How the transition to hybrid learning has affected students, staff, and the operations of UAHS—and what’s to come.
By Callia Peterson, ‘22 and Ben Underwood, ‘21.
After four weeks of fully remote learning for all UAHS students, masked teachers and administrators welcomed back hundreds of students to the building on Monday, Sept. 21.
Students who chose the school-based option were put into one of two groups based on the first letter of their last name and returned for a hybrid learning experience the week of Sept. 21. The goal of hybrid learning is to add an in-person option while still following safety guidelines that wouldn’t be possible if all students were in the building at once.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, students with last names beginning with letters between A and K attend school in-person, whereas on Thursdays and Fridays, students whose last names are in the other part of the alphabet attend in person. Wednesdays are assigned on an alternating basis.
When students in the school-based pathway are not at school, they engage in remote learning activities.
In previous years, students went through each of their eight periods every school day with seven different class transitions. These transitions are opportune times for the COVID-19 virus to spread, so students now follow a block schedule with students attending only four periods in one given day.
Similarly, there are now one-way hallways in all places where a two-way hallway isn’t required. To account for this, there are now eight minutes between periods instead of five as in past years.
All students are required to wear masks when inside the building except for during their lunch break. Desks are spaced six feet apart and are wiped down between periods.
With this new system, students usually only see each of their teachers once a week.
“Hybrid is not ideal, educationally speaking,” principal Andrew Theado said. “This is kind of the middle ground between getting students live access to their teachers, and following safety protocols.”
The mix of independent remote learning and in-person block scheduling has impacted how students juggle their course loads and structure their weeks.
Senior Erin Murphy goes to school in the second half of the week and said the shift in her weekly schedule has been an adjustment.
“Going in the last half of the week—it feels like you are waiting for the week to start. Like your Monday is on a Thursday or Wednesday. That is just weird to me,” she said. “I find that it’s really hard to keep up. I find myself doing a lot of work late at night instead of during the day when I’m supposed to be.”
Science teacher Bryan Wenger said one of the biggest challenges students face with hybrid learning is organization.
“From what I gather, organization is a big thing. You [have] a lot of information with a lot of different ways the information is presented and not a lot of oversight on managing that information. Stuff can get lost in the shuffle pretty easily,” Wenger said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I’m seeing.”
Murphy said a benefit of hybrid learning is the freedom and flexibility to work at her own pace since she is balancing a senior course load, volleyball practice and work at a local nail salon. Since she has flexibility in the way she structures her remote learning days, she said she tends to pick up extra shifts at work during the time she would normally be in school if students went five days a week.
“I work Monday through Wednesday when I can,” Murphy said. “School is happening but it’s way more self-paced. Especially as a senior and someone who can drive, there is a lot more freedom now with hybrid learning, which is so nice.”
Freshman Lauren Wagner said handling the amount of work she is assigned and the transition from staying home full-time to attending school half the week have been the biggest challenges.
“It may just be my classes, but I’ve talked to some friends, and we all agree that we have a lot of work. Last year my brother was a freshman, and he did not have this much work,” Wagner said. “Another [challenge] would be just the transition going from being in the comfort of home and then going into actual school and having a long day of 85 minute classes.”
Murphy said her work load can vary, but she appreciates how teachers are handling hybrid learning.
“It’s kind of like the Goldilocks thing. Some [teachers] definitely are assigning too much, but for the most part my teachers are really doing a nice job with it,” Murphy said. “I feel like teachers are doing a good job providing outside resources for us right now because they know they can’t physically be there. A lot of teachers are giving us as much preparation as they can given the circumstances.”
Murphy also described her remote work as mimicking class work while in-person classes are primarily spent taking tests.
“Most of our class time is actually just spent taking tests, which sucks but it’s the only way to do it where you are going to get through that content,” Murphy said.
Wagner said that like Murphy, she enjoys the self-paced learning aspect of the hybrid model. She also said she likes the smaller class sizes.
“I think that you can work at your own pace. You just have to be disciplined to do your work,” Wagner said. “I also think that it’s good for half the class to be with the teachers so that the teacher can give the students more one-on-one time.”
Upon returning to the building, students have had to adjust their behavior to adhere
to COVID-19 guidelines. Murphy said she noticed students struggling with social distancing and masks procedures.
“During the school day there are definitely times where [I think] there are too many people. I see people not social distancing in halls and stuff, especially in between classes,” Murphy said. “I will see people take down their masks to talk to people, and I’m like ‘why?’ You can tell that there are some more aware than others.”
Similarly, Murphy described crowds of people walking through the hallways very close together during a recent fire drill.
“I remember walking back into the school and thinking [that] there [were] so many people so close to me,” Murphy said. “We were all wearing masks, and they say there is a 15 minute incubation period for it to actually spread, but I was still hyper aware. It [didn’t] feel right. That was definitely something that kind of struck me like, ‘Wow, I haven’t felt this close to people in this long.’”
Outside of school, Wagner said she abides by the same restrictions students have at school and does not see people as often.
“I have had some limits on seeing other people,” Wagner said. “We wear masks and go places and keep our hands clean and area clean. We sanitize our phones a lot just the normal precautionary measures.”
Murphy said she keeps a tight circle of friends that she exposes herself to outside of school. She also believes that she and her friends are more careful than some of her classmates, who she claims are attending large parties outside of school.
“I only hang out with the same four or five people. We are all attending school and we are all staying safe outside of school. We take it with a grain of salt. We’re not going to share food, but we don’t wear masks,” Murphy said. “But there are people out there that are partying all the time—a good amount of people who still are attending high school.”
Wagner typically stays at school for lunch, and she said most of her classmates do the same. Students stay in their second or sixth period depending on the day to eat lunch.
“I stay. It’s just awkward because [the desks] are so far apart [and] you can’t really talk,” Wagner said. “It’s weird to have the masks off.”
As a senior, Murphy has open lunch, and she leaves the building for her lunch hour.
“I do not stay in the building. I think that the high school is doing a very good job about trying to keep people distant, but I find it easier when I’m just with my small circle of friends,” Murphy said.
English teacher Sean Martin said his biggest concern for spreading the virus during hybrid learning is the behavior of students outside of the building.
“At lunch I saw eight students get out of the same car. Only one of them was wearing a mask, and he had the mask tucked under his chin,” Martin said. “That’s the kind of thing that I think is a problem. It’s carelessness that will lead us to having a wider spread than we actually would have otherwise.”
WE’ll FIGURE IT OUT
Though Theado described the hybrid model as not ideal, it’s seen by some as an improvement from the distance learning model.
“In hybrid learning I get to talk with the kids. I get to interact with them,” said Wenger. “I can see what they know … and do things to help the class move along.”
Wenger also acknowledged the downsides to hybrid learning.
“Seeing the kids once a week makes communication very tough, and it also slows down the process,” Wenger said. “We’re not going to be able to get through as much content.”
Martin said he viewed hybrid learning as the worst of all worlds.
“I do think we moved faster when we were fully online, and I know I moved faster when I was fully in-person with my students,” Martin said. “One of the things I value is a classroom community and having a critical mass of students to bounce ideas off one another.”
In the spring, students could choose to have their fourth quarter grade be marked as pass/fail or as a traditional letter grade. This year, though, there is no pass/fail option.
Wenger feels comfortable with this.
“I think there’s enough data to go ahead and give a better evaluation than pass vs. fail,” Wenger said.
According to Theado, learning should take priority over the assignment of grades.
“The most important thing is that students feel like they are learning. The grade should reflect the learning,” Theado said.
Steps are being taken to improve hybrid learning. For instance, screens have gone up around the make-shift classrooms in the Learning Center to make them more private and soundproof, according to assistant principal Matthew Jordan.
“We try to improve things as they come to our attention to try to make it better,” Jordan said.
Beyond the obvious changes in teaching and learning this year, the pandemic has necessitated drastic changes in many other district operations.
The nutritional services department is now requiring students who want a school-provided lunch to preorder online. This system of lunch distribution was implemented because it helps maintain social distancing and reduces the movement of students to help with contact tracing.
Lunches are delivered to classrooms where students eat lunch under the supervision of the teacher of their previous class.
Freshman, sophomores and juniors are not allowed to leave the school building unless a parent signs them out.
According to Jordan, lunch time is one of the biggest challenges in hybrid learning.
“Lunch has been a little tricky for everybody. You’re in [a] room for 85 minutes and 60 minutes on top of that,” he said.
But according to Wenger, lunches have been going well overall.
“Lunches seem to be doing fine,” Wenger said. “Kids take their masks off, eat their lunch and put them back on.”
Counselors have recently begun taking students to the track during lunch, so they can spend some time outside.
As more procedures change, the transportation department has also implemented new protocols in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Students are required to wear masks when on busses, and bus drivers make efforts to keep students separated from each other.
According to transportation director Don Williams, there have not been many problems with students not following protocols. He attributes this to the strength of the UA community.
“Students are well behaved from what I’m getting,” Williams said. “It speaks to how the parents have really spoken with and drilled it into the students [to wear masks]. They’re really just good kids, [too].”
Rather than unruly students, the largest problem within the transportation department is recruiting enough bus drivers after a year heavy in retirements. This is something Williams attributes in part to a fear of the virus.
“We’re actually going to face a driver shortage. We have five retiring between now and January,” Williams said. “I think that [COVID-19] is part of it.”
This issue isn’t unique to the transportation department.
According to nurse coordinator Gina Rancitelli, the nursing department has “seen a drop off in [the substitute] nurse pool this school year.”
Rancitelli also does contact tracing for students and staff who have tested positive for the virus. After a positive test result is reported to the school district, Rancitelli goes through who might have been in close contact based on classes, sports or extracurriculars. Those who are deemed a close contact are then instructed to quarantine.
The district defines a close contact as people are closer than six feet for longer than 15 minutes. This means that if teachers are following the safety protocols, students having to quarantine shouldn’t be an issue according to Theado
On Oct. 30, as many families were gearing up for the Halloween weekend, parents received an email from Theado stating that there were three new confirmed positive tests in the school. This email was sent to fulfill a state mandate issued on Sept. 30 by the Ohio Department of Health about notifying parents of COVID-19 cases broken down by school.
In order to abide by HIPAA and FERPA regulations, Theado refers to infected individuals as “members of our high school family.”
Students who share a class with an infected individual are also notified, but are not given any identifiable information about the positive case.
Information about the positive test results is also posted on the district’s COVID-19 dashboard that lists active and total cases in the entire district along with data about COVID-19 cases in the UA Schools attendance boundary and state-wide data.
Cases are not broken down by school, which district communications director Karen Truett said is to protect the identity of individuals who have tested positive.
The data about cases within the UA Schools attendance boundary is part of a pilot project that allows district officials to make decisions on more than just county-level data. The program, called COVID-19 Analytics and Targeted Surveillance (CATS), was developed in partnership with The Ohio State University College of Public Health, Hilliard City Schools and Dublin City Schools to help the district look at more specific data about the way COVID-19 spreads in Upper Arlington.
“What [CATS] does is give us a chance to look at deeper level data—more than just a straight case count, at our school district boundary level,” Truett said. “We feel like that is a really important piece of evidence to tell us how we’re really doing.”
As of Nov. 2, the dashboard counted 13 active confirmed COVID-19 cases among the 7,175 students and staff in the district, and there have been 24 confirmed cases since Aug. 31.
In consultation with the district’s Medical Advisory Team, which is made up of seven local medical professionals, UA Schools has created a draft matrix awaiting approval from the Board of Education for returning to five-days-a-week where all recommendations must be met for at least three consecutive weeks. It is slated to go before the Board for approval at the Nov. 17 meeting.
The first matrix indicator is the Ohio Public Health Advisory System’s classification of Franklin County with the recommendation being that Franklin County be listed as Orange or Yellow (the levels that indicate the least amount of risk of transmission) for the required time period. On Oct. 15, Franklin County switched from Orange to the Red, where it still remains.
The second indicator is the UA case rate per 100,000 people in the past two weeks for the population within the UA Schools attendance boundary. The requirement is that the case rate must be under 100 cases per 100,000. As of Oct. 29, there are 188 cases per 100,000 people in the boundary.
The third indicator is the school- age case volume by school level as recorded by the CATS system. The recommendation that there are fewer than three cases within the UA attendance boundary for each of the school levels.
The fourth indicator is student and staff illness data. This looks at three data points: student absences due to illness, staff absences due to illness and student clinic visits due to COVID-like symptoms. The matrix recommends that two of these three points are below normal for at least three consecutive weeks. The fifth indicator is about COVID-19 mitigation measures and is met when mask compliance is greater than 90%, all contact tracing is completed within 24 hours and all cleaning and disinfecting protocols are followed.
If students were to return full-time, the district would begin a two-week transition to five-days-a-week. This all-in learning model, as it is referred to by the district, would try to maintain three feet of distance between everyone.
A similar matrix detailing the conditions for returning to enhanced distance learning has not been released.
“I do wish we went all five days, but for safety and health reasons, I do think it’s good we are in hybrid right now,”
Murphy said she does not believe students can return to school in-person full time while still following all safety precautions.
“Now that we’ve turned Red, I personally can’t really wrap my head around five-days-a-week,” Murphy said. “Even when we are only at half capacity, I still see a lot of congestion in certain places. The main stairs will always be congested no matter what. I have memories of upwards of a hundred kids pushing each other like sardines. We look like a mosh pit trying to get through from the main stairs to the attendance office. There is no way that we’re going to be able to maintain distancing. There’s going to be a huge outbreak, and it’s not going to end well.”
Wenger wouldn’t feel completely comfortable with an all-in learning model. “I’m not running away in fear, screaming about it,” Wenger said. “But I would not be the most comfortable.”