The hybrid learning model for schools reopening is ‘imperfect on many levels,’ experts say

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/08/03: A protester holds a placard that says No return

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/08/03: A protester holds a placard that says No return until zero cases during the demonstration. (Photo by Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/08/03: A protester holds a placard that says No return until zero cases during the demonstration. (Photo by Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

While some schools across the country have already reopened their doors to students and staff, it’s crunch time for other states and school districts to decide what learning will look like in their areas this fall. And pandemic school models vary wildly.

Chicago Public Schools officials announced on Wednesday that the city’s schools will be fully remote until “at least” November 6. In a series of tweets, school officials shared graphics that featured the headline, “Families Not Yet Ready to Return to Classrooms,” noting that many district families are hesitant to do in-person schooling. 

Schools in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles have also revealed that they plan to start students on a remote-only program this fall. New York City schools are the only major school system in the U.S. that plans to offer in-person classes in the fall.

However, those schools will be operating on a hybrid model, where students spend part of the week doing in-person learning, and part of the week in remote classes, according to a letter published online by New York City Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza. There is an exception: “Any family can choose 100% remote learning for any reason,” the letter says, adding that families need to let the school system know by Friday “so that schools have enough time to plan.”

Hybrid learning is a fairly new concept — it allows school systems to try to cater to both parents who want in-person learning and those who prefer remote.

This model of schooling is mentioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in guidance for schools released in May. Hybrid learning and staggered or rotating class schedules are labeled by the CDC as having “more risk” for the spread of COVID-19 compared to fully remote classes (labeled “lowest risk”) and full-sized, in-person classes (“highest risk”).

However, it hasn’t been a popular choice among major school districts. Infectious disease experts say a lot of how successful hybrid learning will be in limiting the spread of COVID-19 depends on how it’s implemented. “On a given day of in-person schooling, you will decrease the number of students in school and in a classroom if it’s done right,” Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “That will hopefully decrease interactions, which is a good thing.”

Most schools “aren’t designed for optimal physical distancing” and a hybrid model allows administrators to try to do their best, Russo says. Still, he says, “it’s imperfect on many levels.”

A hybrid model is “trying to address” both in-person concerns and remote requests, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “It tries to make schools safer by having less children in at any given time,” he says. “This is simply a response to schools not having the capacity for social distancing.” 

However, Adalja says, it’s unclear how well this type of schooling will do at containing the spread of COVID-19. “There is a lot of debate over how effective a hybrid model will be, and if it adds anything significant when compared to just going back full-time and trying to cope with it,” he says.

“At least at the beginning, what happens in schools is going to mirror what goes on in the community,” Dr. Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics-infectious disease at the Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Whether or not they drive transmissions in the community, we don’t know. This is going to be a grand experiment.”

Still, “every little bit helps,” Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. “The hybrid model, what it does for us in terms of infectious disease, is it reduces the number of possibilities when kids could transmit the virus to each other,” he says. “It probably could go a long way toward preventing future outbreaks from happening.”

But school systems need to factor in considerations, like how much community spread is happening at any given time, even with a hybrid model, Marta E. Wosińska, deputy director of policy at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, and a contributor to COVID-19 tracking website COVID Exit Strategy, tells Yahoo Life. “If community spread is high, it’s going to be impossible for schools to contain the virus, even with a hybrid model,” she says. “The idea of opening in a hybrid model in Florida, Arizona or any other area with high community transmission doesn’t make sense.”

There have been concerns raised about families needing childcare to help on remote learning days, and how that can expose the child to another potential source of infection. The concern, some say, is that the child could then bring that infection to school, where they can infect others. But Adalja doesn’t think this is will be a huge problem. “Many families who would use childcare have already been using some form of childcare throughout this time,” he says. “So, from an epidemiology standpoint, it doesn’t change much.”

How parents use at-home childcare on remote days matters, too, Russo says. “Are those caregivers going to be wearing masks and social distancing? The devil is in the details,” he says.  

Russo says that, ultimately, the way hybrid plans are executed matters. “Everyone is coming up with all of these plans but, if they’re not executed well, it’s going to be problematic,” he says.

Ultimately, Adalja expects learning strategies — including hybrid models — to change during the year. “You can expect these types of learning models to change and shift during the school year as people learn what works, what doesn’t, and what becomes cumbersome,” he says.

“Nobody can predict what will happen,” Starke says. “There’s no chance.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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