Prior to March, distance learning was a relatively foreign concept to most of the nation's public school districts. But seemingly overnight, the coronavirus pandemic shut down buildings and forced students and teachers online as they attempted to salvage what they could of a school year disrupted by forces beyond their control.
It hasn't been an easy transition for many. Districts have had to scramble to close access gaps with both internet and devices. Models of delivery vary, from live streaming sessions to those students can view on their own time. In many cases, project-based assignments have emerged as ideal. And pupils and educators alike have had to cope with juggling home concerns — including the loss of loved ones and family financial upheaval — with lessons.
Now, as they head into the fall, school districts are weighing the lessons learned from spring and summer, better prepared to handle future disruptions and embrace hybrid models with an initial idea of what works and what doesn't.
To help keep you in the loop, Education Dive will keep this page up to date with the latest trends and developments in the coronavirus' impact on e-learning in K-12. Here are some recent highlights from our coverage.
3 coronavirus challenges for curriculum directors this fall
Administrators are facing tighter budgets along with a need to establish expectations and adopt resources that fit multiple paths.
By: Lauren Barack
Robert Dillon knows any plan to bring back 2,700 students this fall can’t be boilerplate. That’s why the director of innovative learning for The School District of University City in Missouri instead envisions a scenario that dips, dives, moves forward and back — all throughout the year.
To him, the best solution is one that’s flexible, so if students have to learn from home again for a period of time, their learning needs are still met.
“We’re trying not to think so much of a Plan A or Plan B, but what does it look like when you’re in a phase?” he told Education Dive. “Everyone learning from home? We don’t think that’s what’s best for kids. But learning from what we’re doing now, and making it the best and as robust as we can, that’s one piece of the puzzle.”
For many districts, summer has already started. And typically, curriculum directors and superintendents have fall plans fairly set. Although many states are loosening restrictions, school districts remain watchful. While some are considering how schools will look when they reopen, many believe they need to prepare for scenarios that send them home again.
The goal, though, is to ensure education, wherever that happens, is not disrupted.
Parallel tracks for instruction
For Dillon, that goal means looking at building two pathways at once — a scenario where students are learning in physical classrooms and a parallel one that’s online.
“I think all districts have to consider what it looks like to have a full-time virtual academy,” Dillon said. “I think all schools going forward have to have some kind of truly robust, virtual academy and figure out how to staff it.”
In the Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colorado, Superintendent Thomas S. Tucker wants options that protect students' ability to learn alongside teacher bandwidth and yet are flexible enough to weather the continuing impact of COVID-19.
Tucker, who was the 2016 American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year, is looking at multiple scenarios, including one where some students are online a couple of days a week, with another group in classrooms, and then the two switch.
“We are planning — the verbs are very important — for a traditional fall opening in time, but we’re also preparing to continue remote teaching and learning,” he told Education Dive. “So we’re going to spend the summer paying close attention to how COVID-19 is impacting our community and our state, and our hope is to have a regular opening for the fall semester. But we are preparing for different scenarios.”
A phased-in approach
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines called "Considerations for Schools" to help guide districts on the best path forward for the fall. Without telling administrators what to do, they offer three scenarios, ranging from the lowest to highest risk. The thread through all three scenarios is density — students and educators at home isolated, as opposed to everyone at school together.
Administrators appear to be eyeing a middle ground, including everything from one-way hallways to meals eaten at desks, and even certain grades allowed to come back, while others stay in distance learning setups.
Dillon said even 50% attendance on the first day of school is not likely in his district. Instead, the district is looking more at starting the school year with just 10-15% capacity in a building, and then remaining flexible enough so numbers could increase or decrease depending on COVID-19.
"What would it look like for kindergarten and 1st grade coming back to the building, and then recognizing that the first day, one of our kids and family are contagious [and] we need to shut the building for a period,” he said. “I think this is not linear. I think we have zero students, and then 10%, then 50%, then zero and then 10% again. That is going to be our first semester.”
This will ultimately impact how curriculum is planned and what resources are invested in, as any expectations and tools will need to be flexible to adjust to any of these scenarios.
Nice to have vs. have to have
While building two pathways may be the ideal, administrators believe their budgets, designed to support one pathway, are going be cut due to lower tax revenues related to the coronavirus. And with recommendations that class sizes be smaller so students and educators can continue to socially distance in a face-to-face environment, many administrators are wondering how can they hire more teachers to support that shift.
Matthew Joseph, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Leicester Public Schools in Massachusetts, said his decisions based on budget cuts will come to choosing between things he would like to have for his district and what he knows he has to have. For example, while he would like class sizes to come down to 20 students, he’s mandated to have them at least under 30, but not smaller than that.
And then there’s a question of budget lines where he could save funds. That might include bussing, for example, Joseph said, and whether children who live within a mile of school can do without bussing if that saves the district $100,000.
“We’re looking at making a needs-based budget and looking at our priorities, our must-haves, nice-to-haves and our wish list,” he told Education Dive. “There are certain things we have to have. Bussing is a must-have. Distance is a nice to have."
Article top image credit: Getty Images
Report: Most districts lacked clear plans in shift to remote learning
By: Linda Jacobson
A new analysis of the remote learning plans of 477 U.S. school districts shows about a third have provided clear expectations for how teachers should provide instruction and track students’ participation and progress, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
The researchers, who initially followed the learning plans of 81 districts in the sample, conducted the larger work in partnership with the RAND Corp. They note teachers are likely “going beyond their district’s expectations to continue instruction,” but that a lack of specific guidance can result in wide variation.
Some of the biggest differences across districts include an urban-rural divide in which 51% of urban districts set expectations for how teachers provide instruction remotely, compared to 27% of rural districts. Low-poverty districts were also more likely than high-poverty districts to deliver live instruction — 28.8% compared to 14.5%.
It’s almost a given that districts will continue some level of distance learning this fall — either to maintain social distancing, respond to future coronavirus outbreaks, give families more choice or a combination of all of those reasons. District leaders can now begin planning “to align the resources, create teacher professional development and assess community priorities to design plans for the fall that have high expectations for each student’s learning and are responsive to each student's needs,” the researchers wrote.
They also noted that with their original sample, districts’ plans included more details over time — perhaps because of the spotlight CRPE has been shining on the published learning plans. Given how quickly districts had to respond, the authors said it’s understandable the plans wouldn’t be perfect from the start. But that shouldn’t have kept officials from providing some guidance, they wrote.
“Without clear expectations across the board, and therefore pressure to meet the needs of each student, many districts likely left the learning experiences of students who face the greatest challenges at risk,” they wrote.
Article top image credit: Permission granted by Taren Villecco
Projects cap school year disrupted by coronavirus and defined by remote learning
Teachers dedicated to the project-based approach have found distance learning brings "a larger range of what you’re willing to work through."
By: Linda Jacobson
Ashley Jenkins’ kindergartners were just about to receive a visit from a petting zoo when their school closed because of the coronavirus. The special event was the kickoff for an animal habitat project usually conducted in class.
Jenkins, who teaches at the BIA Charter School in Norcross, Georgia, was planning on spending a week discussing mammals, birds and other animal groups. But now removed from her students, she had to adapt by creating a slideshow with a voiceover and reimagining how she could build the same knowledge for her young students that they would have gained at school.
“Even though the way we delivered content to students changed, the end goal of the project did not,” she said. “As a teacher I had to get creative and think about how I would [turn] these activities that I planned on making hands-on in class into something that students could access at home.”
Students watched BrainPopJr. videos and took virtual field trips to zoos to see actual habitats. Jenkins also used “choice boards” to give students — and parents — some direction on how to plan the projects.
“I really stressed to them that they did not have to go out and buy supplies,” she said. “They could use whatever they had at home, or even draw or use technology to create their habitats. One student used all materials from outside in her backyard.”
'The puzzle' of how to end the year
There are teachers and schools that have long been dedicated to a project-based format — tying required content to larger themes, authentic experiences and students’ own interests. But some experts say this upended school year especially lends itself to open-ended assignments that require students to use some creativity and can even stand in place of a canceled assessment.
“They are tailor-made for teachers grappling with the puzzle of how to end the school year in an engaging and productive way,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said about the union’s Culminating Capstone Projects, posted this month on its Share My Lesson site.
And in just a week after the projects were posted online, they had been viewed or downloaded at least 10,000 times.
Others say the approach should be part of how educators redesign instruction this fall when students might be spending far more time learning outside of the classroom.
“The new opportunity that someone will figure out in the next two years is combining the benefits of robust asynchronous content with project-based learning,” Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, wrote in a commentary last week.
New Tech Network, a project-based school model that has spread to 200 schools nationwide, has received increased interest in recent weeks from districts and schools “communicating with greater clarity a strong ‘why’ for starting schoolwide project-based learning now,” said Kristin Cuilla, the network’s senior director of district and school development. “This sense of urgency reflects the shift in skills — agency, communication and collaboration — districts and schools realize students must have to be successful, especially when learning at home.”
In addition, PBLWorks, a nonprofit that provides professional development on the project-based approach, has also seen strong participation in its webinars. John Larmer, the editor-in-chief at the organization, said if students are rotating in-school attendance in the fall, as many re-opening plans have recommended, “doing PBL when they're home would make total sense.”
‘A little more weight’
Usually at this time of year, Juli Ruff, a 9th grade humanities teacher at the original campus of the High Tech High charter school network in San Diego, is guiding her students through three phases of the Forces of Change project.
First, they conduct research on people who have contributed to positive changes in the world. Then, they volunteer as part of local organizations — that’s the part disrupted when schools closed.
And for the final element, they are usually designing something that benefits the school community. Past examples have included a student creating an app with a virtual tour of the school, or another inviting top administrators of the network to talk to students about their positions. Projects usually involve other skills, such as essay writing or literary analysis.
Teaching from home, Ruff at first focused on providing students as much of a routine as possible, with a daily assignment and a deadline. Instead of taking the view that learning during a pandemic was overwhelming for students, she picked up that they were bored and needed “a little more weight to carry.”
In addition to having them analyze the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, Ruff redefined the third phase of the project to focus on something beneficial that students could do at home. One planned to create a baking blog. Another pitched soccer instructional videos, and one girl proposed reading daily Bible passages to her grandmother, who hasn't been able to get her new eyeglasses prescription, over the phone.
The students also have to submit a Google slide or other evidence of the work that went into their project.
Ruff said she agrees some students might need additional emotional support depending on how their family has been affected by the coronavirus, but “we need to not lament that life threw us a curve ball. We have to learn to hit a curve ball.”
There are also reasons, however, why schools might now be less inclined to pursue project-based learning,Larmer said.
The first is school districts are headed into a financial stretch that could be worse than the Great Recession, which could impact professional development opportunities. The second, he said, is “some states and districts might think it's time to go ‘back to basics’ because that's all they think teachers can do, given the unsettled and new reality,” or because students will need to “catch up on missed time.”
A significant study on project-based learning in science, however, showed the approach “can help close the learning gaps among students of underrepresented demographics in STEM courses and level the field between girls and boys,” according to a summary of the study. Students using the project-based materials “outperformed students in the comparison curriculum on outcome measures that were aligned to core science ideas and science practices,” the researchers wrote.
Even so, trying to recreate a project-based assignment students could successfully complete at home left even committed project-based educators with some doubts.
When schools closed, 8th-graders inMandy Stracke’s project-based history and English language arts class were in the middle of a "Fulcrum of History" project and considering the question: In what ways have the drivers towards and facets of war changed or remained the same in the modern era?
For ELA, they were using “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” and in history, they were studying the Civil War. She decided to offer her students the choice of either a traditional or project-based track because she felt constrained by having a two-hour time limit with them each week.
“I should have stuck to what I believed in … and just offered the [project-based learning] track. Now that we are in the middle of the project, I know that we could have made it work,” said Stracke, who teaches at the New Tech Network-affiliated Lobo School of Innovation at Quimby Oak Middle School in San Jose, California.
In school, they would have been creating a museum exhibition for other students to view. For distance learning, Stracke substituted a “shoebox theater” or a piece of artwork. Shelter-in-place journals and book talk videos were also elements of the assignment.
At Roger Bell New Tech Academy in Havelock, North Carolina, teachers were in their first year of implementing a project-based approach. While some teachers had to end their projects when schools closed, others were able to adapt them to be completed at home. Fourth-graders, for example, continued their Improving Our Skies project, focused on the history of flight and technological innovation, by creating videos on force and motion to show their understanding, said Caroline Godwin, a curriculum coach at the school.
Math teachers also introduced some real-world projects. Fifth-graders met with an interior designer over Zoom and were challenged to measure their rooms, plan a budget and then redesign their own spaces.
“We need to not lament that life threw us a curve ball. We have to learn to hit a curve ball.”
9th grade humanities teacher, High Tech High
Teaching skills that ‘stick’
Teachers say the same factors that influence students’ completion of traditional assignments during distance learning also apply to projects. Some families lack reliable internet, which, Jenkins said, makes it hard to check in on their progress.
As in the classroom, there is also a wide range in how many details students will add to their projects or how thoroughly they will try to demonstrate what they learned. “Some students kept to the minimum,” Stracke said, “while others went out of their way to hand-sew costumes for handmade characters in order to truly re-create that scene.”
Godwin notes another limitation in transitioning projects to remote learning is some students lacked familiarity with iPad apps. Next year, she said, teachers will take a more "blended approach" to projects to give students more practice with apps "used to research, collaborate and create products."
Jenkins said having the students work on their habitats at home gave them some practice in “planning and creating and maintaining their own work schedules. These are skills that hopefully will stick with them in the future.”
A review of research on project-based learning, conducted about 20 years ago, suggested students often have difficulty in “self-directed situations,” such as managing their time, initiating the questions their project will answer and using the right technology. While students are far more skilled with tech tools today, the authors wrote for project-based learning to be effective, it’s important to build in “a range of supports to help students learn how to learn.”
Stracke said she also noticed students who are usually quiet in class “are now regular contributors to our online video call sessions.”
She added she’s now thinking about “how to up my PBL practices to be closer to gold standard, but also to revamp my thinking about how to approach the different parts of the project path, looking toward a future where we may or may not need to blend distance learning with in-person learning."
Remote learning “changes the way the projects can look,” Ruff said. However, she added it’s “important not to lower the bar, but to have extra compassion. There’s a larger range of what you’re willing to work through.”
Students on remote learning: More creativity, interaction needed
Organizations are gathering students’ feedback on their e-learning experiences during the pandemic, the tools used and what could be improved.
By: Linda Jacobson
Teachers and administrators are reaching out and communicating with students about how school has changed because of closures, but what students would like is a better online classroom experience and more interaction with teachers and peers, according to survey results from Phi Delta Kappa International.
Nineteen percent of high school students responding, for example, said video chats would make them feel more connected during remote learning, but only 2% could give examples of how their teachers had done this well.
The respondents are part of PDK’s Educators Rising program for high school students who are interested in the education field, so the small sample is not representative of all students nationally. But Josh Starr, PDK International CEO, said during a webinar last week hosted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning that he wanted student voice to “inform the conversation.”
“Adults have always been really good at assuming what kids need and then convincing themselves that that’s what they need, and then blaming the kids when they don’t respond well,” he said.
Yoga and exercise, watching programs, listening to music and practicing hobbies are among ways students said they are handling the stress and anxiety related to the pandemic.
With plans to go into teaching, the students also responded that being prepared, staying flexible and providing emotional support for students are among the lessons they are learning from this crisis.
'Very difficult to do work at home'
Student Voice, a national organization, has also been capturing students’ perspectives, using focus groups to discuss the coronavirus and the shift to distance learning. In a recent conversation, students shared the recognition that they were living through something historic. But they expressed uncertainty toward how the pandemic was affecting their education.
“I'm supposed to graduate this year, but I don't know what's happening with my classes, if we’re going pass/fail or not,” said Jenna Yuan, a senior at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington, and chair of the Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council.
But she said her teachers have been flexible with schoolwork and noted her classmates will sometimes have a group chat to propose that a teacher grant an extension on an assignment.
Joshua Omolola, a student board member with Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, reiterated the finding from the PDK poll that schools and districts have been effectively communicating information about meal distribution and exploring the level of technology access students have at home.
He said some teachers are also giving shorter lessons and using a lot of documentaries to teach during this time. “I realized very early on that it is very difficult to do work at home when your bed is three feet away,” he said.
Madeline Lukaart, a 7th grader at Eastern Middle School in Ada, Michigan, said some of her friends are having a hard time handling distractions at home and are spending more hours on social media, “which I don’t think is probably the most healthy.”
Omolola added, however, that social media is primarily the way students can stay connected with their friends now and “find things we like in common.”
Merrit Jones, the president of Student Voice — who also moderated some of the discussion — even suggested educators might want to look at Tik Tok for inspiration during this time. “It’s short and digestible and entertaining and creative,” she said. “How can we build learning experiences in this moment that do just that?”
The students also talked about how teachers are grading during remote learning.
Yuan added she thought teachers should be grading and giving feedback in a different way during this time to show consideration for how students’ learning environment has changed.
Lukaart agreed, saying if students are completing the work, “it’s really good because they’re not receiving as much of the help that they used to receive.”
Omolola said in PGCPS, he’s been advocating for a method in which students close to passing a class before schools closed would be given the additional points to pass, especially if they don’t have reliable internet to be on Zoom calls. He added when school resumes in the fall, he thinks educators should give students time to review before moving on to grade-level or new course material.
Omolola also urged educators to think about what students have been learning on their own during their time at home.
“So long we’ve been taught, you know, you put students in a desk, put them in rows. That’s how they learn better,” he said. “Then we get into a situation like this and students have to be creative with the way they learn. We’re realizing there are so many more opportunities out there for them to actually express themselves. I think when we come back from this, we’re not going to be in rows anymore.”
Ed, tech coalition launches resource for remotely serving special needs students
Some also suggest parents and educators will be more likely to consider virtual services in the future, following school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
By: Linda Jacobson
As the U.S. Department of Education considers whether to recommend waivers from certain aspects of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, several organizations have joined together to support the special education community through the challenges caused by school closures.
The Educating All Learners Alliance, announced last week, features resources, case studies, webinars and virtual “office hours” and brings together special education and technology organizations, such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the International Society for Technology in Education.
“We are all learning how to teach and support students in the post-COVID world on the fly and at a brutal pace,” Gabrielle Schlichtmann, executive director of nonprofit EdTogether, said in a press release.
Meanwhile, the Council for Exceptional Children has submitted a letter to the department supporting some flexibilities related to special education services only because of the “specific circumstance” of the pandemic. Others, however, have expressed concerns that waivers might compromise students’ civil rights.
“For many parents, it’s been very challenging,” says Lisa Mosko, the director of special education advocacy for Speak UP, a Los Angeles parent organization. “A lot of kids are really struggling with the loss of routine and with the loss of contact with their providers.”
Some experts suggest the school closures will have significant negative effects on students with special needs. David Bateman, a professor of educational leadership and special education at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, is advising districts that when schools reopen, “they need to evaluate the kids like crazy for serious regression.” Many students, he said, “will need more intensive services that they didn’t require prior to just three weeks ago.”
And Ellen Saideman, a Rhode Island disability rights lawyer and board member for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, suggested that schools may be in the position of having to provide compensatory education for students that did not receive specific services during the closures.
“The problem is you have a public health emergency,” she said “This is a time for parents and school districts to collaborate.”
'An opportunity to create solutions'
Services delivered remotely can’t replace many of the in-person services that students with special needs require, especially those with severe disabilities. But some experts and parents also say a lasting, positive result of this crisis is that virtual education could become a more common way to meet students’ IEP goals in the future.
“If distance instruction or tele-intervention is an option, that is something the IEP team should consider,” said Mitchell Yell, a professor of special education at the University of South Carolina.
Already, in many rural districts, mental and behavioral health providers meet with their students virtually in order to cut back on driving long distances for appointments. Now, such services are becoming widespread while schools are closed.
In Los Angeles, Mosko said she wonders whether the use of virtual services now could also improve special education in the future, especially because some families lack access to providers because of geography.
“This whole shift,” she said, “is an opportunity for the district to create solutions that will actually help us post-school closures.”
Present and accounted for? Coronavirus-related school closures create attendance challenges
Experts say regardless of the method used to track e-learning participation, ongoing contact with students will be essential.
By: Linda Jacobson
Monitoring how long students are logged in, asking them to answer a daily question or having them participate in an online discussion thread are among the common ways to take attendance in an online class.
But now with most students across the U.S. unexpectedly transitioning to virtual learning due to the spread of COVID-19, determining how many are maintaining a school routine will be among the many challenges for state and district leaders.
“For schools across the country that already had students learning in a blended environment, this transition — it’s not easy, but they are more prepared,” says Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of the Aurora Institute, formerly the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
It’s one thing to enroll in an online class or a virtual school at the start of a semester or school year, where the expectations and attendance procedures are communicated up front. But it’s quite another for both teachers and families to be forced into an online learning arrangement in which districts might be using different methods for teaching and taking attendance.
“I don’t think we have good metrics on what constitutes chronic absence in an online learning system,” says Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a research and advocacy organization that has brought national attention to the chronic absence issue, particularly in the early grades.
In Ohio, where schools are closed at least through April 3, the state education agency has already acknowledged that monitoring who is and isn’t signing in to learn will be a challenge.
“We recognize that attempting to track student attendance under such circumstances would be extremely complicated,” according to the department’s website. “Consequently, students will be deemed to be in attendance during the non-spring-break periods included in the three-week closure.”
‘Most likely to be impacted’
Because most states include data on chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has also indicated it would “consider a one-year waiver to exclude this indicator” from states’ systems.
“This indicator is perhaps the most likely to be impacted by COVID-19 due to school closures or student absences,” according to the department’s fact sheet.
Some districts, such as Fulton County Schools in Georgia, have opted not to require attendance for the time being. Meanwhile, FCS Superintendent Mike Looney has asked teachers and families to post examples of how they’re spending their day, with the Twitter handle #FCSrising.
Coaches posting online workouts, a teacher leading a sing-a-long via Zoom and parents sharing photos of their children at the dining room table with laptops open were among the tweets in the thread.
Some virtual learning models track how long students are logged in to the platform — which is similar to seat time in a traditional classroom. But Friend suggests this approach sends the “wrong message.”
“A really good online course shouldn’t have me sitting in front of the computer all day,” he says. “You’ve got to get the students offline as much as you do online.”
Other methods focus more on the completion and quality of the work being submitted, which can then raise questions about how much help the student received with the assignment. But Friend suggests the “authenticity of the work is no more foolproof online than it is in the classroom.”
The key, he adds, is “good online course design” and regular contact between teachers and students.
Alisa Belzer, an education professor at Rutgers University, says K-12 teachers can learn from those who teach online in higher education.
“When instructors stay on top of evaluating the work they are asking learners to complete, they can easily determine who is ‘there’ and who's not. A key ingredient in this process is creating engaging assignments with clear deliverables,” she says. “When instructors give feedback that is specific, clear and actionable, students know their instructors are very much a part of their learning process. This also encourages ‘attendance.’”
Whatever method process teachers use to record their students’ participation in class, Chang says maintaining a relationship is important.
“I very much think that whatever we do, we need to make sure teachers are checking in with students virtually — either by computer or by phone,” she says. “I think students will even more need to be able to have contact with an adult to support their learning, to ask questions and to feel like it is worth continuing to learn.”