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Teacher Preparation

Classroom Routines Must Change. Here’s What Teaching Looks Like Under COVID-19

By Sarah Schwartz — August 05, 2020 8 min read
Teacher Lee Gang-in gives an online class to her high school students amid the coronavirus outbreak in Seoul, South Korea.
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With less than a month before most schools in the country are scheduled to start, many teachers still don’t know how they will be conducting classes this fall.

Each model brings its own challenges. Remote teachers will have to build class culture and routines with students they may never have met in person; teachers in school buildings will need to figure out how to adapt their instruction, shaped and constrained by the physical environment.

In school buildings, almost every operational concern, from social-distancing-friendly class schedules to cleaning times, has implications for instruction. Some teachers may have to adapt courses from daily 45-minute periods to 90-minute blocks every other day; others will need to figure out how to plan small-group work so that it lines up with staggered bus arrivals.

Class cultures built on collaboration or group project work will change.


District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

“This will be taking me back to my own childhood, when [students are] all sitting in their desks with their own notebooks, and the teacher is calling on them,” said Cathy Burge, a 5th grade teacher in Holmen, Wis., whose students usually sit in groups at trapezoid tables.

“I think we want to be really honest with parents … [in-person school is] not going to be what they remember from last year. I think that open dialogue is going to be really important,” she said.

For teachers, uncertainty can make it hard to prepare. “Until I know what’s happening, I don’t want to do all this planning and then not use it,” said Laura Haddad, a high school English teacher and technology coach in Glastonbury, Conn.

Still, experts say there are some priorities for instruction this year that cut across environments. Frequent communication between students, teachers, and parents is essential to re-engaging students in school, especially if class is online in the fall. Challenging students with cognitively demanding work, and providing them supports where needed, is more important than ever as schools anticipate significant learning loss.

We discuss these priorities and present ideas for adapting common classroom routines for remote or socially distanced settings. (Previous installments of this series cover best practices for online learning and building remote relationships, specifically.)

The priority: Frequent, meaningful engagement

It’s recommended that each student has meaningful interaction with at least one educator every day. In a virtual setting, this could look like a synchronous advisory or morning meeting. This doesn’t have to rely on internet access, though—teachers could also call individual students on the phone.

Regardless of method, communication shouldn’t overburden teachers. Grade-level teams can split up student rosters, and other educators—such as counselors, teachers’ assistants, or reading specialists—can share some of the responsibility. Posting video lessons and check-ins for students to access asynchronously is encouraged as well, but it doesn’t replace a one-on-one conversation.

The priority: Cognitively demanding work

Jana Beth Francis, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning in Daviess County schools in Owensboro, Ky., said deep intellectual engagement was missing from a lot of work during the spring closures.

“There was a lot of, watch this video, fill in this worksheet. Kids weren’t thinking about their work. So that’s the first step we’re taking” in planning for the fall, she said.

Even in a fully remote environment, students should have the opportunity for synchronous or asynchronous discussion, personalized feedback from teachers, and coaching. They should be analyzing text, working through complicated math problems, and testing hypotheses, independently and together with other students. Centering this cognitively demanding work can accelerate students academically, but it’s also a way to keep them emotionally invested in remote learning.

The priority: Responding to formative assessment

Teachers have always embedded checks for understanding into their lessons. But this year, as students may be starting school with unfinished learning from the spring, figuring out where gaps might prevent students from understanding grade-level content is especially important. Experts recommend against starting the year with a formal or standardized test, instead advising teachers to use formative assessment to figure out where students might need extra support to engage with the work. (For more on this, see “Don’t Rush to ‘Diagnose’ Learning Loss With a Formal Test. Do This Instead”.) Responding to this instructional need is the next step.

Teachers can give feedback in the context of the lesson, if students only need a quick reminder or refresh of concepts. Moderating asynchronous student collaboration—on chat boards, for example—gives teachers an opportunity to provide feedback that clarifies misconceptions or deepens understandings. Teachers can also prepare virtual scaffolds ahead of time, providing digital anchor charts or recordings of themselves analyzing an exemplar of student work.

School schedules—whether in-person or online—should be designed so that there is ample time for teachers and specialists to work with students who need additional support, beyond what they can receive within the context of whole-group instruction.

Adapting Common Classroom Routines in an Online (or Socially Distanced) Environment

How to: Introduce yourself to students at the beginning of the year

Teachers can record an introduction video that welcomes students to the class and helps students get to know them. In the first online class session, teachers could give students a tour of the online environment, explaining where they will find assignments, how they can participate, and any class norms. This virtual tour can also be recorded, or key instructions written up and posted, so that students can go back and review later if needed.

Alice Chen, an 8th grade English teacher and technology coach in Walnut, Calif., who will be teaching remotely, plans to have her students do introduction videos, too. She’ll ask her class to take photos of themselves and each record a short bio, which includes them saying their names. “Instead of asking the student over and over how to pronounce their name, I like to record it, so I can listen to it at home and learn to pronounce it the right way,” she said.

Even though video can be a good way to connect at the beginning of the year, teachers don’t need to require that every student have their video feed on for every synchronous lesson. There are equity concerns here—students may be connecting through an app on their phone, dialing in, or not have the bandwidth for video.

And just as teachers might in a traditional classroom, they should also use time at the beginning of the year to explain schedules and routines in an online space: What time windows will teachers be available, and how should students contact them? What time is class each week, and when will assignments be due?

How to: Hold a remote discussion

Class discussions will look different online than in-person. “Freewheeling, seminar-style debates” are hard to pull off in a Zoom class with 20-30 students, said Justin Reich, the executive director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab.

In interviews with 40 teachers about their experiences teaching remotely this past spring, the Teaching Systems Lab found that some teachers said students were self-conscious about turning on their video in whole-class settings. Other teachers had more success in smaller groups—either splitting the class into smaller synchronous meeting times or circulating between simultaneous breakout sessions.

Discussions can also take place in an asynchronous environment, with message boards that allow students to respond to each other.

In a math class, for example, a teacher could share (with permission) two examples of student work that demonstrate solving the same problem in different ways. She could post these examples, along with a few discussion prompts, to a discussion forum and ask for student reaction. As the students respond, she should moderate the conversation, prompting students to expand on their thinking or clarifying misunderstandings.

Even with no internet access, teachers can still use the phone—calling students to talk through problems or convening two or three students on a group call to have academic discussions.

Regardless of how teachers structure conversations, it can be helpful to provide a rubric that clearly lays out what full, thoughtful participation looks like in each environment.

Less formalized opportunities for discussion can also help build relationships. Chen, the teacher in California, invited students to schedule virtual book talks with her in the spring. Students didn’t have to be in the same class section to sign up for the same time slot, so groups of friends could come together.

How to: Have students think-pair-share

How to: Plan a socially distanced art, music, or physical education lesson

In art, one group of students shouldn’t be using the same set of materials as the next. It may be necessary for art teachers to rotate lessons: using paper and colored pencils for the first block of the day, and then watercolors for the second, for example.

For music class, the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Association for Music Education recommend against indoor group or ensemble singing. Instead, focus on instruments that don’t require breath—like xylophones, tambourines, or bells—and music theory work, like ear training or chord building (no equipment or instruments should be shared without disinfecting between uses). Performances and concerts can be recorded or streamed online.

Schools should consider holding outdoor physical education classes when possible, SHAPE America suggests, with limited or no use of equipment. Some educators have started planning for no-contact games for P.E. or break times. Andrew Jones, a kindergarten instructional assistant in Trinidad, Calif., compiled a list of “pandemic-friendly” games for young students to play during indoor and outdoor recess.

“In all of the teacher forums I’ve been reading, everyone’s focused on desk configurations and facemasks. For me, those are the easy things to do, because you’re going to get instructions from the administration on what you have to do,” he said. “They’re not going to tell you how to have fun with the kids.”

Education Week spoke to many experts for this story. In alphabetical order, they are: Larry Berger, CEO, Amplify (New York); Cathy Burge, 5th grade teacher, School District of Holmen (Wisconsin); Alice Chen, 8th grade English teacher and technology coach, Walnut Valley Unified school district (California); Bailey Cato Czupryk, partner for practices and impact, TNTP (New York); Jana Beth Francis, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Daviess County public schools (Kentucky); Jonathan Gyurko, president and co-founder, Association of College and University Educators (New York); Laura Haddad, high school English teacher and technology coach, Glastonbury public schools (Connecticut); Andrew Jones, kindergarten instructional assistant, Trinidad Union school district (California); William McCallum, CEO, Illustrative Mathematics, and professor emeritus of mathematics, University of Arizona (Arizona); Robin McClellan, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for elementary schools, Sullivan County public schools (Tennessee); Scott Muri, superintendent, Ector County Independent school district (Texas); Justin Reich, executive director, MIT Teaching Systems Lab (Massachusetts).

Documents: “2020-2021 Priority Instructional Content in ELA/Literacy and Mathematics” (June 2020) Student Achievement Partners; “AASA Covid-19 Recovery Task Force Guidelines for Reopening Schools: An Opportunity to Transform Public Education,” AASA, The School Superintendents Association; “ACUE’s Online Teaching Toolkit,” Association of College and University Educators; “Addressing Unfinished Learning After COVID-19 School Closures” (June 2020) Council of the Great City Schools; “Broad-Based Academic Support for All Students” (July 2020) Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Results for America; “COVID-19 Considerations for Reopening Schools,” Kentucky Department of Education; “ELA Guidelines for Distance Learning Modules,” Instruction Partners; “Fall 2020 Guidance for Music Education,” the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Association for Music Education; “Guidance for Planning IM Instructional Materials in Distance Learning Environments in 2020-21, by the team at Illustrative Mathematics (July 2020)” Illustrative Mathematics; “How Schools Can Help Children Recover from COVID School Closures,” Douglas Harris, Katharine O. Strunk, et al.; “Math Guidelines for Distance Learning Modules,” Instruction Partners; “Online, Blended and Hybrid Instruction,” Southern Regional Education Board; “Online Course Design Checklist,” Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary; “Remote Learning: Rapid Evidence Assessment” (April 2020) Education Endowment Foundation; “School Reentry Considerations: K-12 Physical Education, Health Education, and Physical Activity,” SHAPE America; “What’s Lost, What’s Left, What’s Next: Lessons Learned from the Lived Experiences of Teachers During the 2020 Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” MIT Teaching Systems Lab.


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