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Managing In-Person and Distance Learning at the Same Time

Use these tips to help make concurrent, or hyflex, teaching and learning work better for you and your students.

Paul Barnwell | February 12, 2021

As schools begin to reopen amid the changing pandemic, many classrooms will experience some form of hybrid instruction during the transition back to fully in-person learning. Along the way, schools and districts are embracing a variety of hybrid teaching and learning models. One particular model that can work for both students and teachers is known as hyflex instruction (sometimes also called "concurrent" teaching), but to be successful you'll need to make room for some extra planning and consideration.

What is hyflex teaching?

Hyflex teaching -- also sometimes called "concurrent" teaching -- is essentially a hybrid or blended model of instruction where some students attend class in-person while other students are simultaneously remote, streaming "live" into class. First developed by Dr. Brian J. Beatty, associate professor of instructional technologies at San Francisco State University, "Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" is most commonly used at the collegiate level. More recently, during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of K-12 schools and teachers have adopted -– and adapted –- the hyflex model to accommodate the divergent needs of learners and families during school closures.

Like fully remote learning, this model can often be quite challenging in a K-12 setting. The reasons for this are plentiful, from basic internet connectivity issues to cognitive overload caused by multitasking. Not to mention the challenge of simply figuring out how your curriculum fits into this model! Toss into the mix the need to ensure students' equitable access to materials and instruction, and hyflex can feel overwhelming. But there are some basic things teachers can do to help make hyflex teaching and learning go more smoothly. We talked with several educators from across the country to hear their advice. 

Tips to help you succeed with hybrid and hyflex teaching and learning in your K-12 classroom:

1. Choose tools for equitable access

It should go without saying, but all students need equitable access to materials and instruction from your classroom. This means that most hyflex classes will need to be conducted paperlessly. Also, choosing the right technology tools will be even more important than usual. Some apps and programs will be better for helping both in-person and remote students fully participate in any given lesson.

Take Peardeck, for example, which can help teachers lead interactive direct instruction. "[Peardeck] has really been a lifesaver in this situation, because it allows me to see who's working, what their answers are … and share my screen and show it to the kids, so they can see what their classmates are saying [whether they are in the same room or not]," says teacher Andrea Tyner of Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy in Denver. Nearpod, Flipgrid, and Padlet are other popular tools that allow for both in-person and remote groups of students to access materials, participate, and interact with each other equitably during lessons and assignments.

Other teachers have been using Google Slides in creative and interactive ways that make facilitating hyflex learning more equitable, something that Adam Reynolds, principal at West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut, has appreciated thus far. Says Reynolds, "Teachers create a Google Slides deck, and that becomes the foundation of their lesson. So they share it. The student makes a copy and puts their name on it, and they're actually filling out the slides over the course of the lesson. The kids at home have their slides, and kids in-person have the same material," adding that it's imperative for teachers to take some intellectual risks in order to figure out how teaching and learning might work best in this environment.

2. Manage expectations, and slow down

Don't expect to move as quickly through your lessons or to cover as much curriculum. It's simply not realistic -- or sustainable for your own mental health. Over the course of a normal school day, teachers make hundreds –- even thousands –- of decisions: How should I respond to this misbehavior? Whom should I call on? When should I wrap up my lesson? Whom can I call to cover my class so I can take a bathroom break? Should this assignment become homework? On and on, every class period, day after day.

With hyflex teaching, the number of snap judgments and split-second decisions you'll make can increase exponentially. Simply getting through a lesson can be daunting: You're juggling multiple screens, muting and unmuting both yourself and students, sharing documents, responding to chat windows -- and this is on top of the interactions with students who are physically in your classroom.

As you might with many types of hybrid instruction, take a breath and realize that curriculum expectations must shift while you're trying to execute a hyflex model. The only way to keep all the moving parts in check is to slow down –- a lot. Instead of a lesson with three activities, it might become two. Whereas you may have checked in or conferenced with everyone during one class period, now it will probably take two or three periods. Beyond curriculum pacing, it's important to acknowledge that this learning environment isn't normal or easy by any measure. Along with slowing down, teacher self-care is another important thing to consider.

3. Don't abandon partner and group work

As a safety measure, many schools have enacted strict protocols for social distancing, with desks spread apart as much as possible. This makes partner or group work challenging, but there are some workarounds.

With hyflex instruction, you can pair up in-person students with remote students in video-chat breakout rooms. Just be sure that your in-person students have headphones (to reduce audio distortion and feedback, as well as distractions). In-person and remote students can often be paired or teamed up for various types of classwork, whether it's a discussion activity, collaborating in a Google Doc, or completing a science lab, among countless possibilities.

Teachers have been experimenting with a variety of ways to utilize breakout rooms to enhance both hyflex or fully remote learning and to make breakout room time more productive. One idea that's particularly useful is splitting your class for co-teaching or tutoring opportunities. Try out some different strategies, or create your own, and figure out what works best for you and your students.

4. Make SEL a priority

Let's face it: Everything in school is more difficult during the pandemic. On top of adapting to safety measures and social distancing, normal stressors and anxieties are exacerbated. Even as the time spent on your academic curriculum may be cut short this year, it's still especially important to incorporate some social and emotional learning into our classrooms.

Humanities teacher Jessica Stargardter of West Rocks Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut, has eliminated the academic component from the beginning of class in order to help strengthen her class community and lighten the mood. Says Stargardter, "I changed all my 'do-nows,' and now none of them are academic, which is like the opposite of what you learned [in teacher prep], right? I model a social-emotional activity on a Monday. And then I assign the rest of the week to kids to lead them." She adds that her students have already embraced this part of class.

"I changed all my 'do-nows,' and now none of them are academic."
-- Jessica Stargardter, West Rocks Middle School, Norwalk, Connecticut

For more information on social and emotional learning, and for classroom-ready SEL resources, check out Common Sense's Social and Emotional Learning Toolkit and our We All Teach SEL article series for ideas on incorporating social and emotional learning into your content-area classrooms and lessons.

5. Watch out for privacy issues

As with any type of online or hybrid teaching, it's imperative to consider students' privacy. In addition to being mindful of students' data privacy, it's also important to consider students' visibility in shared online spaces. Consider the following common scenario: Eight students are in a physical classroom with the rest of the class participating remotely via Zoom or Google Meet, projected at the front of the room for all to see. During the class, a remote student uses the chat box to ask to speak with the teacher privately. In a scenario like this before the pandemic, a teacher might pull the student into the hallway, out of sight and earshot of the class. But now, the chat is being projected onto the screen –- visible to everyone physically in the classroom. So what to do?

Teachers Corey Hayes and Zach Stephenson of Merrimack Valley High School in Concord, New Hampshire, shared a few tricks they've used for safer and somewhat-private conversations with remote students in this kind of scenario. The first is to create a breakout room for remote student check-ins, Stephenson says. Secondly, it's important to be mindful of what in-person students might hear on the classroom speakers, and to use earbuds or headphones when shifting to a private conversation with a remote student. Says Hayes, "I told a [remote] student the other day, I'm going to have my headphones in and people will hear me, but no one's going to hear anything that you're saying. And I was shocked. The student [was] so much more willing to speak, and it was almost like the same way that you might take a student and just talk to them in the halls while [other students are] working."

"It was almost like the same way that you might take a student and just talk to them in the halls."
-- Corey Hayes, Merrimack Valley High School, Concord, New Hampshire

Bottom line: With screens, microphones, and cameras all potentially in play, teachers need to be nimble and flexible when it comes to both in-person and virtual one-on-one conversations with students.

6. Consider media balance

One of the obvious challenges of life during COVID-19 is the dominance of screen time -- in work, in play, and certainly in school. Screen fatigue is real. Video chats are especially draining, for both students and teachers. Stargardter also schedules off-screen time for her in-person and remote students during lessons. She'll "chunk" her class time into stations, and one of the stations will provide the students with an activity during which they can turn off or ignore their devices. She says, "I've seen an increase in engagement when kids know that there's time coming [where] they don't have to be on the screen or on camera. So I'll be very explicit, like, 'OK, your camera needs to be on here, [or] you can turn your camera off for this."

Common Sense has free digital citizenship lessons on media balance and well-being for every grade level that can help students think critically about their own media choices. You can also check out these tips from EdWeek on how to reduce screen time when school is online, which include ideas like educator Caitlin Tucker’s choice board for students' offline learning activities. The board contains screen break ideas like creating a recipe, making a playlist, or designing a science experiment. Common Sense's Wide Open School website also curates "Offline-Friendly" activities from around the web that teachers and families can recommend to kids.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.