A year ago, no one could have imagined what education would look like today. I vividly remember receiving my acceptance letter from Brigham Young University while still attending Rochester High School (Thurston County), head spinning with promises of a top-tier education while enjoying the freedom of a new campus and new friendships. 

Instead, because of COVID-19, my university implemented a hybrid structure of online and in-person classes. Over time, this system taught me the need for flexible, creative forms of learning, especially in a college environment. Students have unique needs, and we’ve limited ourselves to a traditional school structure for too long. For social, financial, time management and health reasons, it’s worth investigating the feasibility of hybrid education for older students. 

For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Lovina Andersen is the ninth and final essay in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series.

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To understand what works and what doesn’t with hybrid education, I surveyed 41 college peers last November on whether they preferred online, in-person, or hybrid classes. For the 38 people who preferred in-person or hybrid, 79% cited social interaction as their primary reason. I couldn’t agree more. During those last months of my senior year, I felt the loss of a social atmosphere keenly. As a college freshman in Provo, Utah, a thousand miles from home and surrounded by 33,000 strangers, I felt it even more. Even in my few in-person classes, mandatory social distancing and masks made it hard to connect with peers. Bonding opportunities like group projects, close seating and classroom discussions were restricted or abandoned for fear of contamination. 

Ironically, human interaction is a vital part of physical health. BYU researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith have studied the adverse effects of loneliness for more than a decade. Examining 148 studies on the matter, they found people experiencing loneliness persistently experience poorer outcomes, including inflammation, cognitive decline, depression, among other symptoms. Essentially, loneliness can be as deadly as obesity, smoking, alcoholism and pollution. Relationships “are not just good for us spiritually or emotionally; they’re good for us physically,” Smith said. 

In-person classes which keep students emotionally healthy and engaged have been eliminated or severely restricted under pandemic protocols. At the same time, completely remote education makes it harder to form teacher-student relationships crucial to learning and character development. Thomas Hall, a graduate of Sequim High School, told me that it’s the teachers who “talk with you, reach out to you, care about you” who provide students “a steppingstone to a successful life.” So while remote education makes things like consistent attendance easier, a hybrid system maintains the human element necessary to optimize social and mental health. 

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For myself, it’s also harder to maintain focus in online classes. In Zoom lectures of 200 students, no one notices if you fall asleep midclass — as I can personally attest. Courses like engineering and physical education are also difficult to teach without hands-on instruction and materials. Without personal interaction, responsibility and environmental stimuli, it’s no wonder students — exhausted from work and extracurriculars — feel unmotivated and unfocused in online classes. 

It’s not just students who struggle. Teachers have spent the last year battling technological malfunctions, lack of internet access, rotating schedules and the awkwardness of video discussions that can cripple interactive learning. The biggest problems come when trying to teach an online and in-person class simultaneously, since neither group receives the full potential of their learning environment. 

Still, online and hybrid class systems have undeniable benefits. Two of the greatest are flexibility and cost efficiency.  

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported 20% of high schoolers and 45% of college students were working part or full time. (More recently, the pandemic has decreased rates of student employment.) I vividly remember struggling to balance night shifts, homework and extracurriculars in high school. Small wonder that I — and many others — chose to skip or slack. Because I worked from 5 to 8 a.m. in college, the convenience of jumping online for my 8 a.m. lecture was a lifesaver. The option of a flexible online learning schedule would have been enormously helpful, even during high school. Illness, family emergencies, medical appointments, mental and emotional health problems, or transportation issues would be less stressful and impeding if online alternatives were available. 

Online classes are also arguably less expensive. Many students are attending college from home, reducing their expenses of independent housing and groceries. Decreased need for electricity, air conditioning and custodial work inspired some colleges to actually lower tuition. With the Institute for College Access and Success citing a national $1.6 trillion student loan debt in 2018, this price reduction would be an obvious relief.

The best hybrid systems I’ve seen are where the curriculum is based online — with two or three days of flexible learning modules, tutorial videos and discussion boards to be completed by students any time in a given day — and in-person days devoted to group work, review and discussion, or hands-on projects. It’s a massive sacrifice of time and energy to redesign hybrid courses and schedules but this viable option should not be overlooked. Finding the right balance is difficult for teachers redesigning their curriculum and students navigating it, but I believe that in the long run, hybrid education is more efficient and inexpensive, and allows people to be more productive by accommodating them with a flexible schedule.

Life under COVID-19 is far from ideal, but it does provide an opportunity to reexamine higher education. It would be an utter waste to throw away new ideas and perspectives gained from this current experiment.