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“I feel so defeated,” the mom wrote as she posted a screenshot of an e-mail she had just received from her young child’s elementary school principal into a parent’s group on Facebook. The e-mail, written by a principal for an elementary school in central Texas, detailed a complex new plan for remote learning in the fall and was full of jargon: asynchronous time, maximum continuous minutes and a separate plan to teach special subjects like art, music and physical education. It also included an overview of how the school will count attendance, including teacher-student interactions and the daily completion and submission of assignments.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A sample schedule for first and second grade students in Texas’ Austin Independent School District. Credit: Screenshot

The responses from other parents came quickly: “Picturing this taking place in my house is both overwhelming and comical,” one responded. “My main concern is the amount of time that lower elementary students are expected to be online,” another parent said. “We all have to remember, as much as it sucks, it’s not forever,” a third parent wrote.

As district officials have slowly released plans for remote learning this fall, parents have been eager to get a better picture of what their days will look like. But one thing has become clear as more elementary school schedules have been released: unlike an in-person school day which is relatively predictable across K-5 schools, distance learning schedules vary greatly. While some are offering a rigid schedule with a mix of live instruction and independent work time, others are offering prerecorded videos and paper work packets and are encouraging families to come up with a schedule of their own. Rules for attendance and grading vary as well.

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To better understand how schools are designing their programs for kids in kindergarten through second grade, I examined 15 daily distance learning schedules from school districts across the country. (All are tentative drafts and, like just about everything right now, may change.) Here’s a look at what I found:

CLICK TO ENLARGE: This schedule proposed by California’s South Pasadena Unified school district suggests activities for students from 8:30 am until 2:15 pm. Credit: Screenshot

Overall structure:

The districts mostly propose a mix of live and independent learning, and many offer both whole-class and small-group time in the live portion of the schedules. One district in California intends to split students into two groups, with one group attending school from 8:30 to 11 a.m. while the other attends from 12:30 to 3p.m., thus keeping group sizes small. Another district in California, South Pasadena Unified, gave a sample schedule that toggles between live instruction and independent activities several times throughout the day from 8:30 am to 2:15 p.m. Seattle Public Schools did the same, publishing a sample schedule for K-3 that would offer live instruction from 7:55 until 2:25 p.m., broken up by short breaks for home-based recess, independent reading, lunch and individual work time.  In Austin, Texas, first and second grade students will participate in 50 minutes of live instruction, then split into small groups for independent work or a live meetings, then meet back together for another 50 minutes of live instruction later in the day. Similarly, a district in Ohio requires students to attend two, hour-long blocks of learning each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with the rest of the day reserved for small group live meetings for selected students, independent work time and teacher office hours.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Seattle Public Schools proposed a schedule this summer that would have K-3 students toggling between online and offline learning from 7:55 am until 2:25 pm. Credit: Screenshot

Some schedules reflect the individual struggles of districts to ramp up their programs and offer equal learning opportunities: A district in North Carolina is starting the year with pre-recorded content until all students have access to devices, and then intends to switch to live instruction in September. In Oakland, students only have one hour of live instruction each day for several weeks while teachers take part in professional development. And one school in Atlanta instructs students who do not have technology to “complete items in packets sent home by the teacher” in lieu of logging on to virtual lessons.

Basically, the new normal is there is no new normal for elementary distance learning.

Learning time:

CLICK TO ENLARGE: Students in K-2nd grade in Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi will have a two hour whole group session each morning. Credit: Screenshot

Most districts are offering between two and three and a half hours of live, virtual learning each day, a minimum that has been set in many cases by either state laws or state education departments. But districts vary greatly in how they are structuring their days and how long students are expected to sit in front of their computer. One large district in Mississippi has proposed two consecutive hours of a whole class Zoom meeting for K-2 students each day, during which teachers will cover English language arts, math, science and social studies in one block. Similarly, Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland published a sample schedule for pre-K through second grade that has students in those grades participating in a two hour live morning learning block followed by a two hour break for lunch and other activities, and then a two hour live learning block in the afternoon.

Other districts are erring on the side of fewer consecutive minutes, like the Baldwin Union Free School District in Baldwin, New York, where superintendent Shari Camhi has yet to finalize a schedule but says she imagines teachers will spend around 30 minutes on various lessons, with flexibility to go shorter or longer if need be. “I don’t want to tell people they have to stay on for 30 minutes if they accomplish something in 15,” Camhi said. “But I also don’t want them to say, ‘Well, I’m only spending 15 minutes so I can’t go to 30.” 

“A lot of teachers realize that they’re a pivotal person in that child’s life. And if connecting with them over a screen is fulfilling a child’s need, that’s a great way to use screens.”

Jean Rogers, director of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network.

Jean Rogers, director of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, said she knows prior recommendations for school-related screen time are not realistic, but she still advises districts against “excessive use.” In mid-August, The children’s Screen Time Action Network and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood released a statement signed by more than 100 experts and organizations calling for districts to limit screen time and maximize offline, hands-on learning.

Rogers recommends educators add an hour to pre-coronavirus recommendations (published in a resource called the EdTech Triangle), which means first and second grade students would use a screen for no more than 80 minutes each day. “We don’t want anyone to feel guilty,” Rogers said. “This at least gives you a starting point.”

And screen time limits aside, Rogers said if screens are being used to help students form relationships with their teachers, that’s more important than ever, especially for those who are not receiving support at home.  “A lot of teachers realize that they’re a pivotal person in that child’s life,” Rogers said. “And if connecting with them over a screen is fulfilling a child’s need, that’s a great way to use screens.”

CLICK TO ENLARGE: A sample distance learning schedule for elementary school students in the Amherst Exempted Village Schools in Ohio. Credit: Screenshot.

Experts agree that although districts may be designing schedules, it’s crucial to give educators the ability to modify those schedules based on how students are doing. “When we get back to the core of what’s most developmentally appropriate for children, there’s not going to be a one size fits all approach for every classroom and every child,” said Breeyn Mack, vice president of educational content at Teaching Strategies. “So I think it’s [important to] empower teachers to really meet those unique needs of the classroom community that they’re supporting.”

Student Activities:

When students are not involved in live lessons or watching prerecorded content, many districts have asked that they do tasks like reading independently, practicing math and reading using online programs. Other districts are suggesting that students work on math facts using paper worksheets, or check Google Classroom for science and social study activity ideas.

CLICK TO ENLARGE: The Conejo Valley Unified School District in California has proposed splitting students into two groups for distance learning each day. Credit: Screenshot

Superintendent Camhi from New York said students will work on projects, like creating videos to show understanding of academic concepts, and give presentations as part of the district’s distance learning program. In the spring, the district sent a science kit home to each child so they could conduct experiments at home. “We’re very sensitive to screen fatigue,” Camhi said. “I don’t want my kids sitting, staring at a screen all day long.”

The district is staying away from paper packets, which some districts opted to send home this spring when schools abruptly closed and others intend to do in the fall to supplement virtual learning. Although packets may be needed for students who don’t have access to technology, experts say hands-on learning and play-based experiences are preferable to students filling out worksheets. If a parent has time, Mack encourages them to worry less about teaching their child a specific skill using paper and pencil, and instead focus on embracing learning experiences at home. “A child helping a parent with laundry, looking for patterns, sorting and counting, is so much more meaningful in terms of math concepts than a worksheet.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about distance learning schedules was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

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