EDISON, N.J. — This is Stephanie Rasimowicz’s daily dilemma: Scattered before her in second-period geometry class at Edison High School are a handful of freshmen, seated at desks many feet apart. Arrayed behind her are nearly 20 small, disembodied faces on a computer screen — her remote students, learning from home.
Can the remote students hear the students in the classroom, and vice versa? Which group should she focus on today? And how does she know if those remote students are grasping her lessons — or paying attention at all?
“Even if their cameras are on, you still don’t know exactly what they’re doing at home,” said Ms. Rasimowicz, who has taught math at Edison High for 13 years.
Ms. Rasimowicz and the rest of Edison Township Public Schools, one of New Jersey’s largest suburban districts, are part of a huge, unplanned educational experiment: combining remote instruction with in-person classes, a system known as hybrid instruction.
By some estimates, hybrid learning has become among the most common approaches to teaching in the pandemic, with thousands of the nation’s 13,000 school districts using it for some or most classes.
In some places, most notably New York City, hybrid students come into classrooms for part of the week and study at home the rest of the time, with a different teacher for each group. (Most New York City students have remained all-remote.) In most other districts, hybrid involves one teacher simultaneously instructing in-person and remote students who shift places every second or third day. In Edison, in-person students come to class four mornings a week.
The compromises built into hybrid are intended to keep staff members and students safer — by slicing in-person attendance by at least half to enable six feet of distance in classrooms, hallways and gymnasiums — while also maintaining, at least in part, the widely acknowledged educational and emotional benefits of in-person instruction.
“There’s no book for this,” said Cyndi Tufaro, the principal of James Monroe Elementary School in Edison. “The word of the year is ‘fluid.’”
A growing body of research indicates that students generally have fallen behind educationally in the pandemic, with Black, Latino and low-income students, who are more likely to be taking classes remotely, faring the worst. Whether hybrid classes are helping to stem educational loss remains unclear.
Edison officials said they had no readily available data on failure rates or standardized test scores to measure the impact of hybrid learning.
Ms. Rasimowicz believes that the pandemic has wrought an educational toll, though perhaps not as significantly as she once feared. “I have the same number of kids who struggle,” she said. “The same number who have A’s.”
But the jury is out on hybrid learning, she adds. “The more difficult topics — you can’t push them as far,” she said.
Edison, home to a large Indian-American community about 40 miles southwest of Midtown Manhattan, is one of the most diverse suburban communities in the state. The school district is about 65 percent Asian, 14 percent white, 11 percent Latino and 8 percent Black.
The district has seesawed between different hybrid models as coronavirus cases have receded and spiked again.
School began virtually in September, reopened in October for willing students to attend in-person every other day, and then a month later allowed those students to attend class four mornings a week.
Only about one in four of the district’s 17,000 students come to school for in-person instruction; the rest take all their classes from home. Schools are closed each Wednesday for cleaning, and all students take their afternoon classes online.
Bernard F. Bragen Jr., the district’s superintendent, tried to maintain in-person instruction for as long as possible, even as most nearby districts closed when the virus began surging across the state late last year.
For nearly two months, there was limited virus spread linked to in-school transmission, and only one of Edison’s 19 schools was forced to shut down for two weeks. But by the first week of December, six additional schools reported outbreaks involving at least 22 cases, and Edison temporarily shifted everyone back to all-remote instruction. All schools are scheduled to reopen on Feb. 1.
The township remembers the risks of the virus well: During the spring, as many as 102 patients and one staff member at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison died after confirmed or probable cases of Covid-19, according to state officials.
Dr. Bragen said he worried most about children at the fringes of poverty — about 15 percent of Edison students are poor enough to qualify for free school lunches — as well as those slipping deeper into emotional crisis. “The number of students in crisis has increased, and it’s concerning,” he said.
He is also concerned about teacher burnout from the incessant demands of instructing remote and in-person students simultaneously. “For a teacher to meet the needs of the students seated in front of them and to meet the needs of students sitting at home is a challenge,” he said. “One is always being compromised for the other.”
He and district leaders tried to develop a new hybrid model that would have enabled staff members who preferred to remain home to teach only virtual classes, while those in school would be responsible solely for the students who attend class in person. But they were unable to make it work because it would have required reassigning too many teachers.
Many of Edison’s elementary classrooms were outfitted with cameras suspended from ceilings so that students at home have the same view of the teacher as those in the classroom. Using federal CARES Act funding, the district also hung 25 thermal cameras costing $12,000 each in entryways to instantaneously measure body temperatures and check for masks.
Still, teachers and students face connectivity snags associated with adding new technology to old buildings.
“Things I never, ever want to say after Covid-19?” Vicki Jenkins, a dance teacher, said into a MacBook Air propped on a shelf in her classroom studio last month. “I can’t hear you. You’re frozen. It’s lagging.”
The virtual holiday dance show was weeks away, and she had been kicked offline twice in 20 minutes while leading her students through their routines.
Is coming into the classroom for so few students worth it? “It’s worth it for that one child or the few children who are there,” Ms. Jenkins said. “But there are days — and today was one of them — when I ask: ‘What am I doing here?’”
For one of her students, Zaria Fogle, the frustrations of online instruction prodded her to return to the classroom when the district reopened in October. Zaria, a 17-year-old senior at Edison High, said that in-person instruction was key to maintaining honor-roll grades.
“I really could not learn math over the computer,” said Zaria, who hopes to study dance in college.
Showing up in person also offers at least a taste of a typical senior year and a chance to fulfill a responsibility: She was selected to give the school’s morning announcements over the loudspeaker.
But mostly, it’s the lure of the mirror-lined dance studio, where Zaria goes as often as she can.
“That’s one of the only normal things I get to do,” she said. “It’s better than just dancing in my room.”