The coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted the education space, as school districts have shuttered their doors in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. The closure of schools across the country has students, families, and educators adjusting to a new normal that highlights longstanding inequities and presents opportunities for school districts to meet people where they are in unanticipated ways.
As districts continue to adjust and manage the disruption to education, leaders have learned and are sharing effective distance learning strategies. Here, are six recommendations we have gleaned from field experts and practitioners.
Develop a Phased Approach
As the pandemic and the response to it endure, it’s important to approach distance learning in phases. Students and families who have been hit hardest have immediate challenges – including food insecurity, housing instability, and mental health crises – that must be addressed before being able to engage in distance learning. Educators are adjusting and require time, resources, and likely training to transition to the virtual education space.
Responding to all of these realities cannot happen concurrently. School districts have assessed and prioritized the most urgent needs to lay a strong foundation for what’s on the horizon.
In a discussion (4:15-5:22) with New America’s Kristina Ishmael, Dr. Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning at the School District of University City in Missouri, urges district leaders to first address basic needs, move to the virtual space, and then think through what instruction can look like.
Assess Students' Needs
In a conversation (3:12-3:32) with Kristina Ishmael at New America, Dan McDowell, director of learning and innovation at Grossmont Union High School District in California, asserts continuing education in some manner “is our moral obligation,” and educators need to be aware of students’ needs.
School districts have deployed administrators, teachers, counselors, and community partners to call, text, email, and drop by the homes of students and their families to get a sense of their needs. For many, particularly districts with a high percentage of students eligible for free/reduced-price meals, the main priorities have been consistent access to meals, connection to resources to support mental wellness, and access to free or low-cost internet and technology devices. NCAN’s recent survey of our member community reflects similar needs among the students served by college access and success organizations.
Be especially mindful of students and families who are not initially responsive, and continue to reach out to assess how you can be helpful. Remember, families may have moved since the start of the pandemic and may require different or additional outreach in order to engage.
Consider ways to assess needs throughout the pandemic response, as situations will shift and students may need supports that align with their changing needs.
Continue to keep a list of resources and contacts that can be leveraged to support students. Having a list on hand, with practical directions on how to access resources and connect with contacts, will make for quicker response.
Given the myriad ways the pandemic has upended our lives, instruction needs to be redesigned to ensure students are able to learn in a wildly new context. Many students are already overwhelmed by the way life has shifted since the onset of the pandemic and the closure of school buildings. Be mindful that they may become more overwhelmed as they manage their academic responsibilities.
Coordinating instruction, assignments, and due dates can be a tremendously helpful and student-centered approach to instruction. For example, educators in the Grossmont Union High School District have created a structure that has shifted as the shutdown continues. At the beginning, instruction was limited to a few hours a week and students could access it asynchronously and pace themselves through the content. Since then, schools have been able to lengthen instruction, being mindful to avoid long lectures, as educators and students adjust to the virtual learning environment. Also, they have coordinated the release of assignments (for example, English assignments are released on Mondays and math assignments on Tuesdays). Due dates, by subject, are planned as well (for example, English assignments are due on Thursdays, and math assignments are due on Fridays). This structure has made it easier for students to manage their coursework and for teachers to plan lessons and grade assignments.
Consider All Students
School district leaders and educators have known, before the pandemic and especially now, there is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy to education. To meet the needs of all students, administrators and educators have been thoughtful about the most effective ways to educate students with special needs, students with no or limited access to the internet, and English language learners.
Practitioners have reviewed IEPs to ensure accommodations can be made and instruction can be modified for students who require it. For students who are learning English, instructors have reached out to ensure they understand assignments and are able to complete them as expected. For students with no or limited access to internet, schools and districts have printed and distributed paper versions of their lessons for all subject areas to facilitate engagement with the material.
Prioritize giving students feedback, versus prioritizing letter grades. In fact, many districts are considering if and how grades will be given (of course, be mindful of the long-term implications of the traditional grading system and credit/no credit system, as these decisions impact students). Allow for thoughtful modifications whenever possible.
Teachers especially have been critical in modifying instruction, as they know their students well because many have been teaching their students since the beginning of the 2019-20 academic year. Believe in teachers and engage them as leaders as they instruct and support students.
Provide Resources to Educators
Educators, along with students and families, are experiencing major shifts in their lives. Consider that many are having to transition in-person curricula to virtual lesson plans that account for the current crisis. This is an incredibly difficult task, even for the most experienced educators.
Districts can be supportive of and helpful to educators by providing a resource bank, including topics ranging from how to use Google Classroom to ways to engage students in a virtual science lab. Ensure educators have access to the technology devices and resources they need to engage with their students. Perhaps, like some families, teaching staff also need hotspots or faster internet services.
Districts have found, as always, that taking care of teachers helps them take care of students.
And remember the power of community, as both a source of professional development and a way to begin and deepen the social connections many of us are missing as we distance ourselves from one another.
Allow for Grace and Flexibility
This is an especially difficult time. Extend grace and flexibility to students, families, educators, and yourself. There is no playbook for navigating distance learning during a pandemic.
As we continue to navigate uncertainty, allow for students to engage when and how they can. Yes, that can mean that they won’t be able to submit an essay on time or at all. Still show up for them and be prepared to catch them up when they are able to return. Families are experiencing unprecedented challenges and for those who were already navigating inequitable systems, now their experience has worsened. As much as you can, whenever you can, provide them with support, connections, and resources. Now is the time to double down on efforts to ensure they do not fall through the cracks.
Remember to consider your educators as leaders who know their students. Allow them to make decisions that will benefit each student, even if that looks different than what would be typical before the pandemic.
And reach out for help. Just as before, you are not in this alone.
For more on distance learning, check out these resources: