As more schools offer in-person options, what happens to the students who stay virtual?

MJ Slaby
| Indianapolis Star

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INDIANAPOLIS — When Hamilton Southeastern Schools went from all virtual instruction to offering 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.

But 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.

But as districts go from fully virtual to hybrid schedules, it’s also splitting students into two other groups — those who are in-person part-time and those who are always virtual.

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And parents and teachers are noticing the differences, prompting questions about equity for kids who are in the latter group — especially in classrooms where teachers are responsible for both in-person and fully virtual students.

Those equity questions are being asked at districts around the country and came up again at an 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.

One lesson, two audiences

The schedule for Hamilton Southeastern students has been a controversial topic with parents and teachers having mixed reactions to an all-virtual start to the year.

Now that a hybrid schedule is an option, a majority of students have opted in. As of last Thursday, roughly 82% of K-4 students and 77% of students in grades 5-12 were doing 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 that the district used the hybrid schedule to ease into attending in-person.

But 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 she felt those with health concerns “are really being punished by having to stay home.”

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In the hybrid schedule, students stay with the same teachers that 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 that 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. Plus, 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 added that this also 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 are working with in-person students while the virtual students are learning from pre-recorded lessons and attending enrichment sessions with a librarian, specialist or counselor via live video. Teachers can also opt to include virtual students on in-the-classroom lessons for synchronous learning.

Maxx Flavin, the parent of two elementary students in the district, said that this schedule has drastically reduced the amount of time his children spend with their teachers as well as the time they have to interact with classmates. Plus, 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 advocate for making sure the district’s families have a quality virtual learning option all school year.

Parents of elementary virtual learners said this schedule has drastically reduced the live instruction for their students and really limited time for interaction 

In the district’s upper grades, students who are fully virtual or on a virtual day of the hybrid lessons, follow their schedule of classes and some lessons are recorded and some are synchronous, with more of the latter at the high school level.

Teachers said planning for multiple audiences has 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.

While 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.”

But she said teachers are also reassured by knowing 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 more for secondary students as a way to decrease the number of students in buildings and in a given classroom, even when students still switch classes. 

Hybrid schedules are used less often at the elementary level, but there are some districts such as Hamilton Southeastern that are using the approach. 

The schedule allows schools to offer in-person learning while also 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.”

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But it means 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.

Plus, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s unknown how long schools will be using the schedule.

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 and then back to fully in-person.

“We were just getting the hang of (a hybrid schedule) after doing it for a month,” said Lebo, who added that with the upcoming flu season she expects the schedule at Avon to keep changing.

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 already 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 to make that happen. 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 is still undecided for their next phase. It all 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, districts have opted to have teachers have one section of all virtual students in their schedule or to use outsourced education platforms for fully virtual students. In some cases, it’s a mix.

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While this prevents teachers from having both in-person and virtual students, parents have said that the outsourced platforms have a lack of 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 that the students who are fully virtual have the same experience as students who are in the classroom part-time.

“It’s not an easy job,” she said. “And it’s been made harder.”

Not going anywhere

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.

When that change happens, Savage hopes that means her son’s teacher will have more time for small groups with virtual students to do lessons instead of the current 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 as well, 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 this week with the Hamilton Southeastern Education Association to talk about the hybrid schedule and with the virtual learners coalition.

Flavin said the virtual learners coalition wants to find ways it can volunteer to help and give more support and resources to teachers so the district has a strong virtual program.

Having a strong program helps everyone, Flavin said, adding that it’s good for the fully virtual students, but also for the in-person students to have fewer in-person classmates and to have a strong program when they are quarantining. 

“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.”


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