could be putting forward if our goal is to stop the virus getting into schools,” said William Hanage, Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health in the same Wired article. Since then, other epidemiologists have continued to share that opinion. “Hybrid school might be the worst of both worlds” is a title of an October 19 article in Vox.
They fear students may not be socially distancing on the days when they are out of school. One parent at an Oak Creek Franklin board meeting said she wasn’t sure that teens would not just go hang out with their friends on the days they were off from school. At least, if they were in school full-time, the school could maintain social distancing and actually decrease virus spread.
No model has the potential for more social interaction than hybrid. While the schools may maintain proper health protocols, many parents struggle to find acceptable daycare options outside of school.
Milwaukee Superintendent Posley praised the Boys and Girls Club for stepping up and providing alternative supervision when students are not in school.
Rachel Burkel is an elementary teacher and president of the Reedsburg Education Association. She points out that the local Boys and Girls Club has helped out in her community as well.
However, the continual shifting of two days in and three days out of school puts a strain on parents’ and daycare providers’ schedules. Add to that the continual shifting to various educational models in general. At the beginning of the year, Reedsburg used the hybrid model. On October 5, the district moved to a more traditional model four days a week, then transitioned back to a hybrid model in November. But at a November 4 school board meeting, the board began discussing the possibility of moving to a virtual model right after Thanksgiving. The fear is that the virus could spike even further as families get together during the holidays.
“I think it is challenging for parents to provide quality daycare if they can’t make a commitment from one plan to another,” says Burkel.
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In a separate interview, Professor Buff reflects on the impact both virtual and hybrid education has on her freshmen college students. “Many of the freshmen are in charge of the education of younger family members, working outside of the home thirty, forty hours.” Buff’s freshmen are all learning virtually. Consider the potential virus spread if they also had to come in for in-person classes using the hybrid model.
What is clear is that school districts using hybrid must consider how students are being cared for on the days when they are not in school. The district’s concerns cannot stop at the school’s front door.
One parent in Reedsburg stated that medical experts concluded that students were less likely to become infected with the virus and less likely to spread it. Therefore, the school district should return to full-time, in-person instruction. However, opinions concerning the virus’ impact on children keep changing. Some experts now believe that we have underreported the rates among children because so many are asymptomatic.
Lucinda Eirbs, Reedsburg school nurse, stated that the district knows of only one staff member and one or two students who probably caught the virus in school. “It’s really hard because we have asymptomatic students,” she said. “We have those that we are not aware of, that didn’t get tested, that brought the illness to school, and were never identified. We only know the ones that are absolutely confirmed at school.”
Said Jessie Phalen of Sauk County Health at the Reedsburg meeting, “As far as school, you do not know who is walking in the door, who should be in isolation or quarantine. We no longer have the ability to keep up with these numbers. So, you are relying on parents to let you know that their child should be home quarantined or isolated because they have a positive case.”
Individuals at school that contracted the virus may point to someone in the community who is known to be positive as the probable virus contact point when, in fact, the virus was transmitted through an asymptomatic individual in the school. Even if a school would do daily temperature checks at the door, an asymptomatic individual is unlikely to be identified. A virus test of everyone on a regular basis would catch more; virtually no school does that.
The infection rate in Reedsburg is now above what is considered an acceptable level for any form of in-person education. Sauk County Health made it clear that they believe the school district should move to virtual education. However, the parents at the board meeting wanted the schools to be in-person.
“I am supportive of hybrid because the alternative that the community and board supports is face-to-face,” says Burke. But she points to staff surveys: “Our teachers would prefer the hybrid over the virtual. They would prefer to have the kids there as much as possible even if it isn’t easier.” She also recognizes the lack of data. “We really don’t know the spread in the schools because we don’t have the staff to do the necessary tracking.” Concludes Burke, “The mood of the staff is we will do whatever we can give the students the best possible education.”
Teaching and learning
At the Milwaukee school board meeting, board member Bob Peterson looked at hybrid from the perspective of a retired teacher: “A teacher is going to have to juggle three different groups of kids. And if you multiply that by a high school teacher that has five or six different classes, it seems completely overwhelming. I am of the belief that 100% virtual done well is probably going to be better than this conglomerate that would be pretty difficult to manage.”
Scott is a middle school teacher in a Milwaukee suburb who asked not to be identified by his last name.. “There is a lot more multitasking that has to go on. I am probably doing 125% more thinking and working and planning than I would have in previous years… I have to have a dual mindset going forward.” He hears from his fellow teachers, “There is a ton of extra work… I could sustain the hybrid through the rest of the year, but there are teachers that I know are having a rough time of it.”
Articles across the nation are filled with reports of teachers spending twelve or more hours a day trying to juggle the hybrid model. Many are starting to burn out.
Scott received “zero” preparation in college to teach virtually, he says. His middle school has only offered a couple of training sessions. The school told its teachers not to worry and has been “incredibly forgiving,” he says. “We are going to mess up a bit.”
Scott believes that the changing of models may have had a positive effect by forcing teachers to rethink their lesson plans, determining what is important and what isn’t. They have had to come up with new methods to teach necessary concepts. The change may have helped some students.
But parents have come before various school board meetings, some in tears, saying that their children were failing, not only in virtual instruction, but also in the hybrid. One parent at the Reedsburg meeting asked the board to return to 100% in-person. “Many children are having increased anxiety, depression, and struggling to learn even in the hybrid option.” One Reedsburg parent said her daughter went from being an “A” student to becoming depressed and suicidal.
It is difficult to know just how many students are having difficulty with virtual or hybrid education. The handful of parents that show up may represent the tip of the iceberg or a small minority.
Burkel says “Some parents are also contacting the schools and asking why aren’t you going virtual. It is both.” Burkel commends teachers who, on their own, are contacting students at home just as if they were sitting in front of them in the classroom if the teacher feels students need extra emotional help beyond just providing education.
One Reedsburg parent pleaded with the board not to go all virtual. Her daughter is in an industrial arts program and cannot learn welding remotely.
Some schools are experimenting with variations on in-person and virtual models. The high school may have most classes virtual but allow students to enter the building for hands-on courses such as shop, fine arts, and science labs.
The least likely to handle virtual education well are the youngest students. Some schools have all students learning remotely except for children in kindergarten through second- or third grade. Without other students in the building, these young students can spread throughout the building increasing social distancing.
We will not know how well students, parents and teachers have done both educationally and emotionally in the pandemic for a couple of years. Standardized test scores are unlikely to tell us everything we want to know. Quantitative and qualitative studies will take some time. But the community spread of COVID-19 is going up in Wisconsin every day.
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