Better Distance Learning This Fall

The report card is in on last spring’s remote learning during coronavirus school closures, and the results are dismal. Too many schools and districts failed their students, experts say.
“Just one in three districts expect(ed) teachers to provide instruction, track student engagement or monitor academic progress for all students,” according to a nationwide review of nearly 500 school districts by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center. The “need to pick up the slack was felt by parents who … reported worry that their child (was) missing instruction and felt unsure about their ability to support their child’s learning at home.”
Those results will come as no surprise to many parents who spent the spring attempting to juggle supervising their children’s schooling with their own work and family responsibilities during a lengthy shelter in place.
Now, it’s becoming increasingly clear that distance learning will continue for many Bay Area students when school starts, either because their schools are opting to go online-only or put in place hybrid models in which smaller groups of students attend in person while their peers learn at home. (See this article
“Very few public schools systems, especially in California, did a good job this spring,” says Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships for Policy Analysis for California Education, a nonpartisan research center based at Stanford University. “They were handled a relatively impossible task: Close your school this afternoon and have something to students as soon as possible.”
“Distance learning can be really effective, but instruction has to be done and structured differently. Teachers didn’t have the time, and the system didn’t support teachers to do it well in the short time window everyone had this spring,” she adds. “I do think they can make the fall better.”
The challenges during the March school shutdown were enormous. Teachers and parents grappled with new technology platforms, as well as access to devices and reliable high-speed internet connections. Because of concerns around equity as well as student stress, some schools opted not to teach new material. Others discarded grades and attendance requirements. Some students had no set schedules, no live teaching and little to no interaction with their teachers or peers. The barriers were amplified for low income students, English language learners and students with special needs.
Anecdotally, it appeared that private schools handled the challenges and got up to speed much faster than many public schools.
But Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund, a Bay Area foundation that has supported the creation or reinvention of more than 50 private, public and public charter schools in Northern California, says how well a school responded was more influenced by two factors: how familiar and comfortable it already was with technology use, and how flexible and problem-solving the school’s culture was pre-pandemic.
“I’m pretty worried about the fall,” says Greenberg, a former teacher and principal and parent of two school-age children. At the time he was interviewed for this article in early summer, he said he favored kids learning in person in small cohorts, if at all possible, but expected many schools would default to online only.
Better Prepared?
There is some hope that schools will be better prepared this August or fall, from having already distributed Chromebooks or other devices and WiFi hotpots to having teachers, students and parents more familiar with online learning platforms and technology such as Zoom or other videoconferencing tools. Even schools optimistic about bringing students back in person are bracing for the possibility of switching to online learning if entire schools or even individual classrooms are shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
Gallagher says schools and districts need to better support families by providing schedules and structure for students, making sure teachers are using the same learning platforms in the same way and training teachers in the best practices for online teaching.
Parents have spent months discussing which is better: synchronous, or live, teaching vs. asynchronous, in which students access recorded lectures or other online content on their own time.
Gallagher and Greenberg say both have a role but need to be used differently.
“There’s this balance that needs to happen for parents working from home where they both want their students to be engaged live with their teachers so they can have learning and be supervised while parents work, but they also need flexibility to accommodate home schedules, sharing of devices and parents’ ability to support the learning,” Greenberg says. He advocates about a 50-50 split for synchronous and asynchronous learning.
What was missing for many students in the spring, Gallagher says, was a chance to have interactive learning with their peers and teachers. She says she would prioritize small group and one-on-one time with teachers for synchronous time to “make sure kids actually get to interact with each other socially and with the content.”
“Please don’t ask kids to sit and watch a lecture on Zoom,” she says.
“There’s no reason to try to teach them the same way online as at school,” adds Greenberg. And “there’s no reason to have every teacher design their own version of this.”
For instance, one teacher could record lectures for an entire grade level that would not need to be presented live. Teachers can collaborate on materials and even use good off-the-shelf online programs for practice and assessment.
In a hybrid model, which Greenberg says is the most challenging approach, he suggests using in-person time for skills that are the hardest to teach at a distance, like reading. But math practice problems can easily be done online. Project-based learning also lends itself well to at-home time.
Of course, students’ age impacts the calculus, and Greenberg says it’s difficult to expect anyone under fourth grade to be able to work independently for long.
While schools and districts will likely continue to take different approaches, the state budget passed in June did provide some minimum standards for distance learning this school year. Among them are some daily live interaction with teachers, taking attendance and meeting minimum daily instructional minutes, though they have been reduced from pre-pandemic requirements to allow for flexibility.
“For about a decade we have been working on what’s the right way to have technology support education, and then in March 2020, the whole world was forced to shift into it overnight,” says Greenberg. “People want immediate, fast and easy answers, but this is not immediate, fast and easy work.”
Still, “we don’t have time to let perfect be the enemy of the good. … We can’t use this pandemic as an excuse to give (students) meaningless busywork. Kids should be doing meaningful and engaging work.”

Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent. 


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