The U-High community is split on whether to opt-in to hybrid learning with many fearing COVID-19 risk. (Charlotte Henderson)
The U-High community is split on whether to opt-in to hybrid learning with many fearing COVID-19 risk.

Charlotte Henderson

Still undecided: Community anxious for hybrid learning details

February 10, 2021

The U-High community is in limbo awaiting confirmation of a hybrid learning option while anticipating details. Families and faculty expressed disappointment about the lack of communication, and some worry that rushing back to school will result in unnecessary risk of exposure to the coronavirus variants.

Faculty members hesitant about hasty return to school

Although many faculty members are excited about returning to in-person classes, they remain confused and nervous about the reopening, leading several faculty members to fear the return will be chaotic. 

The hybrid model under consideration would limit in-person student attendance to 50 percent to maintain social distance. Thus, students opting into the hybrid model would be distance learning half the time while those who opt-out would remain distance learning every day.

Science teacher Sharon Housinger is concerned about the lack of time before March 8 when faculty and students in grades 6-12 are set to return to classrooms.

“We just don’t have any time to figure all this out,” Ms. Housinger said. “The university hasn’t told us anything about how hybrid will work. That’s a real problem because we need to figure out the best ways to teach everyone while keeping people safe and healthy.”

In addition to the lack of details from the University of Chicago about the return, teachers are unsure whether the benefits of going back in-person outweigh the loss in academic rigor during the adjustment. 

“With all the downsides of virtual learning, we’ve all gotten more or less used to it and are getting through much of our material,” English teacher Christine Himmelfarb said. 

Ms. Himmelfarb is also unsure that switching to a hybrid model will have a significant effect on student mental health, due to a potential lack of interest among students in returning.

“If it’s about student mental health, I’m not sure how much this will help,” she said. “I took a poll of my class and only two students said they would definitely go back. Of course, I don’t know if that’s representative of the whole school, but neither does the administration. If we go back and it’s just me there with a couple students all six feet apart in-person and everyone else on Zoom, what’s the point?”

P.E. teacher Deborah Ribbens believes that teaching P.E. using a hybrid model presents unique challenges.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into changing the curriculum to fit online, and I’m not sure there’s enough overlap to provide a good experience for everybody,” Ms. Ribbens said. “The biggest problem is that we won’t have the same equipment, so even if we figure out the logistics of setting up hybrid, we have to plan out another curriculum more than halfway through the year.”

Logistically, neither Ms. Ribbens, Ms. Housinger nor Ms. Himmelfarb knows how they will teach in-person and online students simultaneously. According to them, the school has not provided a solution to this problem.

“I’ve thought about this a lot and I just don’t know how I can teach both in-person and virtual students,” Ms. Housinger said. “Either the students at home will be almost entirely asynchronous, or my in-person students will also join on Zoom. There’s just no way I can give my attention to both groups at the same time, and that gives me a lot of stress.”

Ms. Housinger, who is also vice president of the Faculty Association, is concerned that students who choose to remain online may not receive a comparable educational experience to those in-person.

“This is also an issue of inequality,” Ms. Housinger said. “If you’re wealthy and you live in Hyde Park, you’re more likely to come to school and receive in-person attention. If you live far away, or don’t want to take public transportation then you’re online and have to settle for less.”

Ms. Himmelfarb believes that with faculty input and more time, it would be possible for a plan to be devised. Therefore, she understands the Faculty Association’s request to delay in-person learning until after negotiations between the FA and the University of Chicago.

“There are things that we could learn from the Booth School that partially reopened and other schools across the country, but finding innovative solutions take time and input from everyone involved,” she said. “I don’t get the sense that we will get that time from the university’s actions, so I understand where the FA is coming from.”

Even though Ms. Ribbens is also concerned about the short amount of time before March 8, she is excited at the prospect of seeing her students in person again.

“I really want to be optimistic and excited,” Ms. Ribbens said. “Going back is what we’ve all been dreaming about for a year — going back and seeing the kids. I’m just not sure how this will work, so I am also nervous that the return could be chaotic.”

Students wait for details, anticipate issues

Although excited by the possibility of seeing their friends, many students remain mostly apprehensive waiting for plans to finalize until deciding whether to return to in-person school.

“I think it really depends on the guidelines and how they’re gonna structure it,” ninth grader Santana Romero said, “but it would be a plus to be able to have that experience of seeing other people.” 

Most of Santana’s friends are returning and she plans on as well but she’s waiting to see what hybrid learning will look like.

Santana said another factor she is considering in her decision is that her mom has received a COVID-19 vaccine.

For senior Sanaa Imami, whether her friends return to school will be a determining factor in her decision and, like Santana, she is waiting for more information about hybrid learning to be released.

In the case students will only be on campus for a few hours each day, Sanaa said she would be more reluctant to return as her commute totals around three to four hours every day

Sanaa anticipates that May Project will leave seniors with even fewer weeks on campus, perhaps making the adjustment to in-person less worthwhile.

On the other hand, senior Stella Heon can’t wait to return to campus even though she realizes many of her classmates aren’t as enthusiastic.

“I’ve honestly been kind of disappointed by the responses I’m getting because everybody’s just like, ‘Yeah I don’t know. I don’t really want to go back to school,’” Stella said. “I don’t understand why people aren’t excited about the fact that life is slowly going back to normal.”

Just the idea of being back on campus is exciting for Stella who is less concerned about the social aspect of returning.

“I absolutely want to go back, even if I’m sitting alone, every single day. I don’t care,” Stella said. “It’ll boost my spirits so much, just to see a moving community in person, in action.”

Stella said she wants to salvage what she can of her last year in high school and hopes to be able to participate in some senior traditions.

“I just desperately want to have that high school movie experience,” Stella said. “Think of the classes and classes of seniors before us, who graduated like it was a promise made to them, went to prom like everybody was gonna go to prom and now it seems like even getting to walk the hallways one more time is just like a fragile promise.”

Apprehensive and optimistic: Parents split on hybrid learning

With the announcement of a hybrid school option, members of the U-High community are faced with the option to return to campus beginning March 8 — one that will require serious consideration not just from students but also from their parents. 

While some parents are concerned about the safety and practicality of a hybrid program, others believe in-person school to be a crucial factor in alleviating the detrimental effects of remote learning on students’ mental health. 

After initially learning about a hybrid option, Laura Yergesheva, parent of junior Kira Sekhar, believes that an in-person program is in the best interest of many students’ mental health. 

“I think it’s a good idea. A lot of the kids need the social aspects of the school,” Ms. Yergesheva said. “As long as it’s in a safe way, where people have thought about it carefully and have made sure that the teachers are vaccinated.”

Ms. Yergesheva’s sentiment is shared by over 200 parents who signed a petition in late January arguing that remote learning has been harmful to student mental health and asking the school to develop an in-person option for their students. 

Among these petition-signers is Laurel Harris, parent of junior Katie Baffa. Ms. Harris was initially enthusiastic about an in-person program, but later expressed great disappointment with the school’s current approach to hybrid learning after a parent meeting on Feb. 4.

“We are greatly disappointed in the lack of creativity, intention and passion in the recent return to school announcement,” Ms. Harris said. “What is the value to my high school student sitting in a room once a week, learning, essentially independently, surrounded by students she doesn’t know, and without a teacher present?”

On the other hand, Talia Baker, parent of junior Emma Baker, worries that an in-person program will force students to make difficult academic adjustments, and their already rigorous classes may be harder to handle in-person. 

“Not only does hybrid learning put people at risk, but more importantly, it presents a new learning challenge on top of the challenging environment the students have already adapted to,” Ms. Baker said. “I think a plan to go back to school when it is safe to do so in the fall would be more optimal.”

Marshall Baker, another of Emma’s parents, also raised a number of concerns regarding the safety of an in-person program, especially with new variants of the coronavirus. 

“We don’t know how likely these variants are to cause significant illness in teachers or young people or how effective the current vaccines will be at establishing immunity to the new variants,” Mr. Baker said. “With these uncertainties, I don’t think it makes sense to move back into hybrid learning, particularly when the school has done such a good job thus far with e-learning.”

In contrast, Ms. Harris believes that the school’s approach to upholding safety guidelines is more extreme than necessary.

“Why is the university forcing a significantly more conservative approach than the IDPH and CDC indicates to be safe?” Ms. Harris said. “We have repeatedly asked to hear directly from the university leadership making these decisions and are met with silence.”

With the announcement that individual students could possibly only attend in-person classes once a week, Ms. Harris worries that the underlying issues of distance learning will continue to present themselves.

“As I see it, the real social and emotional risks to the students, particularly adolescents who now have to face their tremendous physical and social changes alone in their rooms,” Ms. Harris said, “reside squarely with the university leadership team.” 

 

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