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School districts trying hybrid model mixing online, in-person learning

By Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution #atlanta-ga

Luke Parker strolled from the cafeteria toting a container of nachos as his school principal tried to maintain order.

Stand on the dots, he commanded. “Good job wearing your masks, kids.”

On his first day back to school, the new eighth-grader was in a cheery mood. He had just finished English and was off to science next, where he would be gobbling lunch from his carryout container in a socially distanced sort of way.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “Glad to get out of the house.”

Luke is part of an experiment at Cartersville Middle School, among the few schools in Georgia to try a new model of education for this pandemic era.

Most school districts are either going exclusively online or making students choose between that or a full-time in-person experience. In Cartersville, students can attend entirely online, or go to school two days a week and study online for the rest of the time. The goal is to reduce crowding and decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19.

It’s been a few weeks since the start of school in Cartersville, and so far the infection and quarantine levels seem promising.

Despite the logistical challenges, some school districts that opened full time in person are now embracing this so-called “hybrid” model, too.

Back in May, for instance, the Paulding County school board chairman was calling for an “absolute normal” start of school and labeling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for social distancing as “complete crap.” (He has since apologizedfor that comment.) After opening with crowded hallways, then closing days later due to infections and related quarantines, North Paulding High School reopened at the end of last month as a hybrid. So have two other schools there and three in nearby Cherokee County.

Even U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has prodded schools to open their doors, noted a problematic start to Georgia’s school year during a visit to Forsyth County a couple of weeks ago. “I know there have been a couple of schools that have had more incidents of students with the virus,” she said.

She also said the CDC had been “very helpful” with back-to-school recommendations, “and we highly suggest referencing them.”

Forsyth County Schools initially considered a hybrid plan with each student attending on alternating weeks. The district north of Atlanta wound up bringing elementary school students back full time and allowing middle and high school students to select their own mix of online and in-person classes. (Elementary school students must choose one or the other full-time; they don’t get an ala carte option.) Not every class is available online, but the district still calls it a hybrid; DeVos called it a “very viable and solid” model.

The ’Goldilocks’ option

Last spring, after schools abruptly shifted online, Marc Feuerbach anxiously watched the novel coronavirus spread through his community. The superintendent of Cartersville City Schools wanted to get his students back in front of teachers this fall but felt a full return to school would be unsafe.

“Schools aren’t designed for social distancing,” he remembers thinking. “Is there a happy medium?”

Early in the pandemic, education leaders across the country began talking about hybrid schedules as a third way between entirely online and regular schooling, a way to reduce crowding and achieve what infection experts had introduced to the world as “social distance.”

>>How is your school doing with online learning? Is it better than last spring? Let us know at CoronavirusEducation@ajc.com

It seemed a likely direction for many schools until they got into the details. How would the scheduling work for families with kids at different schools? How would parents be able to work on those days when their children were home? Would the cost of busing skyrocket? How to explain all this to parents, who in many cases, had already decided whether they were willing to send their children to school?

The idea started out strong then faded, said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a research and consulting organization for Georgia and 15 other states.

The Georgia Department of Education reluctantly proposed the hybrid model for communities with a moderate infection rate, warning that it should only be implemented “if absolutely necessary.”

Few in Georgia have chosen it, so far.

“It became such a lift for some that they didn’t go there,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt feels it is a lost opportunity, since the hybrid model forces teachers to become “bilingual” in teaching styles, always thinking how to present the same material both in-person and online. Also, schools could use it to adjust to rising or falling levels of COVID-19, edging into full-time, face-to-face learning or scooting back online. And once they learned how to do it well, they could use the hybrid model during future emergencies, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and snowstorms.

In Cartersville, students with last names beginning with A-K attend school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays while the L-Z students go on Thursdays and Fridays. The other weekdays, they study online.

A handful of districts are trying out this “A/B” attendance model. Barrow County, near Athens, opens under a part-time schedule Tuesday. Henry County, southeast of Atlanta, plans to open as a hybrid at month’s end. Hall County, along Lake Lanier, started as a hybrid two weeks ago. Fayette County, southwest of Atlanta, has been operating as one for three weeks. The district of about 20,000 students tweaked the model, schooling children from prekindergarten through second grade full time in person with the older students in classrooms two days a week. In Marietta, that same age group, plus some students in grades three through five, will be invited into their classrooms two days a week starting Tuesday. Older students will remain online, where classes have been held since school started there a month ago.

Fayette Superintendent Joseph Barrow wanted students to get to know their teachers, but he didn’t want to open one week then “yo-yo” closed the next because of infections and quarantines. He saw the hybrid model as a “Goldilocks” option, allowing face time with more social distancing and therefore less risk.

While some communities are polarized around virtual versus in-person learning and mask mandates, Kelley Dial, the Cartersville school board chair, said she had heard few if any complaints after the board authorized Feuerbach’s plan.

When asked if she hesitated about going hybrid when districts around her were opening with an almost normal in-person option— Cartersville is in Bartow County, which borders Cherokee and Paulding — she said: “I was a little surprised that these other counties were just opening as if nothing bad was, you know.”

The results

So is it working?

A definitive answer is difficult given the diverse scale and demographics of Georgia’s 180 school districts, not to mention the variation in community infection rates. But early numbers suggest a cause for hope.

During its first two weeks back, the Cartersville schools recorded four students testing positive for COVID-19 — less than one for every thousand enrolled and 11 others in quarantine because they were close contacts.

Chad Parker, whose son Luke was the student toting nachos on his first day back at Cartersville Middle School, said he was on board with the hybrid idea from the get-go. “I feel like it’s safer to have half the population there,” he said.(Fewer than half, actually, since 17% chose the full-time online option.)

Sarah Belisle, a science teacher at Luke’s school, said she has been working more, checking on students who are taking their turn at home during her breaks and after school. She said it is worth the extra time since it means she can see them in person. She has been worried about the effect of home isolation. “I just want to be with kids,” she said.

Cartersville announced last week that it now appears to be safe enough to wind down their hybrid option. Elementary school students return full-time after Labor Day. If that goes well, the middle school students will follow a week later and the high school students a week after that.

Feuerbach, the superintendent, had said three weeks earlier that this was what he had hoped would happen. “It was important for us to create something that was flexible, that we could roll into and out of,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cherokee and Paulding are rolling into part-time attendance at multiple schools. A Paulding high school and middle school have already joined North Paulding High as hybrids, and two more high schools will become hybrids Wednesday, leaving just one of the district’s high schools on a normal schedule, a spokesperson said.

In Cherokee, three high schools that had to close due to high infection and quarantine numbers reopened as hybrids Thursday.

Part-time school is not ideal but is better than reopening in full and having to close again, Cherokee Superintendent Brian Hightower told his school board last month.

“Two days,” he said, “is better than no days.”

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