At the time of writing this, the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine for people 16 and over, and doses for the highest priority groups have been dispatched to states. This comes at a time when cities are shutting back down, holiday plans are being canceled, and everyone is clamoring for some kind of reassurance that there is an end in sight. It feels, finally, like there is a little room to exhale.
Even with this promising news, it doesn’t seem like the time to get ahead of ourselves. It is a relief to feel hopeful, but there is still work to do, and it will be some time before we are really considered safe. Schools will likely continue to be impacted by the pandemic at least through the fall of 2021, and with that, we believe this means hybrid is likely in your school’s path to safety.
In an attempt to make sense of everything, we have pored over information as it has become available, and now we can make educated guesses about the way schools might operate for the next year. Here is our best guess as to what 2021 could look like, and the factors that could affect it.
Safety timelines as we know them
Right now, in mid-December, infections are higher in many cities than they have been at any other point during the pandemic. These numbers will continue to surge variably through January and maybe into February, with the only hope for control being to follow what are now standard safety precautions: wear a mask, stay home when you can, etc.
The most optimistic timeline for vaccinations reaching the entire population is around June. Even with the new promise to vaccinate up to 40 million Americans by the end of the year, there are 111 million health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, essential workers who are first in line, in that order. By the latest projections, those numbers alone take us into the beginning of March. Then come adults with high-risk conditions (100 million), and those 65 and over (50 million). Only after all of this, in April, will the inoculation of the general population will begin.
In theory, between March and June everyone will have access. But the logistics of vaccine distribution will be long and uneven, and there is no guarantee of the vaccine’s effectiveness over time. According to NPR, “Studies of the new vaccines only measured whether vaccinated people developed symptoms, not whether they got infected.” If precautions are let down even more as people adopt a feeling of safety, it will prolong the risk.
In the latest report from CNN, Dr. Susan Bailey, the President of the American Medical Association, admits that “the biggest obstacle to the vaccine is people’s willingness to be vaccinated.” It is projected that 60-80% of the population would need to be vaccinated in order to “control” the virus. Even today, a new study reveals that a quarter of Americans claim they will not get a shot. With this many people still refusing compliance, we risk the possibility of localized outbreaks that will last well beyond June of 2021.
The result is that it doesn’t seem realistic to expect an “end” to the pandemic by the summer. Increasingly, experts are guiding us to think in this direction. Bill Gates told CNN on Dec 13, “Even through 2022, we should be prepared for life not to return to normal.” If our lives will remain unpredictable for another year or more, then schools will have to reflect that.
What does this mean for schools?
Because of how localized decision-making is, it has remained difficult to make blanket statements about what schools should do. The way we imagine school response is in phases over time, knowing that there will be geographic variability. The first phase of this looks much the same as it is now — with the need for rolling school closures and movement to fully online models as surges occur. This could also include the ability to reopen circumstantially and operate as you did at the beginning of fall 2020, knowing it could switch back again with another surge. Thus, we should not expect much to change for at least a few months.
Beginning around March we should begin to see some stability and predictability. You can think of this as the second phase. The surges in infections that defined fall and winter will become less common, and so will the need for unexpected closures. This will allow more schools to start relying on in-person classes, combined with either a remote class per grade level or a hybrid classroom model. So, the same strategies that have been developed so far apply, but there will be less disruption to the operation of schools.
By August, we expect the number of students that need to consider remote will be declining steadily, if not exponentially, until early 2022. But this will still be a significant number through the end of 2021 at least. Parent choice will be a major variable here, because even those who have been vaccinated may still opt out of school. So, real safety concerns will persist, still requiring careful consideration for school operations.
Then, by the spring of 2022, you will no longer need to be making special plans for classes; the time will come to focus on how to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
What does this mean for classrooms?
At some point next fall, it will likely become unrealistic for most schools to offer a remote class per grade level – it will get harder and harder to maintain separate modes of instruction.
With the average class size of 24 and grade size of 137, each grade will likely have 10-15 students at home – too small to organize a whole class around. This means most schools will need to operate without a dedicated remote class, and deal with a few students absent in each. Once the percentage of students at home is down to around 10%, it seems likely that a hybrid model becomes the only viable option.
Relying on asynchronous learning solely for those remote students is not enough. It’s apparent now that a connection is needed to promote accountability and initiative. Live streaming, with limitations, should be used in conjunction with asynchronous work. Zoom fatigue is a real problem, and not just for students.
It is true that there is no replacement for being with students in person, but hybrid classroom models have helped us accomplish what we thought was impossible this year, and it has worked where people have committed to it.
For example, the teachers at Fairmont Schools in Southern California are using a setup powered by Swivl to give students an experience that better mimics a traditional classroom, keeping kids connected to their teachers and classmates – even from home. You can read all about their classroom structure and the significant impact it has made here.
We believe planning to leverage hybrid classrooms both this spring and next fall is likely to be the most flexible and reliable way to satisfy safety concerns, as well as make learning more accessible.
If you do choose to build your hybrid classroom solutions with Swivl, it’s an investment that has dual value. At our core, we are a coaching business. There is no question that Swivl would be a powerful addition to any classroom facing the unknown over the next year; but our solutions can also be used to support coaching in your school after the pandemic. And we think that coaching at every level is going to be necessary to recover from the worst impacts of this crisis – for students and teachers. In the long term, school districts will have to address how this trauma has impacted learning. Our confidence is that radically more human connection and individual attention is required to rebuild what was lost, and prepare educators to change and grow.
The point of our thought process is to remember that even in the best case, there will be no quick fix. There is no way to know for sure how the end of the pandemic will play out, but it is looking more and more like our capacity to adapt will continue to be tested a bit longer.
For classrooms, it means that students are going to need the best that you can give them, which means hybrid learning is likely in your school’s path to safety.