Roundtable: The Challenges of Hybrid and Virtual Learning

As students and teachers settled into new processes and schedules this fall—we don’t dare say “routines”—navigating the changes has involved perseverance, grit, and flexibility. From online sequences to hybrid models to in-person classes, teachers and administrators continue to stand poised to embrace whatever changes come their way. To delve deeper into the experiences of this current reality, we spoke with Rebekah Floryance, assistant principal at the Early College Academy and the Career Enrichment Center (a magnet high school) in Albuquerque, NM, who is also the 2020 New Mexico Assistant Principal of the Year; Kevin Gideon, assistant principal at Bartlett High School in Bartlett, TN, and 2020 Tennessee Assistant Principal of the Year; and Meghan Redmond, assistant principal at Chief Ivan Blunka School in New Stuyahok, AK, and 2019 NASSP National Assistant Principal of the Year. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the conversation.

Savicky: What have been the greatest challenges of hybrid or virtual school for your students?

Floryance: The Albuquerque Public Schools and the state of New Mexico decided to begin the school year here in August completely virtual, with a few exceptions for our [students with special needs]. At the Career Enrichment Center, we have our [licensed practical nursing] program. This program mandates that students have clinical lab time, and we got special permission to allow for that. This educational learning environment will be similar to the medical field these students will be going into. This also allows our administrative team to try out the hybrid model and make adjustments with a low number of students. Our challenges—I think we’re all building up our Google endurance as our students adapt and focus. But the focus is now shifting. We are transitioning from how to use technology to how to leverage technology to improve academic outcomes. The dust is settling right now with connectivity issues, making sure that students are attending class and how to find the teacher’s log-on information. We are prepared to act or pivot depending on what other patterns begin to surface.

Gideon: We’ve been a 1:1 device school for a few years now. So, building on what Floryance said, we’ve overcome the on-screen endurance to know how to use the technology. But now it’s about the time management for our students. They’re not used to being online or in a Zoom room for hour after hour after hour on a school day. That’s where some students have really adjusted really well. Some of our students who typically have attendance issues are being very successful in the virtual area. But we also see some of the students who have been successful in the classroom still adapting to the new norm. A problem is that the “norm” is changing almost weekly, if not daily. I think one of the things that we have really tried to embrace is this full idea of flexibility, especially for our students.

Redmond: I live in rural Alaska in an off-the-road-system community accessible only by airplane. We are completely isolated. I think that the biggest challenge for our students is that we do not have the infrastructure in our communities in our district to have in-home internet. So, we’ve tried to build a schedule around the priority of having students in the building as much as possible. For right now, we’re going to have our elementary students coming in all day every day, and our secondary students are going to be coming into the building half the day. The other half of the day, they’re going to be doing distance learning. We started school late this year so that we could jump in headfirst in installing a metro network into the homes of our students. This way they can access the servers that we’re going to host in our schools to access the distance-learning platform. Limited home internet is available, but if we were to push that out into all of the homes in our communities, it would completely crash the network. There’s not enough infrastructure in our area to bear that weight.

Savicky: What have been some of the greatest challenges of this new schooling for your teachers?

Gideon: The biggest thing is the learning curve that teachers are going through, moving from being in the classroom and having the students physically present and now having to learn how to use the technology, and Zoom rooms, and Google Docs that have always been present but have always been used as a support. Now they’re a necessity in the classrooms. One of my teachers said she’s having to redefine her instructional practices, but at the same time she’s thankful for it, because it’s making her look at her past practices in a new way.

One of the things that we really want is to make sure that we’re providing equitable learning opportunities between the virtual students and the hybrid students. So we’re making sure that our teachers are available to those students who are 100 percent virtual to make sure they’re able to get the same time with the teacher that the hybrid students are. That’s been challenging for the teachers—how to manage a Zoom room, get hooked up, make sure all the cameras are working, be able to present the instructional pieces, but at the same time making sure and ensuring that they have that feedback piece. They need to be able to provide feedback to students and also be able to listen to their concerns or their questions.

Redmond: We’re learning so many new technologies. We were already a 1:1 district, but definitely we’re learning some new technologies that we weren’t using before. I think that I have the most wonderful staff in the world—and I know everyone says that—but they’ve just taken the challenge head-on of learning what they need to learn and trying to implement it and figure out how it’s going to work. But, the most challenging thing for our staff is they just miss their kids. They’re dying to have our kids back in our building, to hear their laughs or hear how their summers were. We ended school so abruptly back in March that nobody really got to say goodbye in person. We had lots of phone calls during the spring, when our school building was closed, but gosh, we just miss our kids so much and we can’t wait to have them back.

Floryance: I was visiting a veterinarian medicine classroom. The instructor had a diagram of the heart up on the screen, and but then the picture went away and all we saw was a blank white screen. The teacher was still lecturing, and a student commented, “Hey, all I see is a white screen.” So, the teacher begins to troubleshoot, “I’ll, try this. OK? No? OK, well, I’ll try it that way. No? All right, I’ll try another way. Hey, it worked!” This is an example of our learning curve and how we are overcoming these nuances. Our new school mantra has been “Try it this way or try it that way.”

This experience has been humbling. I think that the teachers—all of us—are very forgiving of each other, very compassionate to each other, because we’re all trying this distance learning for the first time together. When we’re in weekly staff meetings, we have check-ins to help work through our glitches. Sure enough someone will ask, “Hey, how do you do … ?” so we discuss and collaborate how to help each other process through those questions. This is a new style of collaboration and how we adjust to the newness of online distance teaching and learning. The breakout rooms have been a challenge as well, but again, those are technology learning curves that we’re all experiencing and working through.

Savicky: What has been the greatest challenge for administrators?

Redmond: I think for me, especially, just my personality is I’m a planner. I love planning things ahead of time and having things ready to go, and that’s probably been the biggest challenge. I’ve almost had to change my personality. I’ve had to stop planning so far ahead. The “unending contingency planning” is the phrase I’ve been saying. I feel like I never stop thinking about, “Well, what if this happens? What if this happens?” Sometimes I just can’t turn my brain off thinking of those things. Then, just the constant uncertainty of what next week or sometimes what tomorrow is even going to look like, that’s definitely the hardest thing for me.

Floryance: I was speaking with my principal today. We have our morning coffee chats, and I was saying the same thing to him … very similar to what you said, Redmond. As educators, I think naturally we’re planners. Really, if you think about it, schools usually have the year planned out ahead of time. However, with distance learning I feel like we have to be able to be flexible and make some informative decisions at any given moment. For me, communication is key. I don’t think there could be enough communication. We do a lot of check-ins through our professional learning communities to help alleviate some of the miscommunication and to be ahead of problems that arise because, like Redmond said, I think that we’re planning everything for the first time—everything from the reentry to assuring that we’re giving teachers the adequate support. Those are challenges, but I think we’re meeting those challenges. Every day is something new and different.

Gideon: I think both Redmond and Floryance have hit it on the head. We don’t know what tomorrow brings. Health guidelines change, which changes everything we do at a school. One of the things that we’ve really worked on and found challenging is how to best communicate these sudden changes. When you make that pivot, how do you get a student and the parents to understand? We found that not everybody reads their email; not everybody visits our website. So, that’s been one of our biggest challenges—making sure that we are able to get a clear message out to try and avoid any sort of unintentional misinformation. Then the other administrative challenge is making sure that we’re being able to provide resources here at the school—because our teachers come to school every day. We’re working to find additional resources, make them available, and work with our district to get as much access, to be able to help bolster everything that our teachers are doing.

Savicky: What steps have you taken to remedy some of these challenges?

Floryance: We are implementing strategies and interventions to get a pulse check on student performance through an early warning system. Teachers submit a Google form referral if they have concerns about a student. That information goes into a spreadsheet that our leadership team reviews and triages. Is it an attendance issue? Is it social-emotional engagement, time management, or a tutoring need? As you know, the issues can be all sorts of things, right? We’re also implementing a peer mentorship program. We’re matching an upperclassman with an underclassman so our younger students have a peer who will check in with them weekly, offer support, and help the students stay connected to the resources they might need.

We’re also offering student activities through sponsored clubs. There are no classes on Mondays except for advisory and extracurricular activities. Students get together in various clubs that offer opportunities for community engagement, connect with peers, help lead initiatives, and make school feel more like school as we once knew it to be last spring. Academically, we’re supporting our students with either teacher or peer tutoring or meeting with an adult, someone like me, to help develop a study plan and time-management skills. These are some examples of what we’re doing to help catch the students who might need a little bit more support.

Gideon: Well, one of the biggest things is I’ve really tried to open up the lines of communication for everybody. In opening up, we decided that we were going to create a communications position, which is the role that I’ve stepped into this year and put things out on these social media pieces. There have been a lot of good questions. One of the biggest things that I have found to help is to make a personal connection. I personally answer phone calls and emails all the time, and that has made a difference. The parents and students are hearing a voice rather than just reading something on a screen. Additionally, for some of our teachers, this transition has been a lot harder than others. Being able to sit and listen and let them talk through the problems, and work through to find answers—make everything work how it best will work for them so they can engage well with their students—has really brought our faculty and our school community a lot closer over the last month, because everybody is working together [and] knows this is new.

Redmond: There are so many things out of our control, but we have to remember that there are things that are still in our control. So, when we can, we’re going to keep the most regular schedule we possibly can, with the fewest changes possible, so that we can get into a routine and have some sense of normalcy. If there’s any possible way to keep our schedule, that’s a priority for us. Wednesdays are our day of the week in our schedule that are irregular. We’ve affectionately started calling them “Wacky Wednesdays” because they’re the day the schedule isn’t the same as the rest of the week. We’re going to keep them Wacky Wednesdays all year so that just becomes part of the routine.

Additionally, when there are times when I’m struggling with how things are going, I share that with my staff. I try to be very real and honest with my staff so that they see it’s OK to not have all the answers right now, and it’s OK to be frustrated sometimes. We’ll recognize that and then move forward. Additionally, we try to keep our sense of humor—everything about this situation is very frustrating, and so sometimes you just have to laugh. You have to share a funny video or share some silly thing that happened and make everybody laugh so you can keep going. The last thing is something my district has been really good about between the teachers and the administrators—just sharing resources. Anything that we’ve created or come up with, everyone has been willing to share and hand back and forth and change and work together to create things that everybody can use. This is how we’re going to get through this crisis, by working together.