USA TODAY US Edition
All-virtual students miss out in hybrid class
Teachers may be unable to pay equal attention
INDIANAPOLIS – When Hamilton Southeastern Schools went from all virtual instruction to a hybrid schedule for students, Jessica Savage knew she had to keep her two sons at home.
Her second grader, who is in special education classes, has multiple health concerns, and she’s unsure how COVID-19 could affect him. Plus, she said, virtual learning was going great.
“The boys were thriving, and we had a pretty good handle on their schedule,” she said.
When K-4 students started the hybrid schedule after Labor Day, that changed for her younger son. The new option’s schedule change left little to no time for her son to interact with his teacher and classmates via video.
“It’s been pretty rough for him,” Savage said. “The teachers are doing an amazing job, but for kids like mine, the plan isn’t equitable.”
As school districts created their plans for returning to school, a hybrid schedule, which puts students into two groups who rotate attending in-person and virtually, emerged as a popular choice.
Students are further split into two other groups – those who are in-person part-time and those who are always virtual.
Parents and teachers notice the differences, prompting questions about equity for kids who are in the virtual group – especially in classrooms where teachers are responsible for both in-person and fully virtual students.
“Obviously, in-person is the best way to give a lesson, but it’s not the safest way. Hybrid is not the best way to teach kids, but it’s safe. And virtual is the worst way to teach but the safest.” Suzy Lebo President of the Avon Federation of Teachers
Those questions, being asked at districts around the country, came up at a Hamilton Southeastern school board meeting last week.
“I worry that our 100% virtual kids are getting the short end of the stick, and I worry that our teachers are strained,” said Michelle Fullhart, the board president.
Parents and teachers of Hamilton Southeastern students had mixed reactions to an all-virtual start to the year.
As of last Thursday, roughly 82% of K-4 students and 77% of students in grades 5-12 were on the hybrid schedule.
Many parents were outspoken about wanting an in-person option, but others said they felt they didn’t have a choice.
Angela Gafford Asmus, who has a second grader and fifth grader in Hamilton Southeastern schools, said she’s glad the district used the hybrid schedule to ease into in-person.
She said she felt like she didn’t have an option but to choose the hybrid over virtual.
“There is no way that can be equitable,” she said of the virtual schedule, adding that those with health concerns “are really being punished by having to stay home.”
In the hybrid schedule, students stay with the same teachers they had during the all-virtual phase, meaning
teachers have classes with students on the hybrid schedule and those who are fully virtual.
Jan Combs, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, told the school board in August there were multiple reasons for keeping classes together regardless of their learning format.
It allowed families to switch between in-person and virtual instead of making a long-term commitment to one format or the other, she said. She said virtual students would have the same class options and teachers as their peers instead of learning from a mostly self-guided online program with limited options. Combs said this saved the district from needing to hire additional teachers.
At the elementary level, teachers meet with students attending virtually – whether they are fully virtual or the hybrid schedule – in the morning and in the afternoon.
In between, teachers work with inperson students while the virtual students learn from prerecorded lessons and attend enrichment sessions with a librarian, specialist or counselor via live video. Teachers can include virtual students on in-the-classroom lessons for synchronous learning.
Maxx Flavin, a parent of two elementary students in the district, said this schedule drastically reduced the time his children spend with their teachers, as well as the time they have to interact with classmates. As he talked to more parents, he learned how different virtual learning is from classroom to classroom.
Flavin started the Hamilton Southeastern virtual learners coalition to try to make sure the district’s families have a quality virtual learning option all school year.
Parents of elementary virtual learners said the schedule reduced live instruction for their students and limited time for interaction
In the district’s upper grades, some lessons are recorded and some are synchronous.
Teachers said planning for multiple audiences added to their workload and revamped their lesson plans.
Abby Taylor, executive vice president of the Hamilton Southeastern Education Association and a fourth grade teacher, said that after planning her lessons, she has to record multiple lessons for each day.
Though teachers have gotten faster at it, “that’s still 30 minutes of time that you normally wouldn’t spend on top of (lesson planning),” she said. “It’s a lot for teachers to do.”
She said teachers are reassured that it’s a temporary schedule.
“It’s not something that is sustainable for a long time,” Taylor said. “Teachers will not be able to do this for a very long time or for the foreseeable future.”
Offering a hybrid schedule
Health officials have largely recommended the hybrid schedule for secondary students as a way to decrease the number of students in buildings and classrooms, even when students still switch classes.
Hybrid schedules are used less often at the elementary level.
The schedule allows schools to offer in-person learning while having more space to social distance and take health precautions.
“Obviously, in-person is the best way to give a lesson, but it’s not the safest way,” said Suzy Lebo, president of the Avon Federation of Teachers. “Hybrid is not the best way to teach kids, but it’s safe. And virtual is the worst way to teach but the safest.”
Teachers and students must balance the challenges of virtual learning, such as technology issues and student participation, with the in-person challenges of social distancing and wearing masks.
At Avon High School, students and teachers have had three different schedules in the roughly six weeks since school started. They started the year with a fully in-person option, then moved to all virtual, then to a hybrid schedule, then back to fully in-person.
“We were just getting the hang of (a hybrid schedule) after doing it for a month,” Lebo said. She expects the schedule to keep changing in response to the upcoming flu season.
Teachers for fully virtual students
One of the biggest differences in how schools apply the hybrid schedule is who teaches virtual learners.
At the elementary school level, many districts have a 100% in-person option and an all-virtual option, each with a set of dedicated teachers.
Some districts have had to hire additional teachers. At Carmel Clay Schools, the district hired 17 all-virtual positions, including 11 teachers, this year.
At Westfield Washington Schools and Indianapolis Public Schools, the question of whether teachers will be responsible for virtual or synchronous learning depends on how many parents want virtual versus how many want an in-person option.
For schools at the secondary level, where students typically switch classes, teachers have one section of all virtual students on their schedule or districts use outsourced education platforms for fully virtual students. In some cases, it’s a mix.
Parents said the outsourced platforms lack options and students have limited to no interaction with school staff and classmates.
Pike High School in Indianapolis started a hybrid schedule this month similar to the one in Hamilton Southeastern schools.
Theater teacher Sarah Vilensky said it’s a struggle to plan lessons when “the majority of the people you are teaching are not in the classroom” but on a screen.
She said she’s concerned about making sure the students who are fully virtual have the same experience as students who are in the classroom.
“It’s not an easy job,” she said. “And it’s been made harder.”
‘Make it sustainable’
When the Hamilton Southeastern school board approved moving elementary students to a fully in-person option next month, parents of fully virtual learners said they were hopeful.
Savage hopes her son’s teacher will have more time to do lessons in small groups of virtual students instead of the daily check-ins to explain assignments.
“Anything we can do to get closer to how it was,” she said. “Something needs to change to make it sustainable.”
At last week’s meeting, several school board members asked if it was time to rethink the options for all virtual students and if it was possible to consider virtual teachers for virtual students.
Superintendent Allen Bourff stressed that there are questions with that approach, including staffing issues and what happens to students who are quarantining or who want to switch from virtual to in-person.
He said administrators planned to meet with the Hamilton Southeastern Education Association to talk about the hybrid schedule and with the virtual learners coalition.
Flavin said the coalition wants to find ways it can volunteer and give more support and resources to teachers so the district has a strong virtual program.
“It needs to work,” he said of all-online learning. “The virtual students aren’t going anywhere, a lot of them can’t go back.”