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In some cities, school buses now deliver daily paper packets of schoolwork, along with bagged breakfasts and lunches. In others, schools use PBS’s “Nova” program to help teach science. Elsewhere, teachers hold daily virtual office hours to check on the academic and emotional well-being of students they can no longer meet face to face.

Faced with the unprecedented challenge of lengthy school closures because of coronavirus, the nation’s roughly 13,000 public school districts are scrambling to cope. Almost no district was truly ready to plunge into remote learning full time and with no end in sight. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy and no must-have suite of digital learning tools. Leaders have largely had to find their own way, spurring a hodgepodge of local innovations. As the struggle continues, a few overarching lessons learned — about equity, expectations and communication — are now helping schools navigate this crisis on the fly.

distance learning
Blaney Elementary School in Elgin, S.C., on March 18, 2020. School buses provide Wi-Fi access for downloading homework assignments, as well as lunches, at various locations in South Carolina. Credit: Kershaw County School District

“Nobody knows the right path forward,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan education research center in Seattle that has compiled an online database of coronavirus response plans provided by scores of districts across the country as a resource for other educators. “We’re all going to have to try things and give each other grace.”

Inequity looms large

After dealing with the first priority — making sure students were safe and fed — schools had to figure out how to keep the learning alive. But America’s persistent digital divide has greatly hampered efforts toward this goal. While most school buildings are fairly well stocked with computers and high-speed internet, millions of students’ homes are not, particularly in lower-income and rural areas.

This disparity in home computer and internet access, dubbed the “homework gap,” was a slow-burning problem for most districts in the days when schools were in session and students could get online at libraries, after-school programs, coffee shops and other community gathering spots.

With everything shut down, the chronic issue of home internet access became an immense and acute challenge. Indeed, because there was unequal access to learning, many districts initially shied away from offering anything educational at all online, sending only links to optional, self-directed activities, such as math games.

“We’re creating a [parent-teacher-district] feedback loop so we make sure that we’re seeing our situation clearly. We said, ‘Let’s do this in baby steps.’”

Mackey Pendergrast. Superintendent, Morris (N.J.) School District

Now, in an effort to narrow the digital access gap, school leaders and community partners have devised a bevy of creative, albeit short-term, solutions. In addition to the schoolwork packet deliveries and the PBS broadcasts, many districts have organized the distribution of Wi-Fi hot spots, computers and smartphones, including refurbished devices donated by local businesses (more than 80 percent of the districts in the reinvention center’s database say they are providing technology assistance to families).

Related: Teachers need lots of training to do online learning well. Coronavirus gave many just days.

distance learning
At Miami Northwestern Senior High School, Julian Negron, left, and Jerrell Boykin, right, load laptops for distribution to students, on March 30, 2020. Miami-Dade County Public Schools has distributed some 100,000 tablets and other mobile devices, and more than 11,000 smartphones that double as Wi-Fi hot spots. NYTCREDIT: Miami-Dade County Public Schools Credit: Miami-Dade County Public Schools

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, for instance, sent home about 80,000 tablets and other mobile devices, and more than 11,000 smartphones that double as Wi-Fi hot spots. Many broadband providers are also adding capacity, lifting caps on data and offering extended free trial periods. In South Carolina, many of the same buses that take breakfasts and lunches to families stick around to beam out Wi-Fi from routers on board. (By mid-April, state officials said they had about 700 Wi-Fi buses on the move, in dozens of districts.)

By contrast, some districts had been bolstering their use of online learning for several years, including Lindsay Unified in California’s Central Valley, known as a pioneer in digital-learning circles. In Lindsay, a low-income, rural district, all students have home internet thanks to a community Wi-Fi network, and they can access lessons and track their progress via an online portal. Having that digital backbone made the switch to distance learning nearly seamless — academically, at least.

“We’re still concerned about the health and welfare of our learners, now that we don’t get to greet them every day,” said Barry Sommer, Lindsay Unified’s director of advancement. “We can’t see what they look like, if they’re getting enough sleep and enough to eat.”

Adjusting Expectations

The center’s database is filled with examples of how districts are trying to keep learning going from a distance. Many teachers use “synchronous” classes, where they and students meet simultaneously on platforms like Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams. Some also record those lessons for students who can’t meet at the appointed hour. The Richmond (Va.) Public Schools offer on-demand online tutoring sessions. To boost parent participation, many districts offer webinars and other online instruction to help adults gain fluency in the schools’ digital tools and guide them through available resources. Some districts, such as Philadelphia and Miami-Dade, have set up phone hotlines in addition to email and web-based communication, in several languages, so families can reach out for help with distance learning or other needs.

“Even in a district that’s able to send every kid home with a laptop, you’re still trying to adapt a model that’s been designed for a classroom situation.” 

Steve Kossakoski, CEO, Virtual Learning Academy in New Hampshire

But experts emphasize that schools should not expect to replicate what they could achieve in the classroom, and should pursue an approach suited for their own students and teachers and their distance-learning capabilities. What works for a high school in a major urban area may not fit the needs of a rural elementary school. When it comes to technology, the best options for teachers during this crisis are usually the simplest.

Related: Has New Hampshire found the secret to online education that works?

Online education and remote education are two very different things, said Steve Kossakoski, CEO of the New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, or VLACS, which has been hosting free webinars for educators seeking digital-learning guidance.

Cartons of milk are loaded into school buses to deliver to students and their families at Beech Street School in Manchester, N.H., on April 10, 2020. Credit: Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times

“Even in a district that’s able to send every kid home with a laptop,” he said, “you’re still trying to adapt a model that’s been designed for a classroom situation.” Content aside, teachers in a classroom can walk among their students and provide immediate feedback, spot frustration or flagging attention, and assign students to work for a time in small groups — all of which is extremely difficult to manage online.

Kossakoski’s advice: “Keep it simple and be consistent.” Some of his webinar attendees have noticed that teachers in their schools are using different tools to reach the same students. “One teacher uses Zoom, another uses Google Hangouts and a third uses something else,” he said. “It’s not anybody’s fault, but for the student it’s very confusing.”

Nevertheless, teachers should use whatever level of technology they’re comfortable with, said Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design at the College of Education and Health Services at California’s Touro University: “Let’s not get too clever. When it comes to distance learning, you don’t have to be high-tech to be effective.”

He suggested, for example, that teachers could email students a video link to a news report of a controversial issue, or a historical documentary, along with a few key questions and a post-viewing writing prompt.

“For a lot of parents, students and teachers, remote learning will be completely new, and where it’s new, it’s important to set realistic goals every day,” said Susan Patrick, C.E.O. of the Aurora Institute, formerly known as iNACOL, an advocacy organization promoting competency-based education. These goals could include creating a schedule that sets aside time for reading a book or pursuing other projects that pry students away from the computer, including arts and crafts projects or learning a new skill, such as cooking.

In the first weeks of shutdowns, many districts followed state guidelines and offered only optional learning resources — things like practice sheets, educational videos and recommended reading — without teacher-led instruction or feedback or the expectation that the work would “count” in any way. They hesitated partly out of digital-equity concerns and partly for fear of transgressing federal laws on things like tracking of student progress and accommodations for students with disabilities (such as accepting student work in a variety of formats and providing tutors and speech therapy sessions).

The government has since relaxed many of those regulations, offering waivers for educators scrambling to serve their communities. At the same time, many districts have raised the bar for teaching and learning as it became clear that closures would stretch deep into the spring, and potentially for the rest of the academic year, as has now happened in 35 states.

Related: Coronavirus becomes unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships

distance learning
Volunteers from Sherrelwood Elementary School in Westminster, Colo., hand out laptops and educational materials to parents and students on Friday, March 13, 2020. The schools in Westminster were closed starting March 16 because of the coronavirus outbreak. NYTCREDIT: Hart Van Denburg/Colorado Public Radio Credit: Hart Van Denburg/Colorado Public Radio

By early April, some large school districts, such as those in Chicago and Minneapolis, had begun phasing out their optional-only approach in favor of standards-based lessons, with teachers taking attendance and providing feedback, tests and grades. Many of these same districts are using only review material, switching to pass/fail grading, or giving tests that gauge progress but no final exams.

Some tried a more rigorous approach early on, despite the shortcomings.

“When we first went out, and we were distributing all these Chromebooks on the fly, we thought about just having it be optional, extended learning,” said Pamela Swanson, superintendent of Westminster Public Schools outside Denver. But then “we agreed that kids need to be in class, so to speak.” The district already had an internal learning-management system that housed lesson plans, organized assignments and tracked student progress online, she said. Now, with students logging into it from home, “this is school until further notice.”

Rhode Island began planning for distance learning in late February — a week or two before most places — after the state’s first known coronavirus case was traced to a school trip to Italy. The state’s department of education immediately asked school districts to start planning for possible closures, and soon moved up spring break to give schools time to intensify preparations, including all-out efforts to get devices and Wi-Fi into students’ homes.

“This wasn’t about whether we’ll do it or not,” said the state’s commissioner of education, Angélica Infante-Green. “That never crossed our minds. It was about, ‘How will we do it?’ ”

Districts need to try things before they’re fully worked out, said Chelsea Waite, a research fellow at the Christensen Institute who focuses on blended and personalized learning. That demands a fluid, iterative approach, one that seeks and adjusts to feedback.

For example, in New Jersey, the Morris School District’s “virtual learning hub” includes surveys, divided by grade level, that ask parents how things are going (how much help children need from them or older siblings, for example, and whether the resources are easily accessible and the workload seems appropriate). And when teachers try out digital techniques learned from the district’s online professional development offerings, they can share their problems and successes during daily virtual meetings with their principals, who themselves have regular check-ins with the district’s central office.

“We’re creating a feedback loop so we make sure that we’re seeing our situation clearly,” said the Morris superintendent, Mackey Pendergrast. “We said, ‘Let’s do this in baby steps.’”

Communication Is Key

In some districts, teachers and staff spend hours every day reaching out to students and their families, many of whom are stretched thin by job losses, child care stress, overdue rent and health worries that can take precedence over learning.

Indeed, on the front lines of remote learning, the watchword is communication — and not just to keep families informed about lunch drop-offs, volunteer needs, hotlines or links to digital resources. Personal communication is also needed to maintain the critical connections that support learning, especially the strong bonds teachers have developed with students over months spent working side by side.

The most important thing, said Barbour of Touro University, “is to reassure these kids that there’s someone out there — whether it’s on the other end of an email, a phone call or an online learning tool — who cares about them and wants them to learn and succeed.”

“We flipped this switch almost literally overnight. We need to continually talk to our teachers about giving them grace.” 

Pamela Swanson, superintendent of Westminster Public Schools, near Denver

As Kossakoski of VLACS attests, “the number-one thing to do for success in an online environment is to build relationships. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time.”

It’s not just teacher-student relationships that need bolstering. By default, parents and guardians are now being called on to help students stay on task or deal with real-time learning difficulties, despite the challenges they themselves face. Some students are caring for younger siblings; some parents need school messages translated into other languages. All parents need guidance from education professionals, said Kossakoski, “to help them understand how they can help.”

The communication is even more important for special education students. “We asked all our special educators to make contact with families at the same frequency they would a kid in school,” said Traci Hogan, assistant superintendent of Greenville County Schools, the largest district in South Carolina.

Finally, teachers and administrators need to check in with each other, too, as they confront this crisis while siloed at home, often with their own stir-crazy children and the overarching stress and worry of a deadly pandemic.

“We flipped this switch almost literally overnight,” Swanson said. “We need to continually talk to our teachers about giving them grace. We don’t expect you to be experts in this right away.”

She added: “That’s a tough message for teachers, because they want to be perfect. But that’s not possible.”

This story about distance learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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  1. I head the department of Special Education in an International school in Chennai, India. The department provides equity based learning for 95 students with SLD. We got to know about the possibility of a lock-down during the first week of March,2020. The students were appearing for their year end exams and our new session was supposed to start from 1st April. After the lock-down we decided to use our WhatsApp groups to reach out to students. We made lesson plans using short videos of the teachers explaining concepts. These videos were posted on WhatsApp. The students were notified of the time when the teacher would come on line. From the second day we had close to 100% attendance. The students loved interacting with their teachers and enthusiastically carried out the activities that not only covered the concept being taught but also gave them the experience of applying the concept in a real life situation at home. Since, the parents were also working from home they helped the children out. After about two weeks we slowly moved our online classes to Google Classroom. The children prefer Google Classroom as they are able to see there classmates and interact with them. Though connectivity issues still trouble a few we are managing the online learning fairly well. Both the parents and students love these classes. The facilitators initially spent sleepless nights preparing the lesson plans that would suit the student needs but now they understand what the children need in order to be able to learn and remain motivated. We are still working on improving our skills but our biggest strength is the bond that we share with our students. Covid-19 has certainly changed our outlook, we are now constantly on the look out to learn and improve our skills to be effective online educators.

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