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COVID-19 & Remote Learning: How to Make It Work

By Mark Lieberman — July 22, 2020 7 min read
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Few schools in the United States will get through the 2020-21 academic year without some form of remote learning, for some portion of the student body, for some period of time.

Until an effective vaccine for COVID-19 is widely available and distributed, the possibility of viral spread will pose an obstacle to many forms of in-person interaction, particularly in indoor spaces such as school buildings. Health officials’ recommendations for social distancing in classrooms will limit the number of students who have the option to head to school every weekday. And safety concerns from parents, teachers, and other staff members will keep many people at home even if school buildings are permitted to reopen in some capacity.

To complicate planning for the school year, state and local education budgets are tightening, contradictory policy recommendations are circulating, and the coronavirus continues to spread. The rapid and massive shift to remote learning in the spring also revealed that access to Wi-Fi and digital devices at home remains inadequate for millions of U.S. households; and many schools lack the technological infrastructure or resources to ensure all students can learn online.

The burden schools will face to improve upon the scattered and chaotic remote learning efforts from the spring will be big—but not insurmountable, experts say.

“I think that too often the focus is on what’s lost and not on what’s potentially gained” from the constraints on traditional in-person instruction, said Chris Dede, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who has studied the use of educational technology in schools for decades.

Dede and other experts believe educators have many high-tech and low-tech tools at their disposal to provide students with meaningful learning experiences whether they’re in school physically or not. Almost every school in the country engaged in remote learning to an extent this spring, they say, which means every school has a foundation from which to grow. Add some extra time to plan over the summer, and the possibility of some in-person instruction in the fall that wasn’t possible in the spring, and educators and experts alike have reason for measured optimism.

“There’s a huge opportunity for a lot of schools and classrooms right now” to break out of traditional approaches and develop new ones, said Ryan Stanley, technology director of Alaska’s Educational Resource Center. “If a school is trying to do what they did, the way they used to deliver instruction, and pick it up into the distance classroom, they’re missing the opportunity.”

About This Series

Fourth in a series of eight installments.

These times are unprecedented. Through eight installments, Education Week explores the steps administrators need to take to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

How We Go Back to School is supported in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Education Week interviewed more than five dozen educators and experts, and examined numerous districts’ reopening plans as well as guidance from organizations that support remote and technology-enabled learning. In the fourth installment of How We Go Back to School, we offer tips, checklists, best practices, and expert advice on how to make teaching and learning at home engaging, productive, and equitable.

Downloadable Guide: How Educators Can Help Parents: 6 Remote Learning Tips


Installment 4Transitions

No one wants to repeat the nightmare scenarios from this spring, when schools across the country were confronted with rapid mandates to close school buildings and hastily begin remote instruction. But the reality is that COVID-19 won’t disappear until an effective vaccine is widely available.

As the current surge of cases in several U.S. states shows, the nature of the virus in a geographic region can change dramatically in a short time. Schools need to be ready to pivot back to teaching students remotely without taking several weeks off or scrambling madly to expand access and assemble resources. These insights from educators and experts will help clarify the biggest priorities for ensuring a smooth transition, regardless of the circumstances.

Deep Dive: The Pivot Back to Remote Learning: Checklists for Teachers, Principals, and Ed-Tech Leaders
Technology Counts: Like It or Not, K-12 Schools Are Doing a Digital Leapfrog During COVID-19


Installment 4Tools

The number of students using educational technology tools skyrocketed during full-time remote learning this spring. But the uptick in usage strained educators, particularly if they hadn’t previously been trained on those tools.

The benefit heading into the 2020-21 school year is that schools now have more data than ever before that can show the tools students use to learn, and how those tools are being used. Sorting through those numbers can be daunting, and figuring out what to do with the findings adds an extra layer of complexity. Education Week talked to educators, school district technology directors, and senior executives from ed-tech companies to help educators understand how to make sense of technology usage data to evaluate the effectiveness of those tools in helping all students learn.

Deep Dive: Knowing How Students and Teachers Use Tech Is Vital
Technology Counts: How COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means When Schools Reopen


Installment 4Hybrid

Many students will attend school in-person this fall, but not for the full five-day week. Even schools that fully reopen will have to serve students whose parents prefer to keep them home. All school districts will have to offer hybrid learning programs to some degree, with a mixture of in-person and online instruction.

Schools that currently have or plan to develop this capability will be better-positioned to effectively serve students’ learning needs in the long term, even once the pandemic is over. The key is to adopt a set of core principles that can be applied in either face-to-face or remote contexts, and to acknowledge which aspects of the learning process can and can’t be accomplished remotely. Education Week outlines the best practices for each aspect of the hybrid approach.

Deep Dive: How to Balance In-Person and Remote Instruction
Technology Counts: How COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means When Schools Reopen


Installment 4PD

Well-honed online teaching skills will likely underpin the success of remote instruction this school year, moving districts away from the chaos, inconsistencies, and low student engagement from the spring. But to get there, schools will need to put in place effective, ongoing professional development programs for teachers, principals, and district administrators.

Based on interviews with educators and experts, one priority is very clear: Classroom educators, principals, and district leaders need to make a big commitment to mastering their learning management systems, honing video teaching skills, understanding what remote assessment should look like, providing PD for school and district administrators, and utilizing training resources from nonprofits and education companies.

Deep Dive: 5 Tips for Remote Learning PD Success
Technology Counts: It Was a Bumpy Ride, But Virtual Schooling During the Coronavirus Boosted Teachers’ Tech Skills


When the coronavirus hurled K-12 education into its biggest upheaval in recent history by forcing all learning to take place remotely, exposing inequities in digital access and tech-skill preparedness, teachers around the country reached deep into their bag of tricks to salvage bonds established with students.

They made home visits. They sent cards in the mail. They sang Happy Birthday through webcams. There were countless text messages and checks-ins on the phone. Virtual office hours developed into a de facto platform for deeper one-on-one conversations about the stress of living through a pandemic.

Now they are planning to take the lessons they learned in the spring and use them to connect with students this school year, especially with students who are learning remotely. Here is advice from elementary, middle, and high school teachers on maintaining and improving rapport with students under remote learning conditions.

Deep Dive: Nurturing Teacher-Student Connections in a Virtual World
Video: Tips for New Teachers This Fall
Technology Counts: How Did COVID-19 Change Your Teaching, for Better or Worse? See Teachers’ Responses


Installment 4SolvingProblems

An EdWeek Research Center survey in April found that 62 percent of leaders in districts with poverty rates under 25 percent said everyone who needed home internet access had it. For leaders in districts where the poverty rates exceed 75 percent, the reported rate of access was just 31 percent.

That is a huge digital equity gap going into the 2020-21 school year.

Many districts are using the summer to put in place approaches to begin to close such equity gaps—or at least prevent them from widening if schools return to full-time remote learning or some combination of virtual and in-person instruction. To bridge those gaps, Education Week put together five key digital equity lessons learned from the spring that can be applied to the 2020-21 school year. Those lessons learned are based on extensive interviews with school district leaders around the country, data on the digital divide, and expert analyses.

Deep Dive: How to Address Big Tech Equity Challenges
Technology Counts: Coronavirus Pushes Schools Closer to a Computer for Every Student

Reporters: Mark Lieberman, David Saleh Rauf, Christina Samuels
Designers/Visual artists: Laura Baker, Francis Sheehan, Vanessa Solis, Gina Tomko
Illustrator: Stephanie Shafer for Education Week
Photo editor: Jaclyn Borowski
Web producers: Mike Bock, Stacey Decker, Hyon-Young Kim
Visual project editor: Emma Patti Harris
Project editor: Kevin Bushweller

Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order, they are: Alaina Adams, digital content expert and administrator, Phoenix Union High School District (Arizona); Salisha Adams, English department chair, KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy North (Newark, N.J.); Sarba Aguda, chief academic officer, KIPP New Jersey and Miami; Thea Andrade, chief achievement officer, Phoenix Union High School District (Arizona); John Armstrong, director of technology and information services, Joliet Public Schools (Illinois); Linnette Attai, president, PlayWell; Bernadette Ball-Oliver, executive director of high schools, Savannah-Chatham County School District (Georgia); Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design, Touro University California; Mary Batiwalla, director of evaluation analytics, ClassLink; Brian Beatty, associate professor of instructional technologies, San Francisco State University; Karolyn Belcher, chief academic officer, Charleston County School District (South Carolina); Kenneth Bouwens, director of CTE/STEAM and Innovation, Louisa County Public Schools (Virginia); Michelle Burke, instructional technology specialist, Madrid-Waddington Public Schools (New York); Dan Carroll, founder, Clever; Tawni Casteel, math teacher, PXU Digital Academy; Karen Cator, president and CEO, Digital Promise; David Childress, director of technology, Louisa County Public Schools (Virginia); Cory Culbertson, chief technology officer, Dubuque Community School District (Iowa); Chris Dede, professor of learning technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Jamie Ewing, K-5 science teacher, PS 277 (Bronx, N.Y.); Jose Ferreira, co-founder and CEO, Backpax; James Francis, CEO, Screencastify; Bruce Friend, head of School, Pine Springs Preparatory Academy (North Carolina); former chief operation officer, Aurora Institute; Chad Gestson, superintendent, Phoenix Union High School District (Phoenix, Ariz.); Trenton Goble, vice president of K-12 strategy, Canvas; Daniel Gohl, chief academic officer, Broward County Public Schools (Florida); Kathleen Granger, superintendent, Mountain Empire Unified School District (California); John Harrington, CEO, Funds for Learning; Frankie J. Jackson, director of strategic initiatives, Texas K-12 CTO Council; Mark Joseph, 6th grade math teacher, KIPP Rise Academy (Newark, N.J.); Cheri Kiesecker, co-chair, Parent Coalition for Data Privacy; Paul Kim, chief technology officer and assistant dean of the Graduate School of Education, Stanford University; Karl Lauer, history teacher, James Bowie High School (Austin, Texas); Stein Lee-Schreiber, Bartlett Bridges Alternative School, Bartlett, TN; Carla London, chief equity officer, Columbia Public Schools (Missouri); Amalia Lopez, director of special projects, Lindsay Unified School District (California); Mike Magee, CEO, Chiefs for Change; Jennifer Mathes, CEO, Online Learning Consortium; Taylor Ohlstrom, math teacher, Lakeside High School (Atlanta, Ga.); Hildi Pardo, distance learning production specialist, Arlington Public Schools (Virginia); Susan Patrick, president and CEO, Aurora Institute; Judy Perez, founder and CEO, iLearn Collaborative; Sarah Porisch, director of technology, Brainerd Public Schools (Minnesota); Karl Rectanus, co-founder and CEO, LearnPlatform; Teresa Rehman, director of technology, Roxbury Public Schools (New Jersey); Jeff Renard, director, Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative; Loretta Radulic, superintendent, Roxbury Public Schools (New Jersey); Stacy Royster, technology director, Opelika City Schools (Alabama); Jay Salazar, social studies teacher, KIPP Team Academy, (Newark, N.J.); Sonja Santelises, CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools (Baltimore, Md.); Sue Sarber, professional learning supervisor, Arlington Public Schools (Virginia); Kelly Scheuer, ESL teacher, Gibson Elementary School (Woodland, Calif.); Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education; Stein Lee-Schreiber, teacher, Bartlett Bridges Alternative School (Tennessee); Joseph South, chief learning officer, International Society for Technology in Education; Ryan Stanley, technology director, Alaska’s Southeast Regional Resource Center; Rachael Streitman, social studies teacher, Mayfield Middle School (Mayfield, Ohio); Shannon Taylor, pre-K-4 literacy coach, Tom Joy Elementary (Nashville, Tenn.); Travis Taylor, instructional technology specialist, Little Rock School District (Arkansas); Chris Turner, director of technology, Brighton Area Schools (Michigan); John Watson, founder, Evergreen Education Group; Derek Wenmoth, principal consultant for CORE Education and Senior Strategic Adviser to the New Zealand Ministry of Education; Sarah Brown Wessling, English teacher, Johnston High School (Johnston, Iowa); Samantha Westberg, 2nd grade teacher, Dickerson Elementary School (Chester, N.J.); Judith White, director of instructional support services center, Prince George’s County Public Schools (Maryland); Michelle Peck Williams, AP World History and current events teacher, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Lexington, Ky.); Pren Woods, 7th grade teacher, Alston Middle School (South Carolina); Andrew Woolfork, public information officer, Louisa County Public Schools (Virginia); Odelia Younge, director of micro-credentials, Digital Promise.

Documents: Brighton Area Schools, “Coronavirus Update - July 5, 2020”; “Idaho Back to School Framework” (July 2020); “Scaling Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative to Support Continuity of Learning”; “Five Steps to Getting Started with Broward County Public Schools Distance Learning” (March 2020); “Opelika City Schools Virtual Learning Student Handbook” (June 2020); “The Exponential Growth of the Digital Divide” (May 2020), LearnPlatform; “Closing the K–12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning (July 2020), Common Sense Media; “Presentations on Re-Opening Plans” (July 2020), Roxbury Public Schools; “Empowering and Motivating for Today and Tomorrow,” Lindsay Unified School District; “Remote Learning and Stone Soup” (May 2020), Chris Dede; “Back to School Forecast Webinar,” June 2020, Education Writers Association; “Network-Wide High School Summer Professional Development Schedule,” (June 2020), KIPP New Jersey; “Draft Professional Learning Plan 2020-2021,” (June 2020), Arlington Public Schools; “Principal PD Session Info,” (May 2020), Tennessee Department of Education/University of Tennessee, Knoxville; “Professional Development: Tools for Remote Learning and Teaching,” (May 2020), Tennessee Department of Education/Trevecca Nazarene University; “Bring Clarity to your Canvas Course Part 1: Course Navigation,” (March 2020), Arlington Public Schools; “Bring Clarity to your Canvas Course Part 2: Modules,” (March 2020), Arlington Public Schools; “Bring Clarity to your Canvas Course Part 3: Home Page,” (March 2020), Arlington Public Schools; “Transition to Digital Learning through Micro-credentials,” (June 2020,” Digital Promise; “ISTE Summer Learning Academy Calendar,” (June 2020), International Society for Technology in Education.
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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