For Toronto mom Sandra Huh, the “hybrid” model of school learning in pandemic times is a bit like a swim instructor teaching those in the pool, those watching from the deck and others not even by the pool — all at the same time.
With a new school year underway next month, several school boards in Ontario are returning to the so-called hybrid learning model, where one educator simultaneously teaches students in class and those logging in from home. In certain cases, even remote students learning on their own schedule are part of the class.
The system was tested out widely in K-12 schools last year as a remote learning option during the COVID-19 pandemic and is back on the table this year after the province announced online learning would continue.
But critics — including parents, teachers and some education experts — say it forces a teacher to do too many things at once and compromises the quality of learning for students. They want virtual and in-person learning conducted separately by dedicated teachers for each, rather than combined in the same classroom.
Continuing her swim analogy, Huh says an instructor in that scenario would have to do several things at once: “Teach in every section of the pool. To figure out how to keep them safe. Teach them the lesson. Keep them engaged. How do you do that when there’s just so much going on?”
Perhaps one kid is in danger of drowning just as students on the deck start a commotion, said Huh, whose nine-year-old son Ashton learned remotely under the York Catholic District School Board’s hybrid system last year.
“There’s all sorts of things that are happening within a given classroom, but especially in the hybrid model,” said Huh. “How do you get the teacher to be able to do all these things all at once?”
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‘Pandemic emergency circumstances’
Several school boards employing the hybrid model this fall say it keeps remote learners connected to classmates and teachers at the school they would normally attend. They say the model offers flexibility for moving between in-person and online learning under the same instructor, if needed.
That connection and flexibility are the main reasons the Upper Canada District School Board is returning to hybrid learning again, says Susan Rutters, the board’s superintendent of schools. Plus, the alternative some are calling for — standalone virtual classrooms for remote students — requires additional staff and funds.
Even before the pandemic started, Upper Canada — the Eastern Ontario board representing the area surrounding but not including Ottawa — found it difficult to secure occasional and supply teachers, she said, adding that the province has not earmarked funding specifically for separate virtual schools.
“From a practical standpoint, our ability to staff a fully separate virtual program would be very, very difficult to meet,” Rutters said. The hybrid model was Upper Canada’s best option under those circumstances.
“I certainly wouldn’t ever advocate that it’s a perfect model [or] that it’s a model that we or most boards, any board, would really select outside of pandemic emergency circumstances,” she said.
‘Never a good solution’
The hybrid model has been used before the pandemic, but typically for post-secondary or older secondary students and usually in specific circumstances, like providing access to advanced or specialized courses not offered locally.
Elsewhere in Canada, some boards put the hybrid system into place for secondary students last year. In Newfoundland and Labrador for instance, it was used to alternate high-school cohorts between in-person and remote learning. Some Calgary schools used it if a teacher or certain students had to isolate at home while others continued in-person learning.
“It was never a good solution,” said Karen Brown, the newly elected president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. The union’s approximately 83,000 members include public elementary teachers, education support staff and designated early childhood educators.
“[Hybrid] might be convenient for some parents because they have students at home, but in regards to the quality of education, it’s not the best that our members could deliver because their attention is divided — which means your child’s learning is divided,” said Brown.
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The process to staff classrooms usually starts four or five months before the school year, but during the pandemic, Ontario schools boards have been giving families much more time to choose between in-class or remote learning, says the University of Ottawa’s Sachin Maharaj. That decision can lead to grappling with last-minute changes.
Some boards opt for the hybrid model to avoid the scramble to staff both in-person and virtual classes on short notice, said Maharaj, an assistant professor of education who studies decision-making processes at the school board level.
However, boards that choose hybrid must be transparent with families about the trade-offs the model brings, he said.
‘Figure it out’
What did Maharaj learn from research into teachers and parents who experienced the hybrid system last year?
That students fell into two camps: remote students left to lesser alternatives while those in class “did experiential types of activities that just really can’t be replicated online,” he says, or in-person students staring into their laptops all day while sitting at school.
“In-person and online are just two very different modes of teaching and both can be done well, but when you’re asking teachers to do both simultaneously, I think that comes at a cost: that cost being… the quality of the learning experience for students.”
Maharaj says that at the very least, instructors need specific training for the hybrid approach and in-person classrooms properly equipped for clear interaction with remote learners.
“What we’re seeing in a lot of the publicly-funded school boards though is that’s not the case,” he said. “Teachers are often being given nothing more than a laptop, maybe an additional webcam or a microphone… and then being told to figure it out.”
He is concerned that those continuing with the hybrid model will face more difficulty catching students up from the learning loss that’s developed or worsened since spring 2020.
“As we go into the next school year, our attention should be focused on reducing those gaps, reducing those inequities,” he said. “A hybrid learning approach is just going to make that much more difficult to do… because [teachers’] attention is going to be spread between the two different modes.”
Playing second fiddle
After guiding her eldest through a dedicated virtual Grade 1 class last year, Samantha Lawrence is alarmed that her daughter Audrey’s school board, York Region, is shifting to the hybrid model this fall. She’s especially worried because she’ll now have both a second-grader as well as a junior kindergarten student, her middle child Taylor, enrolled for school.
The Stouffville, Ont., parent says she believes the kids will benefit greatly from in-person learning. However, if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, she’s considering homeschooling — while also juggling her toddler Charlie — instead of having them learn remotely in a hybrid classroom.
Lawrence wants to see dedicated virtual classes again for remote learning — she feels the hybrid model isn’t good for students at home or in school.
“Face-to-face students are not getting the kind of quality education they deserve,” she said. “Online kids are really second fiddle.”