‘All Eyes Are on New York’: Can It Pull Off Hybrid Learning in Schools?

The model seems like a promising way to provide socially distanced instruction in classrooms. But will it actually work?

Credit...James Estrin/The New York Times

Over the summer, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration settled on what seemed like a logical solution to the puzzle of reopening less crowded school buildings during the pandemic. Students would cycle in and out of classrooms, learning remotely the rest of the time.

But turning this so-called hybrid system into a reality has proved to be a logistical morass.

The city still needs to hire thousands of teachers to staff online and in-person classes. The staffing crisis forced Mr. de Blasio to delay the start of in-person classes for a second time last week. And a web of restrictions, pushed for in part by the teachers’ union, has essentially forced principals to create two versions of school, one in person and one online, a situation that has led to last-minute scheduling changes that have frustrated parents.

Now, the city’s 1,700 principals are racing to make their limited staffing work for children in elementary, middle and high school. Only pre-K students and children with advanced disabilities have been allowed to return to classrooms so far. The task, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, is “the hardest logistical challenge in probably most administrators’ careers.”

New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, is not the first in the country to attempt hybrid education, which is intended to reduce density in schools in order to allow for social distancing. But the system’s enormous size presents hurdles almost unimaginable elsewhere. The city’s stumbles have raised urgent questions about the viability of hybrid learning at scale.

The city is attempting to become the first major city to offer in-person instruction this fall by phasing students into classrooms over the next few weeks. As schools reopen here, educators in other big cities that are hoping to reopen classrooms after beginning their years fully remote — including Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston — are learning from New York’s example that low virus transmission and strong health and safety precautions are only the first step.

“All eyes are on New York,” Ms. Weingarten said.

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Across the city, principals have had to improvise as they rush to prepare for opening day. Some elementary schools have asked teachers to lead both in-person and online classes on the same day, skirting a restriction recently put in place by the city at the behest of the teachers’ union. Others have quietly defied the union and the city by planning to livestream in-person classes to students learning at home.

And at Urban Assembly Maker Academy, a high school in Lower Manhattan, the principal, Luke Bauer, has had to create his own model to avoid a major staff shortage.

After the hybrid plan was announced, Mr. Bauer ran the numbers: If roughly half of his 400 students came to school just a few days per week, and another group was remote full-time, he would have to double his staff to create two sets of teachers for each group. “I was like, I don’t see a way to do this,” he said.

So Mr. Bauer asked his students to opt out of in-person classes altogether if they were able to, and almost all did. The handful of students who will report to classrooms on Oct. 1 will learn from their laptops in school, signing into the same Zoom rooms as their classmates at home.

Many other large high schools, including Stuyvesant, Townsend Harris and Bronx Science, have done the same, looking to offer their normal class schedules.

Mr. de Blasio’s administration has added about 4,500 educators in recent days, but the principals’ union has said schools need at least double that to function.

Asked about the staffing issue earlier this week, Mr. de Blasio defended the city’s plan. “The approach works and I feel good that we’ll have the people we need when we need them,” he said during a news conference.

Still, after he announced the second delay to in-person classes, the mayor acknowledged that reopening “was a greater challenge than anyone foresaw.”

Credit...Todd Heisler/The New York Times

The idea of hybrid education emerged this summer out of the deep frustration many educators, students and parents felt with all-remote instruction in the early days of the pandemic, when almost all of the country’s schools shut down in-person classes.

Many districts, desperate to offer their students at least some in-person instruction, embraced hybrid learning as a solution to the glaring problem of how to maintain social distancing in crowded classrooms. In New York, the hybrid model has transformed buildings: Classrooms that once held about 30 children might now accommodate nine.

But the country’s hurried experiment in blended instruction has come under sharp criticism from many educators, who have questioned whether the benefits of such limited in-person instruction outweigh the huge logistical hurdles. To some of these critics, hybrid learning is the worst of all worlds.

“The bottom line here is that under the hybrid model, basically nobody is getting full-time instruction,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association.

Though hybrid instruction was created to mitigate some risks, it could also create new ones, said Joseph Allen, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Children could end up mixing with more groups by attending school some days and going to child care or the homes of friends or relatives on other days to allow their parents to return to work.

Hybrid reopening also does not solve the child care puzzle for many families, because it does not allow parents to return to work five days a week. The need for consistency in child care plans is one reason 46 percent of New York City’s parents have opted their children out of in-person classes altogether, according to the city’s Department of Education.

“Schools, parents and teachers had a false reassurance that this magical hybrid plan was going to save the day,” Mr. Allen said. “People are realizing the hybrid plan meant no plan.”

Credit...Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Still, some smaller districts around the country have forged ahead with their own part-time schooling plans in recent weeks, so far without glaring problems.

Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, with roughly 76,000 students, is one of the largest districts in the country offering a hybrid model, with every student who wants it getting two days a week of in-person classes. On Fridays, all students learn from home, and teachers check in with them virtually.

The district has tried to make hybrid work by livestreaming lessons so that students who are in the building and students who are at home can watch simultaneously.

That practice has been discouraged in New York. The teachers’ union has said livestreaming would unfairly burden teachers by forcing them to to teach two different groups of students simultaneously. Chancellor Richard A. Carranza said that the method “is not educationally sound,” warning that it could be confusing to children logging on from home. Still, some other districts and even private schools within New York have tried livestreaming, and say it is working so far.

But many principals feel that the city’s plan left too many details up to individual schools. Every principal had to assess how many students they could fit in their building while maintaining six feet of distance between them, and if they could fit half or a third of their students at a time. This led to significantly varying schedules between schools.

Because there were no deadlines set for students to opt out of in-person learning or for teachers to request medical accommodations to work remotely, the number of children and staff in schools is constantly changing. Over 20 percent of teachers have already been granted waivers to work at home, according to the city’s Department of Education.

A web of last-minute changes and requirements made through deals with the powerful teachers’ union also restricted the city’s ability to offer a thorough plan, said Evan Stone, the co-founder of Educators For Excellence, a teachers group.

“I have deep empathy for the challenges the district is facing. But I think they negotiated a plan that, if they talked to a large number of teachers and principals about it, they would have told them, this won’t work,” he said, adding, “maybe the union did know it would fail.”

Credit...Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

As part of the city’s agreement with the union, principals cannot require teachers to do both in-person and remote instruction on the same days. Some principals have simply opted to disregard that guidance, in consultation with their teachers. The agreement also requires schools to essentially create three groups of teachers: one to handle all-remote students, another to teach hybrid students when they are in the classroom and a third to teach hybrid students at home.

But that means many schools, some of which have seen their budgets slashed during the pandemic, would have to double their teaching staff to fulfill Mr. de Blasio’s promise that all students would have live teaching — a major demand from parents — every day that they were learning at home.

Late one night last week, the city emailed an update to principals advising them that they were no longer required to offer live instruction to hybrid students on their home days.

Now, principals who are trying to provide effective instruction often have little choice but to ignore the official rules, said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the city’s principals’ union.

“They are reprogramming their school every other day,” he said of the city’s principals. “It’s just too much to ask of any human being. You can’t give them two pieces of wood and say, build a house.”

Kate Taylor contributed reporting.