Hybrid learning was supposed to be an improvement.
When school buildings closed in the spring due to the pandemic, students, teachers, and families all struggled with remote classes. But come fall, the virus was still raging across much of America. So many districts — including the nation’s largest, New York City — struck a compromise.
They would bring kids into buildings, but only for part of the day or week. That way, they’d reduce the number of students in schools at any one time, limiting viral spread, while still giving students crucial in-person time with their teachers and peers.
That was the idea, anyway. In practice, however, hybrid models could turn out to be the worst of both worlds, as David Zweig predicted at Wired in July.
To begin with, hybrid schedules don’t really solve one of the pandemic’s biggest problems for parents: the lack of child care. While having kids in school a few days a week or a few hours a day might give parents a bit more flexibility to do their jobs, “the benefits of being able to work a little less part-time and a little less erratically are not going to be anything like what you’d be getting from full-time school,” Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress who studies the impact of child care, told Vox.
And while some parents may be able to stay home with their kids on the days they’re out of school, others will need outside child care. That means kids will spend part of the week in child care centers, camps, pods, or other group arrangements — all of which increase their potential exposure to the virus, which they can then bring into their schools. “I do wonder if we are actually creating more problems through the hybrid model because now we are allowing more time for more exposures to occur,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, told Vox.
Hybrid models appear to do one thing they’re supposed to do: They give kids a little bit of the in-person interaction they missed out on in the spring. But some say there are better ways of achieving that goal, from outdoor classrooms to prioritizing in-person school for younger students, who often struggle the most with remote learning.
Education during the pandemic is an incredibly difficult problem — “people are trying really, really hard to solve this,” Madowitz noted. But it may be a case where the compromise solution is far from the best one.
Hybrid models are supposed to limit the spread of Covid-19. Experts worry they might do the opposite.
American schools began weighing the idea of hybrid instruction in the late spring and early summer, when it became clear that Covid-19 would be far from gone at the start of the fall semester. Ultimately, about 12 percent of districts around the country were planning on a hybrid start as of late August, according to a survey by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. That percentage amounts to thousands of schools nationwide — New York City alone has over 1,800, serving more than 1.1 million students.
Hybrid models vary in their execution — some have students coming in only a few days per week, while others split students into morning and afternoon groups. But however they work, the idea is roughly the same: A hybrid schedule reduces the number of kids in each classroom at once to better allow for social distancing. It may also reduce the number of people each student interacts with in-person, since students often stay with cohorts that are smaller than their normal classes. And many districts are setting aside time in their hybrid schedules to deep-clean schools, although some have begun to raise questions about how much surface cleaning really matters when it comes to reducing viral spread, Nuzzo noted.
Beyond questions about the efficacy of cleaning, there are a couple of potential problems with hybrid schedules. For one thing, hybrid education doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of students each teacher has contact with, since they may teach multiple cohorts. That’s concerning because adults are at much greater risk of serious illness or death from the virus than children are. “Really, who we’re concerned about most in terms of reducing risk in a school environment is the teacher,” Nuzzo said.
Then there’s the question of what happens during the days or hours when students are remote. While some parents are caring for children at home during that time, others are enrolling kids in camps or child care centers — some of which are adapting to care for more school-aged kids. Still other families are bringing kids together in informal groups sometimes called “pods” to share child care responsibilities. Finally, older children may be getting together with friends without adult supervision.
Overall, if kids “are in some other care environment where they are now exposed to another group of people, then we may have effectively increased the number of people all having contact with each other over the course of a week,” Nuzzo said.
That, in turn, increases the likelihood that a student could bring Covid into school and infect others. A number of epidemiologists have raised this concern in recent months. For example, William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote in an August op-ed in the Washington Post that “hybrid school plans make it easier for the virus to transmit into schools, simply by producing more links between schools and families along which the virus can travel.”
So far, there’s little comprehensive data on Covid-19 and schools in the US, let alone on hybrid models, but some data does show troubling hints. For example, the Covid-19 Schools Response Dashboard, which pulls together case counts and other data from a selection of schools around the country, found that, as of September 22, staff infection rates were actually higher at schools using hybrid learning than at schools with fully in-person instruction. There could be reasons for this beyond the model itself — for example, dashboard co-creator Emily Oster told Vox that schools might be more likely to use a hybrid schedule if Covid-19 transmission rates in the area are already high.
Early data from New York City, the largest district in the country to use a hybrid model, is more reassuring — out of 10,676 results received by the city in its first round of random Covid-19 testing, just 13 staff members and five students tested positive, according to the New York Times. Still, some experts have cautioned that it’s still very early in the school year, which began just three weeks ago in New York, while others say the city would have to regularly test far more people to be sure of spotting outbreaks.
Overall, there’s not much evidence so far that hybrid schedules make schools safer, and according to experts, there’s a lot of cause for concern.
With kids home for much of the week, parents still face child care struggles
The other, related problem of hybrid models is one of child care. In the spring, the closure of schools and day care centers caused a crisis for working parents around the country. The problem was most severe for women, who still shoulder the majority of caregiving responsibilities.
Women also lost a majority of the millions of jobs shed by the American economy early in the pandemic, and many economists feared that without a solution to the child care problem, even more women would be pushed out of the workforce. Mothers, especially those who are primary breadwinners, faced the prospect of “having to choose between making a living and taking care of their families,” Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, told Vox this summer.
Some economists — and families — looked to fall as a possible respite, when a resumption of school would allow moms to get back to work. That didn’t happen. Instead, many districts started the fall either in hybrid mode or fully remote.
Hybrid models may have provided some parents with a bit of a break — as Madowitz put it, “for a lot of parents, anything is better than nothing.” But for many others, a few days of child care and supervision isn’t that much better than no child care at all.
That may be especially true for parents in low-wage service jobs who don’t have a lot of control over their schedules. Hybrid models may also pose a particular problem for families that rely on grandparents or other older relatives for child care, Madowitz said, since the virus exposure of a partial week at school could put those relatives at risk. Indeed, more than half of New York City families have chosen all-remote rather than hybrid learning this fall, with some citing older family members as the reason.
With millions of kids still at home for at least part of the week, then, millions of parents — a majority of them moms — haven’t been able to return to their normal working hours. Instead of rebounding with the return of school, women’s employment plummeted this fall, with 865,000 women dropping out of the labor force in September, compared with just 216,000 men.
And while hybrid learning may be helping some parents get a bit more work in, “when you look at what’s been going on with jobs, its really hard to believe you’re gonna get this huge pop” in women’s employment from hybrid schooling alone, Madowitz said.
Not to mention, any child care break that parents get from hybrid schooling may be short-lived if schools have to return to remote instruction due to rising Covid-19 cases in the area. That’s already happened at more than 100 schools in New York City, which closed earlier this month due to growing clusters of the virus in Brooklyn and Queens. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that the entire school system will close if the city reaches 3 percent test positivity over a seven-day period. That means any parents who have been banking on school to facilitate their work schedules will have to scramble for another solution — or quit.
When it comes to women’s employment in particular, “I’m just deeply scared,” Madowitz said.
Hybrid models may benefit students, but there may be more creative solutions that would work better
The biggest benefits of hybrid models are likely educational. “At least in the hybrid education models, the students are getting some real-time, in-person instruction,” as well as interaction with peers, which is important for social and emotional development, Emiliana Vegas, co-director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, told Vox.
“We know that students really thrive when they learn to collaborate,” she explained. “That’s really much harder to do in a remote setting, particularly for the younger children.”
While there’s little data so far on the effectiveness of hybrid models, there is data showing significant learning losses during all-remote school this spring, concentrated among low-income and Black and Latinx students. Experts hope that having at least some in-person time will mitigate these losses, Vegas said.
And some families have seen the benefits for their kids. Amy, a New Jersey mom who asked that her last name not be used, told Vox that remote school in the spring for her two sons, then 8 and 3, was “like a nightmare.” But with both boys in school on a hybrid model now, “this fall has been a lot better.”
Amy’s younger son, who has an autism spectrum diagnosis, “really needs the in-person guidance” and is getting occupational therapy and speech therapy during his four days at school. With him out of the house, it’s also a bit easier for his older brother to focus on remote school. He’s at home three days a week and in school for two, and though he was recently diagnosed with a visual processing disorder that can make Zoom lessons challenging, overall “things are pretty good if you’re looking at pandemic parameters,” Amy said.
While families like Amy’s are benefiting from hybrid schedules, in some districts the model doesn’t actually guarantee much in-person instruction. For example, Nuzzo said that one plan floated by her child’s district would have students come into classrooms for online lessons. “I’m not sure that that’s worth the hassle of leaving the house,” she said. “I don’t want him to be on a screen anymore if he’s going to be in a school building.”
And some fear that the educational benefits of a hybrid model could be negated by the sheer logistical challenges of bringing students into schools in the midst of a pandemic. New York City, for example, has been forced to put all its energy into health and safety, leaving little time to help teachers with the challenges of hybrid education, Tom Liam Lynch, editor-in-chief of the website InsideSchools, and a parent of a New York City sixth grader, told Vox.
Starting in the summer, parent concerns about actual pedagogy have gone unheard, Lynch said: “Parents are asking for the plan for high-quality instruction, and the city’s saying we have sanitizer.” Now it’s October, and there’s still “no leadership in terms of what constitutes high-quality learning and teaching,” he said.
Given these and other concerns, some are pushing for different solutions to the problems of pandemic education. For example, a lot of districts chose hybrid models because it was the only way to allow for social distancing within their school buildings, Nuzzo said. But districts could use outdoor space or temporary structures to make room for more kids. Alternatively, younger children could be brought back first, freeing up larger high-school buildings to host elementary-school classes.
Overall, there’s been a lack of creativity around physical space when it comes to schools, Nuzzo argues: “Think about places that were able to create hospitals and have tents and things like that, and yet we haven’t applied that level of thinking with respect to schools.”
There’s also the potential for rethinking what school buildings are for. In New York City, a lot of the conversation around reopening schools (and closing them in the first place) has been around the crucial social services schools provide, from child care to meals for food-insecure students. Instead of trying to reopen schools on a hybrid model, the district could have focused on delivering those face-to-face services while keeping instruction remote, Lynch said.
Such a solution “would have freed up building principals to be able to very creatively use millions of square footage of New York City school building space for tons of non-academic services,” Lynch said. “You could have child care at your local school in some form; you could have access to guidance, to meals, to a nurse; you could have even informal clubs and other kinds of activities that students could come in for.”
But so far, such a solution isn’t on the table in New York City. And overall, in a time when policymakers are faced with many competing priorities, schools can often feel like an afterthought.
“I am very frustrated about governments that have made faster decisions to reopen restaurants and bars and movie theaters and public gatherings well in advance of opening schools,” Nuzzo said. “It just feels like very short-term thinking.”