Classroom Technology

How Can Schools Keep Quarantined Students Learning?

By Sarah Schwartz — August 27, 2021 10 min read
High school student working on computer at home.
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Just weeks into the start of the academic year, schools in some areas have seen thousands of students placed into isolation or quarantine after contracting COVID-19 or having been exposed to someone with the coronavirus, as the Delta variant has caused case counts to spike in many parts of the country.

As a result, a significant number of children are once again learning from home—even as some states and districts have limited access to remote instruction in their attempts to encourage students to return to five-day-a-week in-person instruction. Keeping students engaged and on-track during quarantines has quickly become a thorny challenge.

In many school systems last year, students who had to quarantine shifted temporarily into their district’s 2020-21 remote learning option, sometimes videoconferencing into in-person classrooms. That’s not always an option this year, as some districts have pivoted away from this kind of concurrent teaching—a model that many teachers found overwhelming.

Other districts don’t have a remote option any longer. In Texas, for example, the state legislature hasn’t funded virtual learning, meaning districts that want to offer it have to find the money elsewhere.

What that leaves, in many places, is a patchwork of solutions for quarantined students that varies school by school and even classroom by classroom. Some teachers say that they’ve shifted to a fully asynchronous model for students at home, posting assignments online or sending paper packets.

This kind of instruction is “really going back to the old days” of the pandemic, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

And teachers say it’s taxing, for them and their students. “We kind of went into this year thinking it would be OK. But it’s twice as bad as it was last year, if not worse,” said Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary art teacher in a rural district in Tennessee.

Almost as soon as students came back this year, in early August, children at her school started getting sick or exposed to others who were sick, rotating in and out of the classroom. (Vaughn’s district started the school year without a mask mandate, and then put one in place. Under an executive order from Gov. Bill Lee, though, parents can opt their children out of the mandate.) The uncertainty has made it hard to plan instruction, Vaughn said.

“It’s kind of a constant state of disequilibrium,” said Jim Bentley, a 5th grade teacher in Elk Grove, Calif., who said he’s had up to a quarter of his class out at any one time this school year, which started mid-August. He’s worried about the continued interrupted learning. “The inconsistency in what students are going to experience is probably going to be much greater,” he said, than if they were full-time remote or full-time in person. (Students are required to wear masks in the district, with exemptions for medical conditions.)

Improving quarantine instruction is an urgent priority, said Bree Dusseault, the practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Even in districts with low community spread and strong COVID-mitigation measures, it’s possible that students might get exposed and spend some time at home.

“Right now, we do not know if we’re going to be experiencing these outbreaks for weeks or months or the whole year,” Dusseault said. “We cannot have another year with students getting limited to no access to instruction.”

Quarantine instruction policies are all over the map

Heading into this school year, eight states banned schools from issuing mask mandates. The move has spurred fierce debate among parents and community members, and has been met with condemnation from public health officials who have said that it could lead to increased spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend that all adults and children wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Some high-profile cases of large student quarantines are in districts where masks are optional, or where parents could opt their children out of mask requirements—like in Hillsborough County, Fla., where more than 10,000 students and staff were in quarantine or isolation just a week into the school year, in a district of about 224,000 students and 24,000 employees total. But even in some schools with universal mask mandates, community spread of the virus has forced students out of the building.

Mae Pagett, a 6th grade science teacher at Drew Charter School in Atlanta, said her school took precautions as the school year began: requiring masks, testing teachers weekly, and installing portable air filters. “They were really thinking about a lot of stuff, but just the number of students that came into the building, and the Delta variant hitting Atlanta right before school opened, it threw everybody a curve ball,” she said.

Which students have to quarantine, and when, differs from district to district. The CDC recommends that unvaccinated students quarantine if they have been within 6 feet of an infected student unmasked for 15 minutes or more, or within 3 feet while masked. Unvaccinated students who have been within 6 feet of an infected adult for 15 minutes or more should quarantine, regardless of masking. Vaccinated students do not need to quarantine. Still, CRPE, which is tracking districts’ COVID responses, found a lot of variation in its review of 100 large, urban school systems.

Most districts, but not all, exempt students who have been vaccinated—though this distinction is irrelevant for students under 12, who aren’t eligible to receive the vaccine yet. And some exempt other student groups, including those who have recently recovered from COVID, students who are masked, or students who receive a negative COVID test result after exposure. Quarantines are generally between 10 and 14 days.

Districts’ plans to keep students learning during those quarantine periods are just as varied.

“First of all, there’s not a lot of information being put out yet about what is happening,” said Dusseault, of CRPE. In an analysis this week of the same 100 districts’ quarantine plans, only 38 share any information on their websites about how students will keep learning if they’re sent home.

Among those that offer specifics, the details are all over the map: Some say they’ll send home packets; others will deliver assignments electronically. Six districts mention that they’ll have someone check in with students, and only four promise synchronous instruction.

‘There’s been a lot less direction’

After 18 months of distance learning and a summer to build back-up plans for quarantined students, how did some schools end up back where they started in March 2020: relying on a patchwork of paper packets and asynchronous online activities to provide instruction at home?

In some places, teachers say, new state laws placed constraints on what districts were able to provide. Vaughn, the Tennessee art teacher, said that the governor’s ban on schools pivoting to virtual learning sent her school back to paper packets for quarantined students.

The governor’s rule doesn’t prevent schools from offering remote instruction temporarily, to individual students in quarantine. But because her elementary school doesn’t offer a regular online option anymore, Vaughn said, there’s no infrastructure or plan to provide assignments virtually.

“Teachers are having to prepare paper packets of work, kind of guesstimating how long students will be out,” Vaughn said.

Other districts are asking teachers to make work available virtually, but not requiring any live instruction. “There’s no real, official back-up [for quarantined students],” said Stephanie, a high school teacher in Atlanta Public Schools who asked that her last name not be used.

Stephanie uploads assignments to Google Classroom, and students who are out are supposed to complete the work by the end of the week. She says that most haven’t so far. It’s hard to know if her students have made much progress in these few weeks, she said.

“It’s a really icky feeling being in the classroom watching all of this happen like a slow-moving train wreck."

“There’s been a lot less direction,” said Bentley, the California teacher. He’s tried to maintain connection online, recording videos of himself and trying to engage students in reading and writing. He’s been considering setting up a livestream of his class via Zoom, but it’s not a requirement, he said.

Even in schools where teachers are able to provide some synchronous instruction for students in quarantine, having new students in and out of the building every day has been “hectic,” said Pagett, in Atlanta. She teaches in person, with a livestream option for students who are quarantined at home.

“It’s hard to keep track of who is out, why they’re out. So most of us just turn on our Zoom everyday and we’re not sure who’s going to be at school,” she said.

She’s been trying to stick to activities that students can do at home or at school—like comparing the melting speeds of ice on different surfaces—and she’s recorded herself giving voice instructions for students to listen to. But only about 65 percent or 70 percent of her students who are out are signing on regularly. They had the option to pick up laptops at the school, but not everyone did. “It’s kind of a mess,” she said.

The situation has left some teachers overwhelmed and exhausted, only a few weeks into the school year.

“It’s a really icky feeling being in the classroom watching all of this happen like a slow-moving train wreck,” said Vaughn, referring to climbing numbers of quarantined students.

Models exist for continuous instruction

At the same time, some districts have found ways to provide continuous instruction for students at home.

Arlington Heights School District 25, in Illinois, has set up a “quarantine academy” for students who test positive for COVID or who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. (The Illinois State Board of Education requires that students in quarantine must have access to a remote option.)

Academies are organized by grade band, with one dedicated teacher each for early childhood, grades K-2, grades 3-5, and grades 6-8. A fifth, special education teacher supports students across the different virtual classrooms. All core content is delivered through synchronous instruction, while classes such as music, art, and physical education, as well as lunch and recess are asynchronous. Students rotate in and out of the quarantine academy as needed throughout the year.

Tracy Recklaus, the grades 6-8 quarantine academy teacher, said the set-up is “way better” than concurrent teaching, in which one teacher works with both students in the classroom and students on a live video call. “I have the full attention of the kids in one place, and I can attend to that,” she said.

Recklaus and her quarantine academy colleagues worked with the district’s learning coaches and content area leads for a few weeks before the start of this school year, designing lessons that could be easily differentiated to meet the needs of multiple grade levels in one group.

For example, studying a poem of the day in English/language arts: “You can unpack a poem at every level, and the brilliant thing about poetry is you can interpret it in a billion different ways,” she said. Recklaus also plans to focus on skills that are relevant across grades and that students often need reinforcement with from year to year—like scale factors in math and science, or differentiating between mean, median, and mode.

Even if districts don’t have the staff to set up quarantine academies, there are still ways to improve the instructional experience for students at home, said Dusseault, of CRPE.

Clear communication should be a priority, she said—explaining exactly what will happen once students go into quarantine, and what options students will have to stay connected with the classroom. Houston Independent School District does this on its website, she said, with a separate landing page to answer students’ and parents’ questions.

Providing some kind of live instruction is also important, said Domenech, of AASA: “The best model would be where the district can revert back to providing remote learning with a teacher.”

Students should at least have access to staff during the week, Dusseault said, to review assignments or check in on progress. Districts could use tutors for this purpose, she said—a strategy that Fulton County schools in Georgia plans to put in place by the end of August.

“I think what we did learn in the last 18 months is that relationships absolutely drive student engagement and well-being,” Dusseault said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as How Can Schools Keep Quarantined Students Learning?

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