In one high-poverty Chicago suburb, a plan to use COVID relief funds to embrace hybrid learning

Back in May, the superintendent of Dolton West, a high-poverty elementary district in Chicago’s south suburbs, invited a group of educators to learn about “the next generation classroom.”

“I think it’s pretty cool,” superintendent Kevin Nohelty told them. “Way out there.”

In the vision laid out that day by a tech consultant and a sales rep from an interactive board manufacturer, the entire 1,890-student district would embrace hybrid learning. In each classroom, two or more large touch screens would allow the teacher to interact with students tuning in from home or from other classrooms. A camera mounted on the ceiling would track the teacher for those remote students. 

Dolton West plans to spend the bulk of its $21 million in federal pandemic recovery money to bring a similar vision — one that melds in-person and remote learning — to the district, Nohelty told Chalkbeat. It’s a highly uncommon step for a district serving elementary students, most of whom are Black and living in poverty. 

Nohelty says the hybrid learning plan will roll out next fall and make the district a national trailblazer, “unstoppable” if another pandemic or other major disruption hits. 

Officials say the revamp would allow the district to proactively address teacher shortages and to rethink the school day and week, with students attending, say, three days in person and two virtually.

“The classroom would no longer be just the four walls,” Nohelty said. “You can be anywhere in the world and be able to engage with your teachers.”

Over the past year, some experts and student advocates have voiced frustration that few school districts are using pandemic relief dollars as federal education leaders urged: to boldly reimagine learning post-pandemic. Meanwhile, education tech companies are angling to capitalize on the influx of federal money by convincing school districts to double down on the technology that kept them going during COVID school shutdowns.

But for many educators, simultaneously teaching in-person and remote students was among the most challenging aspects of pandemic schooling. And online learning did not work well for many students — especially younger learners and those living in poverty. 

Has Dolton hit on a solution to a slew of post-pandemic challenges — or is it setting out to address the academic fallout from the pandemic by giving students more of what contributed to that fallout in the first place? 

Some experts question whether the district is giving itself enough time to pilot its plan, secure permission from the state to roll it out, and get input from families and educators.

The district, which serves the neighboring communities of Dolton and Riverdale, has not yet broadly shared its hybrid learning vision with parents and teachers beyond last spring’s focus group. The teachers union president, for one, says she only heard about the plan from a Chalkbeat reporter.

Loree Washington, a Dolton community leader and parent mentor whose son graduated from junior high in the district, said she would be skeptical about shifting any portion of the school day and school week back online without a pressing reason.

“The virtual learning environment was not successful for us — it just didn’t work,” she said. “So if you are offering more of that, what is your plan to ensure success? We know we can’t do the same thing and expect a different result because that would be insanity.”

Dolton looks to create hybrid learning plan

At Washington Elementary in Riverdale, principal Josh Markward says the pandemic pushed the district to become more tech-savvy.  

Dolton spent much of the first of three federal COVID relief packages to close the digital gap, getting students computers and hotspots to connect to the internet at home. This school year, across Washington’s classrooms, tablets and headphones share desk space with textbooks. 

Veteran educators such as Anita Pennington can be found at an interactive whiteboard, working on rhyming words with a pair of struggling second grade readers while their classmates do a reading comprehension exercise on their Chromebooks. 

But the pandemic and the shift to remote learning also tested students in the economically distressed Chicago Southland district, where officials take pride in providing free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student, and in focusing on social-emotional learning and restorative justice since long before the pandemic. 

Dolton, with a shrinking tax base, only receives about 70% of adequate state funding, by the state education agency’s own math. Washington and other community leaders recently joined a new statewide campaign to advocate for fully funding schools. 

Citing COVID fears among families and teachers, the district remained virtual for the entire 2020-21 school year, making it a national outlier.

“Academically, (the pandemic) was tough,” Markward said. “Everyone took a big hit. Everyone was trying to figure it out, teaching on a computer screen.” 

On the state’s 2022 standardized tests, 4% of Dolton students met Illinois standards in math,  and 9% did in reading, both down slightly compared with before COVID. Chronic absenteeism jumped by more than 20 percentage points, to 53% of students.

After returning to full-time in-person instruction last fall, the district set out to address the damage. In a federal COVID relief spending plan submitted to the state, it said it would beef up its after-school programs and hire additional staff to help with students’ recovery, among other measures. 

Then, officials shifted gears. Nohelty said he wanted to save the remaining roughly $20 million for a bolder, more comprehensive plan to rethink learning.  

Nohelty says he was deeply shaken after watching the pandemic upend learning in his district — and feels it’s crucial that districts prepare for the next disruption now. 

“I don’t want to go through that again and put learning on the backburner,” he said. Thanks to his hybrid plan, “We would be unstoppable — and I say that with passion.”

The hybrid model would give students who are sick, traveling, or missing a ride to school a chance to remain connected to the classroom, he said. That could be a game-changer for students with disabilities that make regular attendance challenging. 

And, Nohelty says, the district would be prepared for staffing shortages, allowing educators to teach students in more than one classroom — perhaps with an aide or substitute supervising the students logging on from other classrooms.

“It’s what I would consider very cutting-edge,” Nohelty said of the district’s hybrid plan. “I do believe we are going to change the way we do learning in Southland.”

When Frank Brandolino of Joliet-based Velocita Technology came to meet with the educator focus group last May, he explained that his company has been developing a hybrid “solution” along with Nohelty and Dolton’s deputy superintendent, Sonya Whitaker. Besides the technology, the plan would also include extensive professional development, he said.

The interactive board rep demonstrated software that teachers can use on their boards that allows students to take quizzes, share photos, and “huddle” to collaborate virtually with each other. As many as 60 students can log on at one time, the sales rep noted. Teachers, meanwhile, can track whether students are actively engaging with the platform. 

The portal, accessible from anywhere in the world, is the company’s “COVID child,” the rep said. Brandolino then showed a short video featuring a college History 101 class, in which four in-person and 16 virtual students collaborate on an assignment about ancient civilizations and then share their work with the class.

Teachers peppered the group with questions, some voicing enthusiasm for the portal’s features. 

Experts raise questions about Dolton’s plan

Bree Dusseault, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, says that it’s refreshing to see a district thinking about how the federal relief dollars can help reimagine learning. Overwhelmingly, districts have used the money to buttress a status quo whose inequities and limitations the pandemic underscored. 

In surveys, high school students have said they want schools to look different after the pandemic, and some have voiced interest in the flexibility hybrid learning can offer, including for students juggling school with work, internships, or college-credit classes. 

But, says Dusseault, remote learning was hard for younger learners. Given the planned fall of 2023 districtwide launch, a number of questions remain, Dusseault says:

Does Dolton have time to pilot this model on a small scale, then gradually roll it out based on data on student outcomes it collects along the way? How will officials reconcile the plan with state instructional time requirements and employee contract obligations? How will the district sustain the ongoing costs of the plan, including refreshing technology, once the federal money runs out?

Most importantly, how will the district ensure that students learning remotely part-time remain engaged in learning? Do all students even have a quiet, safe place to learn virtually? 

Those were issues in Dolton during remote learning, when several teachers told Chalkbeat that some students joined in from noisy settings while others eventually stopped logging on.

“This district might be looking to implement a plan that’s not fully baked,” Dusseault said. “Innovation for innovation’s sake is not what we’re looking for.”

Both Dusseault and Bart Epstein, an expert at the University of Virginia and head of the nonprofit EdTech Evidence Exchange, are not aware of other districts adopting indefinite hybrid learning. There are good reasons for that, says Epstein: Expecting young students to stay home two days a week would be a hardship for parents and a challenge for teachers having to juggle both in-person and virtual learners. 

“Having hybrid learning as an option for some students to use occasionally is a great idea,” he said. “I am not aware of anybody making the argument that permanent, forced hybrid learning is a net win for students.”

Dusseault stresses district officials need to be communicating about their plan with teachers and families and gathering feedback. Now.

Darlene McMillan, the head of the district’s teachers union, said she was reluctant to comment on the plan until the district spells it out publicly. She said staff vacancies are indeed an issue in Dolton. But the idea of teaching multiple classrooms using hybrid technology concerns her, and might be at odds with the district’s educator contract, she said.

Technology has powered learning in Dolton

On a recent Thursday afternoon, second grade teacher Richard Kealey stood in front of an interactive board in his classroom in Dolton’s Lincoln Elementary. He was teaching addition to the nine students in attendance that day.

A boy — dressed in the district’s uniform of white polo shirts and navy pants — had answered that 5 plus 4 equals 9. Kealey scribbled that answer onto the board with his finger and asked his students if it was correct. 

“Don’t be shy, class,” he said. “Speak up!” 

The students responded with a chorus of yeses. Then they put away their workbooks under their desks, donned headphones, and fired up their tablets. Kealey walked the room checking on students as they logged on to a math program called i-Ready, which offers a series of math games that grow easier or harder depending on how well users do — a program Kealey and Lincoln principal Byron Stingily credit with faster-than-projected growth in math.

Kealey estimates his students missed out on half a year of learning during the virtual stretch. A year after they returned to campus, there is still academic and social-emotional catching-up to do.

“It has been great to have students back in person,” he said. “Remote is really challenging on kids.”

During student pickup at Lincoln later that afternoon, some parents and students echoed that refrain: Technology: good. Virtual learning: hard.

Seventh grader Ja’Shawn McGee said bouncing back from remote learning has been tough. He is still trying to get back on track, especially in math and science.

“It was hard, trying to learn on a laptop,” he said. “I like being in front of a teacher.” 

Eternity Lee said her son, Elijah, is also playing catch-up. 

“He hated e-learning,” she said. “He missed his friends. He fell behind academically.”

She said she wants to see the district spend its federal COVID relief dollars on after-school programs and more one-on-one help with reading for her son, echoing the original spending plan the district had submitted to the state.

Nohelty says the model he envisions won’t simply reprise the virtual learning seen during the early days of the pandemic, but rather draw on its lessons to make technology work better for students going forward.

He acknowledged the district is going into uncharted territory. He is considering a site visit to high schools in California that have adopted hybrid learning. The district still must ask the state to waive some seat time requirements, step up public engagement about the plan, and work out the details of a pilot later this school year. He hopes to bring the plan to his school board in December and seek proposals from vendors next year. 

Washington, the Dolton community leader who has served as a parent mentor in elementary classrooms for years, says educators need more help to catch students up academically, from tutoring to more after-school programs. 

“If we’re talking about emergency funding, tell me what you’ll do to address the damage now,” she said. “What are we doing about student achievement?”

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.