Returning to Remote Learning

Parents, teachers, and administrators all reeled from the frustrations and challenges of the sudden shift to remote learning last Spring, so it’s no surprise that everyone needed a break. But it appears that remote learning cannot go away, and we have squandered a summer in which all those stakeholders might have prepared for the new reality.

School districts are struggling to determine what’s best for learners even as they acknowledge that 25% of teachers are high-risk and that support staff [nurses, secretaries, bus drivers] are essential to re-opening. Some have pushed back their opening date even for hybrid learning that combines in-person with remote; others have opted to go all remote from the beginning. Given the current stats for the pandemic, I suspect that most hybrid programs will find themselves having to close at some point in the Fall. Clearly, learning will be remote for a vast number.

How do we make it work better? How do we use this opportunity to improve teaching and learning? Surely it’s not enough to make do when this is our new normal.  Just a few options:

  1. Reconsider educational roles. The Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state superintendents, outlined some roles schools might consider to focus attention in key areas: academics, technology, emotional support, and family outreach. Specialist leaders can help their colleagues succeed. For example, schools might consider having the teachers who were most successful with remote learning last Spring become School Remote Learning Leads with release time to support their colleagues. Academic Content Leads can be teachers with deep knowledge of standards, principals, and assistant principals. The principal, assistant principal, counselor, or social worker might become the Care Team Lead. This approach supports all faculty and staff in adjusting to the challenges of remote. If teacher contracts prove an obstacle, perhaps teacher’s associations will grant a temporary waiver.
  2. Do the work to establish classroom norms and build community that you’d normally do in person before you move to academic work.
  3. Recognize the inherent inequities in remote learning: internet access, access to devices, parental support, speed of internet, etc. Record Zoom sessions for later access for students who were unable to participate; seek ways to provide paper tools where internet is not available.
  4. Don’t depend on Zoom alone. Jennifer Casa-Todd writes, “We should be asking, is it more effective to have my students watch a video I created to learn a concept and then meet in real time to go over any issues or is it more effective to teach an interactive lesson in real time?” (https://jcasatodd.com/synchronous-vs-asynchronous learning/?fbclid=IwAR0sYP0Pf6FjuqJ0)
  5. Embrace technology, since we’re stuck with it, and seek out more digital tools like Screencastify and Padlet. Let students offer you ways they might want to share their learning.
  6. Rethink the purpose of learning. Never has it made more sense to move to a constructivist approach, to address real-world problems. Consider using problem-based learning for small groups.  Real world topics promote engagement and make the relevance of the work obvious.
  7. “Pandemic pods,” groups of families organizing remote home schooling groups, perhaps even with hired support, offer a model for those who choose remote learning in publice schools – why not partner up with one or more families to provide additional support and share efforts?
  8. Make online learning as interactive as possible. Use breakout rooms in Zoom for small group work. Use Zoom surveys to create “quizzes.” Create an open forum or discussion board so that students can support and mentor each other.
  9. Provide ongoing feedback, not only in Zoom sessions. Consider emailing embedded comments on student writing sent to the teacher.
  10. Recognize that social/emotional learning and mental health have taken a hit with schools moving to online instruction. Work on ways to build in community-building. Reach out individually to students who seem to be disengaged or struggling.

These ideas provide a mere beginning. Remote learning remains essential. It’s up to us to make it worthwhile.

Reopening Schools

Students at a primary school in Bangkok returned on July 1, a delayed start to their academic year. Credit…Adam Dean for The New York Times

I have been struggling to write this blog entry for weeks. Each time I think I have a handle on what I believe makes sense, more news and differing advisories and opinion columns give me mental whiplash. I am now convinced that I don’t know the answer. I am convinced that there is no one right answer or one-size-fits-all. And I am convinced that local school districts absolutely need to figure out their best answers both for the children, parents, and communities they serve, and for the nation.

Schools remain critical for the well-being of all of those stakeholders and for the nation as a whole.  Advancing academic learning remains a primary goal, but schools serve many functions: development of social and emotional learning, mental health services, providing food as needed, development of compensatory skills for special needs, and learning about citizenship. And the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the role of schools in enabling parents to work outside the home. Students already have lost ground academically and are dealing with the emotional aftermath of the Spring’s unexpected shutdown and an atmosphere of fear. The pandemic has revealed gross inequities about access to remote learning that remain unresolved, and we have yet to educate teachers on effective remote learning strategies.

The arguments to reopen schools as quickly as is safely possible continue to be compelling.

But it is that qualifier, “as is safely possible,” that stumps educational leaders. Although children under 10 seem to spread the virus less, according to a new study from South Korea, children 10-19 are as contagious as adults[1]. The National Center for Education Statistics identifies almost 30% of teachers as high risk[2], and schools tend to be enclosed spaces where people spend hours in close proximity, increasing the likelihood of spreading the disease. Children may also take it home to older adults who remain vulnerable. Transporting students to and from school and feeding them lunch prove problematical.

The University of Washington’s study about school reopenings around the world lists several key factors to help reduce risks:

  • Reductions of class size
  • Increasing physical distance between students
  • Keeping students in defined groups with limited interaction between groups
  • Some degree of staggering the start, stop, and break times within the school
  • Alternate shifts (morning, afternoon) or alternate days
  • Opening schools only for younger or older students in order to accommodate the increase in resources (classroom space, teachers, etc.) required for smaller class sizes.
  • Requiring face masks for students and/or staff in schools
  • Systematic school-based testing for SARS-CoV-2 virus or antibodies [3]

School systems, already facing a loss of income from reduced tax receipts, will be hard pressed to bear the expense of such safety measures. The need for such protections also varies among communities based on their rate of Covid infections. Given the local control of schools, the variety of responses seems inevitable and appropriate. New York plans on a hybrid approach of in-person learning, while Los Angeles and San Diego plan online instruction only. The local school districts where we live, an hour west of Chicago, offer a variety of options. Every family must make a decision based on the options available, weighing a myriad of factors and accepting how much is unknown.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said last week: “The pandemic has reminded so many … that educators are invaluable in children’s lives and that attending school in person offers children a wide array of health and educational benefits. For our country to truly value children, elected leaders must come together to appropriately support schools in safely returning students to the classroom and reopening schools.”[4]  We need to reopen our schools. Can we do it safely?

I have missed classroom engagement since I retired. Now, for the first time, I am relieved to be retired. My heart aches for those who must make tough decisions when no clear answers emerge, at least for me.


[1]  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/health/coronavirus-children-schools.html?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20200719&instance_id=20443&nl=the-morning&regi_id=71948775&segment_id=33788&te=1&user_id=a2c5403f90bf9a526413b15a7b86a2e2

[2] https://www.childtrends.org/nearly-one-third-of-u-s-teachers-are-at-higher-risk-of-severe-illness-from-covid-19-due-to-age

[3] https://globalhealth.washington.edu/sites/default/files/COVID-19%20Schools%20Summary%20%282%29.pdf?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTkRreE5XWXlORFF3TXpNeCIsInQiOiJIbVNQTTVySEo0Vzk1cHVBZVVqWnFGVmR1UEJxRGdpd01mTXg4OGw3Mk5nTnpmaUoyMGt2UXIwWVZBOE5GVjIybHA5aStrbzJ3MUxsanoxamZibmlocmpSbXZyVFVoV0VHYU1aTGx0RnpsMXlmOEtXSVJqaDJsZ0RJU1BQcVZjZSJ9

[4] https://services.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/aap/2020/pediatricians-educators-and-superintendents-urge-a-safe-return-to-school-this-fall/