The debate around back-to-school plans is often framed as an either-or scenario: Either we send our kids back to school or we don't. But like nearly every part of parenting, it really is more complicated than that.

A growing number of parents are asking school divisions to give more consideration to hybrid or flexible learning options, to make more room for quarantine measures, families' individual schedules and, of course, social distancing when kids are in classrooms. But experts say hybrid learning leaves some kids behind and may delay full school re-openings.


A new poll conducted by Ipsos for the Washington Post/Schar School found more than 80% of parents want school to be at least partly online this year. The poll follows an earlier survey by Care.com which found 84% of parents are worried or uncomfortable about kids going back to school and 74% are not satisfied with their local school re-entry plan. When asked what would make them more comfortable, the top answer was continuing some kind of virtual learning until a vaccine becomes available.

Right now no single solution is going to work for every district or every family. The CDC recognizes this and local decision-makers and school boards must as well.

The Washington Post poll found nearly half (44%) of parents want schools to offer a combination of in-person and online learning and 39% of parents want just virtual classes with no in-person component. But that does not work for the many families who rely on school as childcare during the workday. Not everyone has the financial ability to stay home with their children or participate in private tutoring and learning pods.

As the Washington Post reports, its survey "shows deep partisan, economic and racial divides on the question of safety, with Republicans, White parents and those with children in private schools far more likely to call in-person school safe. Conversely, clear majorities of Democrats, independents, Black and Hispanic parents, and those with children in public schools say it's not safe to go back to campuses."

Annette Anderson is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, where she works with the university's Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. In a recent interview with KCRW, Anderson explained how COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated inequality between schools in the United States.

"There's this model of every kid in the United States in September sitting in front of a laptop or desktop computer with broadband and high-speed internet and multiple devices," Anderson says. "I don't know that that is what we had this spring, and I don't know that we have invested enough to be able to get to some model like that in the fall."

Anderson continues: "There's concern that schools are going to be trying to perform Herculean tasks with fewer resources. We just want to make sure that every kid in the country has an equitable shot, so that we don't have any delays down the lane for all kids."

Polls show parents want hybrid learning but not all will be able to do it. Some families have already been left behind by distance learning.

If you're trying to balance work (especially if your job can't be done from home), it can feel like there is no good choice. The Care.com poll found that while most parents are afraid of sending their kids back to class, and a majority think online learning is the best solution, just 17% of parents feel prepared for virtual learning and confident that their kids will get a proper education through it.

Meanwhile, Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, says "the hybrid model is probably among the worst that we could be putting forward, if our goal is to stop the virus getting into schools."

Hanage is particularly worried about the exposure younger kids have to various caregivers when they are not in school because if their parents work they will likely be with a babysitter or at day care, and at an increased risk for COVID-19 exposure out of school hours.

We have to balance concerns of epidemiologists like Hanage with those of education experts like Anderson and individual parents. Hybrid learning may be the best choice for some, but for families who can't do it it's no choice at all.