Hybrid Teaching: Classroom Dilemmas

With the pandemic, dilemmas have become legion. Is health and safety more or less important than the economy? Is wearing masks more or less important than personal liberty? When highly prized values conflict and parents and teachers have to figure out compromises to manage the internal conflict, dilemmas pinch.

Individual rights, family pressures, and community imperatives butt heads. Most schools shifted immediately to distance learning. With 13,000 school districts and no national plan for closing or re-opening schools, superintendents, principals, and teachers faced one dilemma after another. Some districts stayed open since March, closed and reopened and then closed again. Ditto for individual schools within districts. Concerned about their health and that of their families, many teachers chose remote instruction. Other teachers who could choose in-school instruction wanted to teach students they sorely missed. None of this, of course, is new to teachers who must figure out compromises that work when personal and professional values tug at one another.

Such difficult choices also occurred around one of the ways that teaching and learning has been reconfigured due to the pandemic: hybrid schooling. Many districts blend in-person classroom lessons with remote instruction. Some students sit in the classrooms masked and physically distanced while the teacher also deals with those students on Teams or Zoom. Variation in how much of each medium to use, how many students to accommodate in the actual classroom, and juggling both require teachers to dance on their toes.

Consider what occurred in the Edison Township Public schools (NJ).

I draw from an article by Tracey Tully, “A New Style of Teaching,” New York Times, January 22, 2021.

The district has 17,000 students of whom 65 percent are Asian, 11 percent Latino, 8 percent Black, and 14 percent white. Of the students, 15 percent meet the poverty criterion for free or reduced price lunch.

As the viral infection rose and fell during the past year, Edison schools closed and re-opened numerous times. District educators shifted to remote instruction initially and then developed different forms of hybrid teaching, that is, one in four Edison students come to school certain days of the week while everyone else is online at home. With fewer students attending they can be safe with six feet of space separating them at their desks, wearing masks, and not having close contact in hallways when classes change. Many Edison teachers do hybrid teaching, meaning that they simultaneously teach in-person to students arrayed in front of them while a computer monitor has 15-25 faces on a Zoom session. And this is why dilemmas cascade for teachers.

Consider Edison High School math teacher, Stephanie Rasimowicz’s lesson that journalist Tracey Tully observed.

This is Stephanie Rasimowicz’s daily dilemma: Scattered before her in second-period geometry class at Edison High School are a handful of freshmen, seated at desks many feet apart. Arrayed behind her are nearly 20 small, disembodied faces on a computer screen — her remote students, learning from home. Face-to-face instruction occurs four mornings a week for half of the students whose parents agree to arrangement.

Can the remote students hear the students in the classroom, and vice versa? Which group should she focus on today? And how does she know if those remote students are grasping her lessons — or paying attention at all?

“Even if their cameras are on, you still don’t know exactly what they’re doing at home,” said Ms. Rasimowicz, who has taught math at Edison High for 13 years.

Tracey Tully’s article continues:

Ms. Rasimowicz and the rest of Edison Township Public Schools, one of New Jersey’s largest suburban districts, are part of a huge, unplanned educational experiment: combining remote instruction with in-person classes, a system known as hybrid instruction.

By some estimates, hybrid learning has become among the most common approaches to teaching in the pandemic, with thousands of the nation’s 13,000 school districts using it for some or most classes.

In some places, most notably New York City, hybrid students come into classrooms for part of the week and study at home the rest of the time, with a different teacher for each group. (Most New York City students have remained all-remote.) In most other districts, hybrid involves one teacher simultaneously instructing in-person and remote students who shift places every second or third day. In Edison, in-person students come to class four mornings a week.

The compromises built into hybrid are intended to keep staff members and students safer — by slicing in-person attendance by at least half to enable six feet of distance in classrooms, hallways and gymnasiums — while also maintaining, at least in part, the widely acknowledged educational and emotional benefits of in-person instruction.

“There’s no book for this,” said Cyndi Tufaro, the principal of James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. “The word of the year is ‘fluid.’”

A growing body of research indicates that students generally have fallen behind educationally in the pandemic, with Black, Latino and low-income students, who are more likely to be taking classes remotely, faring the worst. Whether hybrid classes are helping to stem educational loss remains unclear.

Edison officials said they had no readily available data on failure rates or standardized test scores to measure the impact of hybrid learning.

Ms. Rasimowicz believes that the pandemic has wrought an educational toll, though perhaps not as significantly as she once feared. “I have the same number of kids who struggle,” she said. “The same number who have A’s.”

But the jury is out on hybrid learning, she adds. “The more difficult topics — you can’t push them as far,” she said.

Edison, home to a large Indian-American community about 40 miles southwest of Midtown Manhattan, is one of the most diverse suburban communities in the state. The school district is about 65 percent Asian, 14 percent white, 11 percent Latino and 8 percent Black.

The district has seesawed between different hybrid models as coronavirus cases have receded and spiked again.

School began virtually in September, reopened in October for willing students to attend in-person every other day, and then a month later allowed those students to attend class four mornings a week.

Only about one in four of the district’s 17,000 students come to school for in-person instruction; the rest take all their classes from home. Schools are closed each Wednesday for cleaning, and all students take their afternoon classes online.

Bernard F. Bragen Jr., the district’s superintendent, tried to maintain in-person instruction for as long as possible, even as most nearby districts closed when the virus began surging across the state late last year.

For nearly two months, there was limited virus spread linked to in-school transmission, and only one of Edison’s 19 schools was forced to shut down for two weeks. But by the first week of December, six additional schools reported outbreaks involving at least 22 cases, and Edison temporarily shifted everyone back to all-remote instruction. All schools are scheduled to reopen on Feb. 1.

The township remembers the risks of the virus well: During the spring, as many as 102 patients and one staff member at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison died after confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, according to state officials.

Dr. Bragen said he worried most about children at the fringes of poverty — about 15 percent of Edison students are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches — as well as those slipping deeper into emotional crisis. “The number of students in crisis has increased, and it’s concerning,” he said.

He is also concerned about teacher burnout from the incessant demands of instructing remote and in-person students simultaneously. “For a teacher to meet the needs of the students seated in front of them and to meet the needs of students sitting at home is a challenge,” he said. “One is always being compromised for the other.”

He and district leaders tried to develop a new hybrid model that would have enabled staff members who preferred to remain home to teach only virtual classes, while those in school would be responsible solely for the students who attend class in person. But they were unable to make it work because it would have required reassigning too many teachers.

Many of Edison’s elementary classrooms were outfitted with cameras suspended from ceilings so that students at home have the same view of the teacher as those in the classroom. Using federal CARES Act funding, the district also hung 25 thermal cameras costing $12,000 each in entryways to instantaneously measure body temperatures and check for masks.

Still, teachers and students face connectivity snags associated with adding new technology to old buildings.

Things I never, ever want to say after Covid-19?” Vicki Jenkins, a dance teacher, said into a MacBook Air propped on a shelf in her classroom studio last month. “I can’t hear you. You’re frozen. It’s lagging.”

The virtual holiday dance show was weeks away, and she had been kicked offline twice in 20 minutes while leading her students through their routines.

Is coming into the classroom for so few students worth it? “It’s worth it for that one child or the few children who are there,” Ms. Jenkins said. “But there are days — and today was one of them — when I ask: ‘What am I doing here?’”

For one of her students, Zaria Fogle, the frustrations of online instruction prodded her to return to the classroom when the district reopened in October. Zaria, a 17-year-old senior at Edison High, said that in-person instruction was key to maintaining honor-roll grades.

“I really could not learn math over the computer,” said Zaria, who hopes to study dance in college.

Showing up in person also offers at least a taste of a typical senior year and a chance to fulfill a responsibility: She was selected to give the school’s morning announcements over the loudspeaker.

But mostly, it’s the lure of the mirror-lined dance studio, where Zaria goes as often as she can.

“That’s one of the only normal things I get to do,” she said. “It’s better than just dancing in my room.”

9 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, technology use

9 responses to “Hybrid Teaching: Classroom Dilemmas

  1. Steve Davis

    I have been teaching remotely for 100 days.
    When we go back to the classroom it will likely be in the hybrid model (with responsibility for teaching both in-person and remote simultaneously).
    We already know which students have opted to continue to learn remotely and which students will return for in-person instruction.
    The majority of students will still be remote.
    You can’t just teach to the 5-10 students in front of you. It’s unrealistic to expect remote students to just follow along with the broadcast of in-person instruction. You need to closely monitor the remote students and frequently check for understanding, which mostly happens through text (many/most remote students are loath to have their cameras on or speak). That leads me to believe that the best practice may be to continue teaching the whole class (in person and remote) through video conferencing and other digital platforms. I will be in the room, and some students will be in the room, but we will still interact in the digital world. I can’t see myself moving about the (windowless) room to talk to students in close proximity, and I can’t talk to them across the room, so better to talk to them through the screen. Better to do one thing well than two things poorly.

    • larrycuban

      Your comment, Steve, is most helpful to me in figuring out what happens in classrooms where hybrid teaching occurs. Appreciate your taking the time to comment.

    • I’ve observed over 100 teachers who teach in-person and remote at the same time and they are doing fine. Remote kids can hold up their work or submit it online. It’s easy for the kids in the room to hear what the remote kids say and breakout rooms allow for collaboration or for an aide or special ed teacher to work with a small group. Have faith, it can be done. The teachers I’ve observed tell me it was bumpy at the start, but they all figured it out. Good luck.

  2. S. David Brazer

    Larry, what is most familiar in this blog post is seesawing (I would actually call it whipsawing) change. That alone likely depresses learning because of the uncertainty it generates. Additionally, what I hear from schools all across the country is that large numbers of students either don’t log on to videoconferences at all or never turn on their microphones and screens. It is my belief that a large proportion of such students were disengaged when school was face to face, but I’m sure virtual and hybrid have allowed additional students on the margins in “normal” school to check out. Teachers often put it to me, “How do we get students to turn on their microphones and cameras and actually participate?” The short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer is that same for “normal” school”: do what you can to establish a personal relationship with each student. My hope (and it is hope, not proof) is that the fundamental principle that students perform best for teachers who invest in them will kick in. It’s not easy to do, but I heard from a teacher yesterday who has kept a laser focus on involving kids orally online since October that the effort is starting to pay off. Talk about patience and persistence!

  3. How many hybrid teachers have you observed in-person.? So far I’ve observed 116. These are real observations that count as part of the teacher’s evaluation. I find that they have adapted rather well and are finding things that are even working better than before that I hope they continue after the pandemic. Teachers and students alike have gotten a huge dose of digital literacy that won’t go away. Do you feel obligated to write a grim story because that is what you see from the others in the main-stream media who have observed few if any, real classrooms? If you try to find some upsides I suspect you will if you can get away from confirmation bias. I know that “if it bleeds it leads” in most media, but it doesn’t have to here. I have also seen a lot of math teachers flip their lessons rather than trying to do 19th-century math lessons in a hybrid setting. Normally education changes at a glacial pace. Now it’s changing fast, and in some cases for the better.

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