The rapid switch to distance learning for 55 million schoolchildren was never going to measure up to the experience of five days a week of teaching and learning in classrooms, despite the hard work of educators. The kids who did log in regularly had limited live instruction and few opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other. In many school districts, teachers did not teach new content at all, sticking to reviewing standards they'd already covered. In other cases, distance learning amounted to little more than schools posting lessons online and leaving it up to students and parents to figure it out.
That left thousands of frustrated parents and students. Many just logged out.
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.
So, what will happen this fall?
With the all-too-likely scenario that remote learning must continue for some students and some communities-whether part time or full time-districts know they must do better. This won't be "emergency" learning anymore, so parents and students' expectations for the experience are going to be much higher.
An all-remote schedule must come a lot closer to replicating a traditional, in-school experience for students and for teachers.
Education Week spoke to more than a dozen district leaders and other experts on school operations to discuss how the continued use of remote learning can, and must, get better. It requires much more planning, robust support for teachers, and regular adjustments to adapt to the needs of students, teachers, and families.
The best argument for this schedule is health and safety.
It's the only scenario that eliminates the risk of exposure or transmission of the coronavirus in school buildings. It's most likely to be used in regions where there's significant community spread of the virus or an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.
And though it may be wobbly, many schools have a foundation to build on.
With the emergency pivot to distance learning in the spring, many districts bought laptops and devices for teachers and students. Some expanded home internet access through partnerships with providers or the purchase of WiFi hotspots. Some invested in professional development for teachers to build their virtual teaching skills, while some surveyed students and parents for feedback on the experience to use for improving future efforts.
Planning, planning, and more planning. This time around, schools do have time to thoughtfully craft daily schedules for all subjects, develop or adapt curriculum to work in a virtual environment, and devise robust coaching and support for teachers.
Pros: This is the lowest-risk scenario. Students and staff are kept safe from the virus, and there's no interruption in instruction if there's a COVID-19 outbreak. Many state education departments, including New Jersey, are encouraging districts to create remote learning plans that they can seamlessly transition to if necessary.
Because it doesn't really matter where teachers live, districts can hire teachers from across the country to teach virtual classes. This flexibility can help districts that perennially struggle to find teachers for hard-to-staff areas like science, math, special education, and foreign languages. In his west Texas district of Ector County, Superintendent Scott Muri had persistent teacher shortages before the pandemic. Now, he's got 350 vacancies, but said he will cast a wide net to fill positions if the district uses an all-remote or partially remote schedule.
Districts also have a lot more flexibility assigning teachers. Teachers may no longer need to be tied to a school, for example, but can teach their subject area across the district or even in neighboring districts where the school systems are part of a collaborative.
Teachers with underlying health conditions that put them at a higher-risk of illness or death from COVID-19 or who have family members in those high-risk groups can continue working.
Cons: In a word, equity. There's worry-with evidence to back it up-that special education students, as well as low-income, homeless and foster students, English-language learners and students who may need more supports, will fall further behind. Despite broad efforts to provide devices and WiFi access to students this past spring, students in many communities still don't have computers or the internet at home. Others live in environments that are not conducive to learning.
Teacher and student burnout are real concerns. There are also other staffing challenges, including figuring out how to evaluate and support teachers virtually and finding child-care solutions for teachers who are juggling teaching and parenting. Students in classes that require lab work and hands-on experiences, miss out on valuable opportunities. Collaborating with fellow students-and socializing in real life-suffers.
Keeping students physically and emotionally engaged is much more difficult. Athletic programs, extracurricular activities such as drama and music, and physical education classes, which are important for students' emotional and mental well-being, are limited.
All-remote requires a sturdy, up-to-date technology infrastructure to support daily virtual learning, an expensive investment with ongoing costs to maintain.
Employees who aren't essential to remote schooling-such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers-may be furloughed. Districts will still have to spend money to keep up buildings that few people are using.