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Are Schools Better Prepared for Remote Learning, Round Two?

As COVID-19 continues to make it unsafe for many U.S. school districts to reopen for in-person instruction, some schools are now planning to start the year with remote learning, or have already done so.

As COVID-19 continues to make it unsafe for many U.S. school districts to reopen for in-person instruction, hybrid or otherwise, these schools are now planning to start the year with remote learning, or have already done so. But given this model’s recent very mixed results, are schools now better prepared for remote learning, round two?

As I wrote here in April, many schools made a fast and impressive transition to remote learning for the spring semester. And given the challenging circumstances, they were mostly forgiven for any missteps made along the way. It was, after all, a completely new and confounding situation for everyone, and trial and error was the norm.

And now, with no clear timeline for U.S. schools’ full reopening, remote learning gets a second shot. But while educators are taking stock, examining the results of remote learning round one, what are they learning? And what must they do differently in round two?

Ongoing Teacher Training, Coaching and Observations. A recent New York Times article describes how most U.S. districts spent their summers preparing for a full reopening of schools, and that less than half of districts provided their teachers with summer trainings on how to improve their virtual teaching skills. Now, with many of these districts shifting back to remote learning, they’re again scrambling to prepare their teachers for the start of school. But teachers will also need ongoing coaching on remote learning, and principals must find new ways to observe and assess their teachers’ instructional practices. So districts are exploring ways to ensure teachers and school leaders get the support they need throughout the school year.

Internet Connectivity and Instructional Spaces. Much has been written about the number of students without adequate home Internet access. And though it will be too little, too late for many kids, work continues in trying to close this connectivity gap. But one group that gets overlooked in this discussion is teachers. It’s estimated that 10 percent of U.S. teachers don’t have the Internet bandwidth needed to instruct remotely. And for many teachers, turning a portion of their dwellings into a quiet and functional area for teaching is also a stretch. Recognizing this need, Education Week reports that some districts are now trying to provide teachers with a safe space — either their own classroom or in some other district building — from which to conduct their remote classes. At the same time, districts in California, among others, are requiring that their teachers conduct remote learning instruction from their own classrooms, purportedly to provide better technology and instructional supports than what’s available to them at home. But teachers’ unions are crying foul.

Attendance and Grades. Teachers recognize that many students fell through the cracks and either didn’t show up at all when classes went remote in the spring, or were only sporadic attenders. So schools are now upping their attendance requirements and plan to be more vigilant in ensuring their students are attending class. And if they’re not, finding out why, and if needed, making the necessary accommodations. Most schools are also going back to their traditional grading systems — no more Pass/Fail classes, and no more A’s for just showing up and completing assignments.

Learning Management Systems (LMS). When schools moved to remote learning in the spring, many had a district-supported LMS, but hadn’t fully trained their teachers on how to use it, or required them to do so. Consequently, teachers were all over the map. And parents and students were justifiably confused. Now, most districts are standardizing on only one or two LMSs. Perhaps SeeSaw for their lower elementary grades, and then Canvas, Schoology or another fully tooled LMS for all other students. And in doing so, districts will be requiring their teachers to use the LMS as the primary repository for their assignments, instructional resources, and for communicating with students and parents.

Balancing Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning. At the beginning of their first foray into remote instruction, many teachers tried to shoehorn their usual classroom teaching methods into this new model. For teachers accustomed to doing whole class instruction, this meant all students needed to synchronously log in via a video conferencing platform, like Zoom or Google Meet. Dissatisfaction ensued, both for teachers and students. In round two, many of these same teachers will now be video recording some of their lessons — probably in short segments — and posting them in their LMS for students to access. Teachers will also be more likely to schedule video conferencing sessions with individual or small groups of students, rather than only with their whole classes, which often proved unwieldy for any period longer than an hour. A balance of live and flexible learning will, teachers believe, provide students and families with the best options. And districts also know that all students will need at least a daily remote check-in from a teacher or school support staff for them to stay on track.

More and Better Communications. One of the things schools heard loud and clear from parents and students was a need for better communications. And this has been especially true in the run-up to the start of the school year, with all the confusion about how and when schools will commence instruction. Families also expressed a need to be better informed about daily and weekly class schedules and assignments, as well as regular updates on students’ performance. And as more parents return to work, leaving their older kids to watch over their younger siblings, teachers know they will need to provide clearly formatted instructional guidance for their students to follow.

Tech Support. Prior to the pandemic, most districts didn’t provide tech support for students, families and teachers working from home. But with district devices now going home with students for remote learning, and teachers instructing from their dining room tables, districts have realized their tech support models must change. So, schools’ helpdesk staff are adapting to their new roles. And through this, districts have also learned they need to simplify their login and password protocols. Expecting third-graders to remember three or more passwords to access district-supported instructional systems was problematic, and it overwhelmed both teachers and tech support staff.

The difficult situation in which schools now find themselves will likely continue for some time. At this writing, many communities are still hoping their schools can soon fully reopen, or at least do so in a hybrid format. But unfortunately the harsh reality of the pandemic’s spread is offering little to support such optimism. Many districts are therefore considering that remote learning may have to continue for the full school year. And though they intend to do it better than before, they know it won’t be easy.

Some Remote Learning Instructional Resources

"Two Simple Ways to Improve Online Instruction." Make lessons interactive and accessible 24/7 and foster student collaboration via Zoom virtual breakout rooms.

"7 Guidelines for Setting Up Clear Online Lessons." Some good, clear techniques one teacher learned during her earlier remote learning experiences, based on feedback from her students.

"COVID-19 and Remote Learning: How to Make It Work." A helpful guide from Education Week.

"Creating engaging digital content for online learning." Adobe (the creative arts software company) has set up a useful page with ideas for teachers on how to enhance remote learning using (mostly) free products.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.