Here's the painful reality: It is likely that during the 2020-21 academic year, many school districts will have to shift back to full-time remote learning, some just for short periods and others for much longer stretches of time.
A growing number of school districts have already decided they'll be starting the year with full-time remote learning, acknowledging it's widely regarded as the safest approach despite stern warnings from federal officials to reopen school buildings.
Schools and society at large have an advantage this time around, though: Nearly everyone experienced it in the spring, and the memories are still fresh. Efforts to bridge tech equity gaps that became evident in the spring are already underway, and more time to prepare reduces the risk of being caught off guard.
But that does not mean there still isn't a lot of work to be done. Experts are imploring schools to take steps now to account for the possibility that another rapid transition back to full-time remote learning will take place if the coronavirus continues to spread in most parts of the United States.
Here's how to get ready for that rapid transition:
Continue to learn remote teaching skills even while schools are open
Some professional development programs will be mandatory, while others will be optional. They'll cover basics like how to use the learning management system and steps for communicating more effectively with students. Teachers will also need training on establishing a remote learning "cadence," balancing synchronous (live lessons) and asynchronous (assignments and projects completed anytime) teaching, finding supplementary online curriculum materials, and reconfiguring time management to remote teaching environments.
Share virtual teaching tips and online curriculum ideas—now!
District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.
At a time when everyone is stretched thin, teachers can help each other by sharing lesson plans and curriculum materials, and by sharing expertise and tips on online tools with each other. They can also team up to reshape the curriculum with virtual learning in mind, by cutting out excess material and leaving more room for the fundamentals. Teachers who are comfortable working with students remotely might be assigned populations of students who most benefit from carefully designed, personalized remote instruction.
"This idea that a teacher walks into the room, closes the door, and she's the queen of her castle, that often doesn't produce as good of results as when you have folks that are team teaching in a way where folks can do things to their strengths," said Michael Barbour, an associate professor of instructional design at Touro University California.
Require that students use the learning management system
Lack of experience using learning management systems was a problem in many places last spring when schools pivoted to remote learning. Even if most students are in school buildings, educators can prepare them for a potential shift to full-time virtual learning by requiring that at least one assignment per week is done online, and by using the learning management system as the primary hub for course materials.
Teachers can also get the school year off on the right foot by working with students and parents to turn off unnecessary email and text notifications that the district automatically sends to parents and students.
Anticipate more emails and online feedback from parents
At-home learning gives parents a daily window into the classroom that they don't have when students are in school buildings. That means some will gain a new appreciation for the hard work teachers do, while others will find more opportunities to be critical of their kids' teachers and schools.
In almost all cases, parents will need more help than they usually do, whether they're seeking information about technology tools or guidance on how to help their child learn within the limited windows of time they have. Some districts are creating online "parent academies" that anticipate as many questions parents might have as possible. Preparing those materials ahead of time also reduces the burden on staff to answer emails and phone calls once the school year starts.
Construct and distribute a readiness assessment
The school needs to know whether parents want or need to send their children to the physical building; what kind of digital device and broadband access students will have if they stay home; and whether students' living situations and learning habits are conducive to virtual education. Teachers will also need to have a plan for how to gauge students' progress through the learning material given the disruptions this spring.
It's particularly important to understand the additional support students feel they would need to learn more effectively at home. Children of essential workers should be prioritized in this data-gathering operation, as they're most likely to need additional support while their families are not at home during the school day.
Those plans will help guide the district's next steps, which could include:
Explore external partnerships
State-run online schools as well as local virtual charters and online education support organizations have spent years developing resources that could be useful for districts getting up to speed with remote learning. Priorities should include:
Get 'everything' uploaded online
Don't assume teachers and students know how to productively use even the most familiar or basic technology programs. Offer frameworks and structures that teachers can mimic for structuring content in the online platforms they use to deliver content to students. A primary goal should be getting as many learning materials as possible into a digital environment, in time for the start of the school year regardless of the reopening strategy. Similarly, schools should prioritize developing a consistent standard for measuring attendance/engagement and, where necessary, adopting a technology platform that can help teachers easily track those metrics for students.
Professional development opportunities will be most valuable to teachers if they mimic the delivery method of a course their students will experience this fall. For instance, If students will be learning at home using digital tools, professional development for teachers should be offered using those same digital tools, so teachers can see how students will experience them.
Advocate for low-cost internet access
Many internet service providers have been offering discounts on broadband service to households that need it during the pandemic. Some of those offers expired this summer, and new ones are cropping up as the new school year approaches. Keep track of the available offerings in your area, and if they aren't sufficient to address access gaps in your district, contact those providers and advocate for increased access. Be mindful of specific areas within your district that might need special attention, such as Native or rural communities.
Ed-tech groups are also calling on Congress to provide billions of dollars to improve broadband infrastructure nationwide.
Carefully vet tech products and scrap those that didn't work
Decisions to sign contracts with technology providers should be driven by schools' demonstrated needs, and governed by principles including keeping students' data safe and secure, and avoiding or minimizing bias perpetuated by algorithms. Whenever possible, schools should consult usage data from the spring, combined with qualitative insights from students and teachers, to get a clear picture of the technology needs and to identify products that might not be worth another investment.
> For more on this topic, read: How COVID-19 Is Shaping Tech Use. What That Means When Schools Reopen