The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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Safety is in the eye of the beholder.


No matter what you do, life involves some risk.


The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.


These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.


With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.


There are three main options:


  • (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
  • (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
  • (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two


Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.


This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.


There are many ways to do this.


In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.


In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.


In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.


Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.


It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.


For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.


However, let’s be real.


Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.


Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.


The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.


Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.


There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.


In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.


So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.


How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.

I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.


When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.


Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.


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Source: PA Department of Health
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Source: PA Department of Health


That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.


I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.


Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.


Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.


Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”


No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.


Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.


That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.

The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.

However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.

If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.


Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.


So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?


It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.


Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.


Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.


During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.


And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.


Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.


However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.


A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.


“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.


Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.


“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.


Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?


Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.


She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”


However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!

Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?

And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.

According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.

According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.


Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.


The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.


And let’s not forget the racial component.


Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.


According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.


Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.


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In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.


So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.


A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.


Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.


From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.


In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.


In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.


Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.


As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


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45 thoughts on “The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

  1. The obvious question–one which no one seems to answer–is this: Why is it okay for daycare centers to be operating, but folks are in a frenzy about grade schools reopening? Preschool-aged children don’t even wear masks, and they’re notoriously poor at social distancing (ever try to keep 15 toddlers from poking each other? It’s not easy). Yet daycares have been open in most states for weeks. Does anyone know of any reported instances of daycare covid-19 outbreaks? I haven’t heard of any, but I could be out of touch. If anyone else does, I would like to hear about it.


  2. Steven,
    The hybrid model may reduce exposure to kids, but not for teachers. They will teach both groups of students and be in confined indoor spaces all week long. Since Covid is spread by aerosols, “deep cleaning “, even if undertaken, won’t be sufficient.

    Keep the schools closed until what precipitated their shutdown has been remedied. Get in control of the spread of this virus.


    • I agree with you, Christine. However there are some hybrid models that also reduce teacher exposure slightly. For instance, the plan at Steel Valley has teachers in class 4 days a week and on-line for one whole day. It’s not enough but it is something.


  3. Ideally, yes. But you’re missing my point. We don’t have a fair, equitable social service system in the US, and the pandemic has made this clear. Our negligence predates Trump, and it will outlast him. However, my point remains that we have allowed daycares to open without making a hue and cry about it, even though these centers are germ factories. However, we’re hotly debating whether public schools should open. The distinction seems arbitrary to me. Are you in favor of shutting down all the daycare centers? That would at least be consistent.


    • Yes, I am in favor of shutting down day care centers and paying parents to stay home with their kids.

      But I don’t agree that day care centers are the same as public schools. First, they serve far fewer children and since the coronavirus pandemic started in March, 61% of child-care centers temporarily shut down and only about 46% of those facilities have reopened even though the vast majority of states have allowed providers to reopen. Source:


      • I didn’t ask if you’re in favor of shutting down all the daycare centers and paying parents to stay home. You and I both know that isn’t an available option. I asked whether you’re in favor of immediately shutting down daycare centers, period. Since you don’t think schools should be open, you certainly don’t think daycares should be open, right? That would mean that both should remain closed. You know, for the sake of consistency.


      • In 2015, daycare centers served 4.8 million children in the US. If half of those have reopened, that’s potentially over two million kids. Though that’s far less than 56.6 million school-aged children in our country, it’s still a sizable amount. My point remains that it’s inconsistent to keep daycares open and schools closed.


      • What are you suggesting, Leah? That we sacrifice day care workers, school teachers and their families because our lawmakers refuse to take the measures we all know are necessary? And since lawmakers won’t take precautions for daycare workers we should throw everyone to the wolves – so we can be wrong but consistent?


      • It seems to me that, according to your logic, we’re already sacrificing daycare workers. Because daycares are OPEN. They were allowed to open some time ago. You haven’t answered my question. Are you in favor of all daycares closing immediately? I don’t mean if parents are paid to have their kids stay home with them. That’s never gonna happen.

        It seems to me that forced, ongoing, total school closures are the preference of a white, upper-middle-class, privileged mindset. One which assumes that everyone has the option of staying home and teaching their children. This simply isn’t the case for working-class parents.

        I live near the Mexican border. A lot of families don’t own a computer, so distance learning isn’t an option for them. Or they have more than one kid, but only one computer. Or they’re simply unable to stay home with their kids at all, because they’re working 40-plus hours a week. And what about special needs kids? Distance learning doesn’t work for them at all.

        I am in favor of a hybrid option, one which allows parents the choice of whether to send their kids to school, or opt for online learning, or a combination of the two. If an outbreak occurs in a specific school, of course, it might need to shut down again. But, as most of us know, children are not big drivers of the virus.

        I’m confused by your phrase “because lawmakers refuse to take the measures they know are necessary.” What measures are those? And how enforceable are they?


      • Leah, I have never worked at a day care center nor have I sent my child to day care. Frankly, I don’t know enough about it to come up with a solution. I know we need to work toward making it safe and that means closing day care centers and paying parents to stay home. It probably couldn’t happen with the snap of a finger and there may be some incremental steps necessary. You could probably tell me more about that than vice versa. But that MUST be the goal. And don’t tell me it’s impossible. When the pandemic came down upon us, we saw our government work fast and furious to close down and do things I’d never before thought possible. For example, I’ve been against high stakes standardized testing for years, but last year was the first year they were cancelled – and in a manner of weeks. We need to demand our government work for us. We cannot simply accept the status quo because we’ve given up on change. Nor should we demand schools reopen to in-person classes because day cares have partially reopened to in-person care.

        As to the problems with distance learning, they each admit of solutions. We can get each child a device or laptop. We can get families Internet access. All of this costs lots of money – but so does in-person classes with social distancing. Again the problem isn’t that we’re demanding too much. It’s that we’re ready to accept so little.

        Distance learning, itself, is a stop gap solution. Once the virus is under control, it must stop. But we need to put out the fire before returning to the house.

        Finally, you must realize it is unjust to demand workers – day care staff or public school staff – to put their lives at risk. That is an unjustified demand, and if you make it, you need to reflect long and hard on your humanity. And don’t even get me started about putting the lives of children and families at risk because our lawmakers balk at rent forgiveness, universal healthcare, universal PPE, and a guaranteed wage so people can social distance at home instead of going to work.


  4. Sorry, I switched from commenting on my phone to my laptop, so my persona has changed from msleah01 to my actual name, Leah Mueller. I’m the same person, though, I swear. Last time I checked, anyway. Anyway, like everyone else, I look forward to the day when we have a vaccine and viable courses of treatment, and this whole debate becomes moot.


  5. “With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards”

    Trump and/or his administration might say something like the previous quote but when a governor or mayor or school board doesn’t do what The Trump, he bashes them on Twitter, says he is going to punish them by not giving them any federal funds and encourages his deplorable fascist voters to rebel against those elected representatives.


  6. How will students with IEP’s be served? I’m not in favor of any in-person learning but schools are getting no relief when it comes to the legalities of IEP’s and even if the Education Dept. would/could do such a thing it would likely be challenged in court wasting some unfortunate school districts financial resources.

    My husband is a paraprofessional who works 1:1 with an older student. There is no way to meet their IEP’s virtually because sometimes it requires physical manipulation. It’s an impossible situation but I wondered what your thoughts were.


    • Jennifer, you’re right. It is an impossible situation. I think the students in most need of in-person instruction to meet special needs could be an exception. There could be some limited in-person instruction with precautionary measures and hazard pay for special education teachers who are not, themselves, at extra risk. But the bottom line is that our government needs to get the virus under control before our schools can get back to normal. Students will suffer until then. There is nothing we can do to stop it – only mitigate the damage.


      • Folks, I’m a strong proponent of single payer health care, robust social programs, and a lot of other fair, equitable systems that other countries have (but we don’t).

        It’s the United States, Trump is president, and even if Biden is elected, he has made it clear that he opposes a single payer healthcare system (even in the midst of a pandemic, which is mind-boggling).

        Our selfish system, which did not begin with the Trump administration (anyone remember welfare-to-work until Bill Clinton?) is not going to suddenly transform to a selfless one. The government is NOT going to suddenly close the childcare centers and pay the parents to stay home. Nor are they going to give laptops to every poor family in the country. It’s a great idea, and compassionate, but it ain’t gonna happen. Not here.

        My main point remains that daycare centers ARE open, whether folks think it’s a great idea or not. But we’re debating whether school aged children can safely return to class. My second point is that in the current reality in which we live–not the utopian version of what we SHOULD have–many students are not served by distance learning, due to disability, poverty, abuse at home, or some other reason.

        We need a measured solution to reopening, not a complete, extended scholastic lockdown.


      • Leah, if your house was on fire and a huge brute walked up to you and demanded one of your two children go back inside, you would make that choice? I mean you can’t change the situation. Might as well just go with it.

        Having a crappy government doesn’t excuse you from doing what’s right. There are more of us than them. Fight for your children. Fight for your friends and neighbors. Fight for your teachers. If you give up, that’s on you. The only impossible solution is that which we fail to try.


      • Um….I don’t get the analogy here. At all. A huge brute and a flaming house? A Sophie’s Choice-style dilemma? We’re vectoring off into some odd territory.

        My point is that daycares are in operation, with minimal covid illnesses. No one kicked up much of a fuss when they re-opened. We could try a similar approach with grade schools, if we do a phased reopening that has a variety of options tailored to the actual needs of parents and families.

        Or we could assume that the government can cobble together an emergency plan to end in-home child abuse, dispatch personal tutors to special needs kids, and put laptops into the hands of every disadvantaged school child by the beginning of the school year.

        “Fight for your friends and neighbors” sounds great, but how do you propose to actually do that?


      • Leah, you admit that the best thing is to close both day cares and schools. Correct? Than fight for that. Don’t accept less because you think it is impractical.

        Opening schools because day care centers are open is absurd. If you step in dog crap with one foot, do you intentionally step in it again with the other just to be consistent? If you break one arm, do you have the doctor break the other to even things out? Come on.

        No solution is perfect – least of all distance learning. But it IS a viable option. We should push for it.

        That’s all I have to say about it.


  7. My school district just switched from all students all day to a hybrid system. While I am glad for this–it’s SO much better than cramming 40 kids into a 975 square foot metal trailer–I share many of your concerns. God help us all.


  8. […] Even if masks are worn more routinely at school because teachers enforce the rules, that doesn’t remove the danger. Few schools are large enough to socially distance children 6 feet apart. Many administrators don’t even try anymore – they simply promise to do the best they can. Add to that poor ventilation and inadequate cleaning of buildings and you have a recipe for disaster. […]


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