Special Report

How to Make Lessons Cohesive When Teaching Both Remote and In-Person Classes

By Sarah Schwartz — August 05, 2020 9 min read
Aimee Rodriguez Webb works on her computer reading emails at her dinning room table that she set up as a virtual classroom for a Cobb County school, on July 28, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. After a rocky transition to distance learning last spring, Webb is determined to do better this fall. She bought a dry-erase board and a special camera to display worksheets, and she set up her dining room to broadcast school lessons.
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Even in schools offering face-to-face instruction this fall, one “class” of students likely won’t be the coherent unit that it was in past years.

Within one 5th grade class, for example, students may be split in a hybrid schedule—half in-person two or three days, online the rest. Some may have opted for fully remote instruction while their classmates are in school buildings. The same teacher might be responsible for all of these students at once, or all 5th grade teachers might team up, each instructing in a different modality.

With so many moving parts, how can teachers make sure all students have a coherent learning experience?

Don’t try to plan two completely different courses, experts say. Instead, think about goals for the class: What is it that you want students to know and be able to do by the end? Those goals should guide instruction across environments, even if you’re using different techniques to achieve them online and in-person.

Education Week spoke with educators, online learning experts, and curriculum providers for concrete advice on how to keep instruction and materials coherent when students are in and out of the school building. Here’s what they recommend:

When possible, use the same materials in both settings, and stick with the same curricular progression.


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.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

Some publishers have always offered, or have recently developed, a digital match: For every unit, there are online versions of in-classroom lessons. Districts may also have access to resources from the state. Texas, for example, is releasing a set of free, pre-K-12 resources that districts in the state can use in-person or online.

But even if a curriculum doesn’t have a digital component, district instructional leaders can do work upfront to find complementary online resources and provide guidance on how to align them with existing paper-and-pencil lessons. Teachers should know before the school year starts what they have available to use in either setting for each part of their course.

All materials should have supports for English-language learners, but it’s especially important if students are expected to do asynchronous online work (on their own time rather than in a live class). Instructions should also be provided in multiple languages.

Taking a “remote-first” approach to instructional planning could make hybrid schedules (and socially distanced classrooms) run more smoothly.

“In the back of my mind I can’t help but think—if we go back, it’s going to be very short-lived,” said Laura Haddad, an English teacher and technology coach at Glastonbury High School in Connecticut.

Earlier this summer, before her district decided on a reopening model, Haddad planned to go “the technology route,” she said. If the district decided to start online, she would be ready; if they started in-person, she could adapt—and she would be prepared for a shutdown if there were an outbreak. It’s easier to bring an online class into a physical space than the other way around, she said.

This week, Haddad learned that the district plans to go back on a hybrid schedule. But even though she’ll be in the school building, she’s been told she’ll be behind plexiglass at her desk. Her students won’t be able to work in pairs or groups. So her high schoolers might have to rely on devices in class, too.

“You’ve got to tell the teachers to go paperless from day one,” Haddad said. “You’ve got to tell them to use mandated [online] applications from day one.”

Some lessons might need to be changed so that students who do them online have the same experience as students who do them in class—for example, adjusting a science experiment so that it can be done with common household items.

When students do have time in person, they should be collaborating with each other, having discussions, and working through problems.

A common hybrid plan looks like this: Students in group A are in school Monday/Tuesday and at home Thursday/Friday; students in group B have the opposite schedule. All students do distance learning on Wednesday, which is also a planning day for teachers.

In such a schedule, students in group A and group B don’t need to be working on the same lesson at the same time. Teachers can think about content in weeklong chunks instead, dividing up activities based on what works best in each environment, and leaving flexibility for students to complete remote work on different timetables.

In person

Even if students can’t sit together at tables or huddle over math problems in pairs, they will at least be in the same room at the same time. This is the opportunity for peer interaction and collaboration. It’s also an opportunity to support kids’ social-emotional health by focusing on instructional work that builds relationships. In-person activities could include:

  • analyzing student work, sharing their thinking behind how they approached a task;
  • collaborating to solve problems;
  • conducting a Socratic seminar or debate;
  • investigating scientific phenomena;
  • conferencing about student writing;
  • providing small-group instruction in response to individual student needs;
  • introducing a new concept and answering student questions;
  • explicit instruction of foundational skills, like phonics;
  • and performing music (for safety purposes focusing on percussive, rhythmic, and pitched instruments that do not require breath).


Students can do more independent work outside of class, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have any peer interaction. Teachers should also think about how they will integrate students’ questions about remote work into in-person lessons. Remote activities could include:

  • listening to recorded read-alouds and/or reading text independently;
  • listening to a short lecture or video providing direct instruction;
  • working on problem sets;
  • responding to asynchronous discussion prompts on message boards;
  • self-assessment;
  • giving peer feedback;
  • contributing asynchronously to group projects;
  • and writing.

What can schools expect from curriculum publishers?

Some providers are updating their offerings and technology platforms to better support distance and hybrid instruction. “People are gearing up for a long haul of teaching in these new models. It’s not, can you hold down the fort in a triage way,” said Larry Berger, the CEO of Amplify.

“Our expectation is that a student may be in a classroom Friday, and then the following Monday, education may just go completely remote,” said Bethlam Forsa, the CEO of Savvas Learning Company. “We prepared with that mindset.”

Education Week talked to six publishers—Amplify, Great Minds, Illustrative Mathematics, Match Fishtank, Open Up Resources, and Savvas Learning Company—to understand what this preparation looks like, and what supports schools should ask for. The list spans big companies and smaller startups, for-profit groups and nonprofit open educational resources. Here are some snapshots of what they’ve done:

Putting content online

Some companies have created new online interfaces specifically for this moment. Great Minds, for example, developed digital resources for Eureka Math, PhD Science, and Wit & Wisdom (for English/language arts) that adapt core curriculum for blended environments. The materials, called in Sync, come with features like a digital classroom edition, digital classwork, and recorded lessons and read-alouds. Beyond materials, the company is also providing guidance to teachers on how to adapt classroom protocols for a virtual space, said Rachel Stack, the chief academic officer for humanities at Great Minds.

And companies that have long had these blended learning capabilities are adding new features, too. Savvas, which hosts lessons on its learning management system Realize, is building in videos for parents and caregivers that introduce concepts and explain how to use materials. The LMS also offers Google Classroom integration.

Amplify recently started to offer alignment with Google Classroom, which Berger said was a necessity as teachers juggle multiple online programs during distance learning. “It’s not okay to make teachers use one platform for Amplify that they use for science, and another platform for a different program they use for math,” he said.

Identifying priority content and just-in-time supports

All six of these publishers had created guidance to help teachers and schools identify priority standards for this year, and/or areas where teachers may need to shore up unfinished learning from last year so that students can be prepared for grade-level work. For some, this is paired with new assessment tools that show where that unfinished learning is.

Downloadable Guide: Deciding What to Teach? Here’s How

“We believe strongly that kids are resilient and capable of engaging in grade-level content, while acknowledging that if there’s a specific gap it can derail a lesson,” said Jill Diniz, the chief academic officer for math at Great Minds. The company designed a new tool for Eureka Math, called Equip, that diagnoses where these gaps may be.

“We only assess right before that module: Do you have that knowledge that you need to engage in this grade-level content?” Diniz said. Based on the results, teachers get targeted recommendations for “sprinkled, just-in-time” supports for students.

Amplify ELA has debuted new writing prompts for middle and high school, called Starting Point, which teachers can give at the beginning of the year to get a sense of students’ abilities. Each asks students to respond to quotes from literature or pop culture, but they’re also an “invitation to write about challenges or different things that you’ve gone through,” Berger said. If students want to share their experience of the past few months they can, giving teachers another source of information about students’ social-emotional health.

And Illustrative Mathematics is developing guidance on how to interpret the results of “cool down” activities—short diagnostic questions that come at the end of each lesson, said William McCallum, the CEO and a professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Arizona. In some cases, he said, the concepts students need more practice with might come up again in future lessons; in others, it might be important to go back and reteach.

In the Savvas LMS, teachers can create personalized “playlists” of lessons for individual classes and students, using the company’s guidance on key concepts at each grade level. Teachers can include lessons designed for different grade levels depending on student needs, said Forsa.

Creating adaptations for different modalities

Illustrative Math has given teachers guidance on which activities should be done for in-person class or synchronous online time, and which can be done more easily remotely, in an asynchronous environment. Sharing ideas and synthesizing learning—engaging in mathematical discourse—is a priority for in-person time, said McCallum.

The in Sync resources from Great Minds also attempt to preserve some student conversation, even when kids might not be together, said Diniz. Teachers in video lessons encourage students to speak out loud and write down their thoughts, she said.

Amplify has taken some of its in-person assessment online. mCLASS, a foundational reading skills test, is based on observation in the classroom—listening to students identify and blend sounds, said Berger. The company has provided guidance on how this can be done over video conference and created a digital, asynchronous version. “Whatever modality you find yourself in, and especially if it suddenly gets switched in the middle of the year, you have a reliable, valid measure of where kids are,” Berger said.

Education Week spoke to many experts for this story. In alphabetical order, they are: Tammy Baumann, chief academic officer, Open Up Resources; Larry Berger, CEO, Amplify (New York); Jill Diniz, chief academic officer for math, Great Minds (Washington D.C.); Bailey Cato Czupryk, partner for practices and impact, TNTP (New York); Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence, Center on Reinventing Public Education (Washington); Jana Beth Francis, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Daviess County public schools (Kentucky); Bethlam Forsa, CEO, Savvas Learning Company; 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); Claire Kaplan, executive director, Match Export; 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); Danielle Neves, deputy chief of academics, Tulsa public schools (Oklahoma); Rachel Stack, chief academic officer for humanities, Great Minds (New York).

Documents: “ACUE’s Online Teaching Toolkit,” Association of College and University Educators; “Broad-Based Academic Support for All Students” (July 2020) Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and Results for America; “COVID-19 Planning: Resources to Support the Use of High-Quality Instructional Material,” EdReports; “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; “Hybrid Learning,” Highline Public Schools; “Implementing Continuous Core Instruction,” Louisiana Department of Education; “Implementing Strong Start 2020: A Toolkit for Teaching and Learning For Schools,” Louisiana Department of Education; “Texas Home Learning 3.0” (July 2020) Texas Education Agency.


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