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One Month In, N.H.'s Hybrid School Models Get Mixed Reviews


Some of the state's largest school districts – including Concord and Manchester - are moving from a largely remote model of instruction to a hybrid later this month.

Many schools in New Hampshire have already been experimenting with the hybrid system for several weeks, with varying degrees of success. 

Here’s what we’ve heard about how that's working.

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What's the Hybrid Model?

The ‘hybrid’ looks different in each school, but typically divides students into two groups with schedules that alternate - some days they’re in school, some days at home. This approach allows class sizes to stay small, allowing for social distancing and easier contact tracing, should a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19.

So far, the hybrid model has allowed some districts – like Bedford – to stay open even after positive COVID-19 cases, in part because of the social distancing made possible with smaller cohorts.

In Manchester, where class sizes often exceed 20 and the transmission level for the coronavirus remains higher than the rest of New Hampshire, reopening with a hybrid model is the only way schools could meet COVID safety protocols.

Credit Courtesy of NH Department of Education
According to the N.H. DOE, 42% of SAU’s have reopened with a hybrid model. This number fluctuates weekly, as news of positive cases forces some in-person and hybrid schools to go remote temporarily.

Hybrid Pros: In-Person Connection and Fewer Demands on Parents

Hybrid models allow schools to resume a version of what they’re built to do: educate students in-person. They also alleviate some of the burdens on parents and guardians, who are juggling jobs and other responsibilities with overseeing their kids learning from home.

National surveys and early data from local districts show that many students struggled during remote learning, and that the ‘COVID slide’ was worse for students who are low income, have special ed needs, and/or have limited tech access.

Even limited face-to-face instruction and support in the building, advocates and school officials say, will help address this.

For some classes – such as music and science – the in-person interactions are a major improvement to remote learning in the spring.

At Londonderry High School, music students at home during their remote day livestream band class. When it’s time to rehearse, they mute themselves and play along as their teacher, Joe Mundy, conducts the in-person cohort.

“We’ve had a pretty successful go at it so far,” says Mundy. “We’re lucky. All the kids are set up with devices that allow them to be participating, and we haven’t had any internet issues…I know that we’re fortunate.”

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Hybrid Cons: ‘Sheer Exhaustion’ and Compromised Instruction

But teachers in some schools say the hybrid model is unsustainable.

“The vibe is one of sheer exhaustion,” says Emily DePalma Carr, an English teacher at Pinkerton Academy who is now a month into the hybrid model. “At first it was a paralysis, like ‘I don’t even know what to do’ it’s auto pilot and survival mode.”

Carr says veteran teachers like herself are spending hours planning for one lesson, trying to design a lecture and discussion that engages with the cohort in their classroom at the same time as they stream the lesson to a remote cohort online.

Carr and many other teachers expressed concern this summer about returning to the building. But with no indications yet that reopening is leading to a major second wave of the coronavirus, Carr wonders whether it’s time to consider fully reopening.

“Now I’m like: bring them all back or let’s go remote,” says Carr. “Either one has to be preferable, logistically, to the hybrid.”

Dr. Timothy Powers, the headmaster at Pinkerton Academy, says hybrid is the best compromise.

“This whole world has been flipped upside down,” he says. “Everyone is in an uncomfortable space, trying new things, so it's just going to take time to get to a place with some kind of consistency and rhythm.”

Credit Graphics by Sara Plourde/NHPR

The model in Carr’s class – and many other hybrid classrooms - is called “synchronous instruction.” It provides more live class time for students at home but has a lot of glitches.

Jennifer Weaver, an elementary school reading teacher in Franklin trying out the synchronous approach, says her school is able to do hybrid in part because every student has a Chromebook.

“It should be seamless,” she laughs. But internet problems and old technology are a constant complication. Recently, she was halfway through reading a digital book aloud before she realized a remote student’s computer was frozen, and he was still staring at page two.

Next Steps for Hybrid Models

As per the state’s school reopening guidelines, all districts have plans to move from hybrid to fully remote or to full reopening, depending on the local COVID-19 conditions and community concerns.

Last month, a handful of schools that had reopened with a hybrid model transitioned to remote because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Other schools – including Westmoreland and Claremont – plan to move to more fully in-person instruction in October, in part because of frustration with the hybrid model.

Schools sticking with the hybrid model are still sorting out how to engage students during their remote days and find a balance between screen time and hands-on learning. In some districts, that’s meant moving away from a synchronous approach. Others are assigning dedicated teachers to students on their remote days, rather than relying on worksheets or livestreams.

For thousands of students in Manchester, Concord, and Nashua, that process will begin later this month.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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