Classroom Technology

States’ E-Learning Directives Pivot for the Long Haul

By Sarah Schwartz — March 27, 2020 11 min read
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As more states have extended their school building closures—or shuttered through the end of the academic year—state educational agencies have had to pivot from providing short-term guidance to long-term remote learning plans.

For some, this means figuring out how to extend the infrastructure and policies designed for limited remote instruction—like snow day plans—to support students for the rest of the school year. Still others are creating roadmaps for the first time.

Online learning is far from a new approach, said Candice Dodson, the executive director for the State Education Technology Directors Association. But even in cases when districts conducted e-learning for one- or two-week stretches, “it’s nothing like this,” she said.

Most states have canceled spring testing. By March 27, 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Education had all received or were seeking permission from the U.S. Department of Education to suspend or cancel these assessments.

And on Saturday, the education department released a fact sheet, aiming to clarify that federal special education law shouldn’t prevent schools from offering remote learning opportunities, including for students with disabilities.

But there are still a lot of open questions for all students, about what instruction should actually look like, how it will be measured, and how it can be delivered if students don’t have internet connectivity. So far, states’ guidance on remote instruction have left many of these decisions up to districts.

See Also: Map: Coronavirus and School Closures

Brent Clark, the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators, said his state agency has done a great job in working with districts, and that educators have put forth a “heroic effort” to get learning started again. But schools across the country are still in the beginning phases of figuring out how a remote system will work, he said.

“There’s just a lot to reinvent in a few days in a system that’s been built over 100 years,” Clark added.

Adapting Existing E-Learning Plans

A SETDA report from late 2019 found that only 12 states had formal e-learning policies, while four more had some districts that were implementing remote learning days.

But those e-learning days were generally used for short-term school closures, such as snow days or other inclement weather events. And not all school systems in the state used them.

In response to long-term school shutdowns, some of these states, including Kentucky and New Hampshire, have planned to transition to remote learning for all districts for the duration.

In Kentucky, the education department shortened the application process for its nontraditional instruction, or NTI, program, so that the half of the districts in the state that weren’t currently participating could start immediately. The state passed a law allowing districts to request an unlimited number of NTI days. These days are counted as instructional days, and districts will have to report student and teacher participation to the state at the end of the schools’ shutdown.

Even in districts that have used the NTI program for years, instruction is going to look different, said David Cook, the director of the Kentucky Department of Education’s division of innovation. “They can’t do review work for 20 days, or however many days it’s going to be. They’re going to have to do some things that are introducing new material.”

Still, he said, “we probably can’t deliver the entirety of the curriculum. It’s going to be harder to do that at home. You can’t teach it as quickly.”

And not all districts started NTI right away. Jefferson County Public Schools, the largest district in the state with 98,000 students, sent them home with optional activities when schools closed earlier this month, but aren’t making the move to NTI until April 7.

Different Degrees of Guidance, Requirements

Other states have also required that instruction continue, issuing different degrees of guidance and requirements. These plans acknowledge that instruction is going to look dramatically different from how it did in the classroom, and that this will vary significantly from district to district.

“We know that over the next two months, we’re not going to be able to replicate the type of learning that’s been going on through the year,” said Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner of the division of learning services for the Kansas State Department of Education. The state was one of the first to come out with a comprehensive remote learning plan, after Gov. Laura Kelly shut down all school buildings for the remainder of the year.

“We know that students want to be engaged with their teachers. We know that parents want their kids engaged,” he said.

Still, the plan recommends much less instruction than would be in a regular school day—a sliding scale that starts at no more than 30 minutes for preschoolers and kindergartners and no more than three hours total for grades 6-12. The document notes that students and teachers both may be dealing with stressors at home and limited internet, making longer expectations unreasonable.

Many state plans don’t have any requirements for the length or format of lessons and activities, meaning that districts will have a lot of flexibility in demonstrating that they are providing instruction during closures.

In Texas, for example, schools are advised to “attempt to retain some documentation that instruction is happening.” This can take the form of grade books, but could also be demonstrated with samples of student work.

Other states, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, have waived rules on mandated hours of instruction for the school calendar year, or said they won’t penalize schools that fall short of these time requirements.

In Ohio, the department of education has encouraged districts to provide learning and enrichment opportunities during the period that students are out of regularly scheduled classes, but has acknowledged that figuring out who is actually participating could be a challenge. “We recognize that attempting to track student attendance under such circumstances would be extremely complicated,” reads guidance on the state department website. “Consequently, students will be deemed to be in attendance during the non-spring-break periods included in the three-week closure.”

District leaders are looking for maximum local flexibility, and for states to recognize that there are going to be variations in what remote learning looks like district by district, said Clark. He noted that Illinois has rural, suburban, and urban areas, all with different capabilities, a trait that it shares with many other states.

Still, he said, districts do need “guardrails from the state agency” for some matters, to ensure consistency. One, in particular, that Clark highlighted: grading.

In Illinois, for the closure period before March 30, grades could only be counted if they didn’t negatively affect a student’s academic standing. But once districts move to online learning statewide after that date, it’s not yet clear how grades will be tallied, Clark said. (Other states have encouraged districts not to grade work, while some have said the question is up to districts to decide.)

Another unanswered question: How should students continue in career and technical education classes, in which they demonstrate proficiency through in-person tasks? Or in dual credit courses, which require collaboration with local colleges and universities, many of which are also closed?

In Kansas, Neuenswander said, some schools are already working with institutes of higher education on these questions.

The Illinois state agency has tried to be very responsive, Clark said, but the rapid school closures have left many challenges that states are still working through.

Digital Divide Now ‘On Everyone’s Agenda’

Concerns about CTE courses aren’t the only reason that not all remote learning can be done via e-learning. In issuing guidance, states have also had to provide options for students and teachers who don’t have devices or connectivity.

Results from a recent Education Week survey of schools’ preparedness for coronavirus demonstrate that this guidance is likely necessary. Forty-one percent of school and district leaders surveyed said that they did not have the ability to provide every child with e-learning or distance learning for even one day.

“Even if a family has a computer at home, they may only have one computer,” said Dodson. This presents a problem in households where two parents are working from home, and multiple kids are expected to be doing online learning. There’s also a learning curve when it comes to new tools, and considerations for accommodating students with special needs and English-language learners, Dodson said.

The digital divide has long been a problem for K-12 students, she said. “Now, it seems to be on everyone’s agenda.”

In its guidance document for learning during the pandemic, the Consortium for School Networking suggests that schools consider “all reasonable alternatives” before switching to online instruction. States, too, are giving districts the option to continue learning via paper and pencil methods.

California law requires that students have access to standards-aligned materials in their core subjects, both at school and at home. But the state’s distance learning plan notes that expectation can be achieved through different strategies.

“It’s important to note that equitable access does not require that LEAs [local education agencies] offer the exact same content through the same channel for all students,” the plan reads. “Instead of abandoning a promising e-learning approach because not all students will have equal access to it from home, the plan should include an analysis of alternate deliveries of comparable educational content.”

The Texas Education Association has published guidance for preparing and delivering packets that weighs the pros and cons of packet delivery versus pick-up, and offers suggestions for keeping student materials sanitary.

In Kentucky, districts have the option to use e-learning, paper-and-pencil work, or some combination of both. School meal delivery services in the state have been able to support continuing instruction, Cook said.

“They’re literally driving buses with food in one box and these packets in another box, and they’re delivering them to the families that don’t have internet access,” he said.

Data privacy is also a factor when considering print versus online learning, Clark said. Right now, he said, “educators are trying very creative things to try to stay connected with kids.” But “over the long haul,” he said, teachers are going to need more information about best practices in situations that may not have regularly come up in a classroom setting.

SETDA has tried to share state and district model plans that keep data privacy in the forefront, Dodson said. “Student data privacy cannot just go out the window with this. We have to be very mindful of that,” she said.

Remote Learning ‘All Summer Long?’

For now, some states are in an in-between period with remote instruction, having given districts a period of time to put together a long-term plan.

When schools first shut down in Washington state, districts had the option to start remote learning. Starting March 30, though, all districts will be required to start implementing a plan through the end of school closures in late April. In Minnesota, which closed school buildings statewide on March 18, districts also have until March 30 to start remote learning.

When Oklahoma first stopped in-person instruction on March 17, the state required that instruction stop too. This week, the state board of education approved a plan to start remote learning on April 6, through the end of the school year.

“It’s best to make plans to continue the year with learning and achievement and enrichment and the kind of supports that our kids need, but we’ve got to provide that with a different delivery,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. Districts will have this time to identify barriers, and plan how they will reach all students, including those with limited connectivity, she said.

But other states aren’t requiring that remote learning occur at all. In Virginia, which has also closed school buildings through the end of the year, school divisions can provide continuous instruction. If they don’t think they can provide equitable access, though, they have other options.

“Unless you can embrace and include all students, all learners, then the best route is to take advantage of the flexibility the state board is going to offer in terms of providing waivers for school districts that can’t make up all the time that’s been lost,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia department of education, in an interview.

To cover the content that students would have learned this year, districts have other choices: They could integrate it into next year’s existing school calendar, or they could plan to extend this school year or the next.

While many states’ guidance documents don’t mention summer learning yet, Neuenswander, in Kansas, said it’s possible that remote instruction could continue past the end of the traditional school year.

“This could be one of the biggest summer learning debts that we’ve seen across the country. We want to eliminate as much of that as possible,” he said. “I think our teachers are going to understand we could do this all summer long.”


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