After an hours-long debate, the Douglas County School Board broke with a recommendation from its superintendent to launch hybrid learning on Monday and instead voted to keep middle and high schools in remote education through at least early February.
The Jan. 19 decision came in light of strong pushback from classroom teachers, who had advocated against a hasty return to any in-person learning and called hybrid learning “a failure.”
The board directed Interim Superintendent Corey Wise to provide another update on the district’s ability to begin hybrid learning at their Feb. 2 board meeting, with a potential launch on Feb. 8.
Wise’s recommendation had been to start hybrid learning for secondary students on Jan. 25. He said hybrid learning allows for more “active time” between students and teachers because they can spend two days a week together in classrooms.
Schools would also be better able to monitor students’ mental health during the ongoing public health crisis, he said.
Elementary school students have conducted full in-person learning since Jan. 5. That has proven safe and sustainable so far, Wise said, calling it a promising sign for launching hybrid among older students.
Wise said repeatedly there will not be a perfect solution to second semester learning as the district is facing an onslaught of starkly different opinions regarding how to educate students during COVID-19. There also will not be a perfect time to switch models, he said.
Wise pointed to survey results that asked teachers if they felt ready to follow the district’s former plan of returning to hybrid learning by Jan. 25. The district received 1,761 responses.
On a scale of 1 to 5, 31% of respondents rated their readiness at a 5, about 24% rated it at a 4, 22% at a 3, 11% at a 2 and 13% at a 1. Wise said readiness to go hybrid will differ by school.
Board President David Ray scrutinized that survey based on teacher feedback during public comment.
“It almost feels like we’ve asked the wrong question. Whether you are ready or not is one question. Whether it’s effective is another,” Ray said.
Kallie Leyba, president of local teachers union Douglas County Federation, said those results were misleading. Teachers were told the decision to return to hybrid learning was already made and the survey asked if they felt ready for the transition, not if they wanted to return to hybrid learning, she said.
Wise confirmed the district surveyed educators about the previous plan — returning to hybrid — and if they were ready for the transition. The district would need to continue asking teachers how to improve hybrid, he said.
“We have been in hybrid and we are only going to get better,” Wise said.
Numerous teachers spoke during public comment urging directors against returning schools to hybrid or in-person learning before vaccines are available for educators, something that’s unlikely until March.
Educators felt spread thin managing both in-person learning and students learning at home when the district conducted hybrid learning first semester, teachers said.
Engagement and attendance among students were also lower during hybrid than during remote, they told directors.
“I have never worked so hard for so little,” Castle View High School teacher Jessica Hunziker said.
Some teachers believed remote learning would reduce disruption to learning because students would not be moving in and out of quarantines or forced to suddenly switch learning models if COVID-19 cases rise.
Remote education would provide students with consistency, teachers said. It enables them to connect with students daily and help cohorts socialize with one another.
Several students also spoke to directors, urging the district against returning secondary schools to hybrid learning.
Leigh Walden, a senior at Castle View High School, said recent weeks have proven the most consistent, most effective and the least stressful for her this year.
She also worried about health risks during hybrid or in-person learning, particularly with the emergence of more transmissible variants of the virus.
“A return to the hybrid model is a shortsighted and irresponsible solution,” she said.
Legend High School senior Ethan Reed said hybrid was difficult on students because they covered less material and did little schoolwork on independent learning days. He also predicted more quarantines and disruption to learning under a hybrid model. Jan. 25 was the wrong time to make the switch, he said.
There have also been consistent calls at school board meetings from parents who want full, in-person learning, and their emotional pleas continued Jan. 19.
Parents of students with disabilities or individualized education plans urged a return to in-person learning and said other models do not provide equity to their children.
Other parents said remote education is harmful to many students’ mental health and pales in comparison academically to in-person instruction.
Remote education might work for some teachers and students, but they don’t believe it works for the majority of those in district schools.
Some suggested giving families two choices — full in-person instruction or full “eLearning,” the district’s online learning option during COVID-19.
“I’m happy that (teachers) are able to fool themselves into thinking the situation is better,” one Castle View High School senior said.