A new report from Bellwether Education Partners uncovers valuable findings as schools continue to grapple with distance learning.
September 22, 2020
When a global pandemic forced school buildings to close abruptly last spring, districts and networks across the country scrambled to continue supporting students’ basic needs while pursuing academic instruction in some form. With a new school year underway, the majority of schools across the U.S. are continuing online.
So what have we learned from this crash course in distance learning? And what promising practices have emerged?
A new report, Promise in the Time of Quarantine, published this week by Bellwether Education Partners and funded by the Cognizant U.S. Foundation, aims to answer these big questions and shine a light on promising practices that could prove useful as schools continue navigating the uncertainty of remote learning in the months ahead.
Researchers Ashley LiBetti, Lynne Graziano, and Jennifer Schiess at Bellwether partnered with Teach For America to engage with twelve schools that reflect a diversity of geographies, student populations, school sizes, and school types. These schools were selected for their strong distance learning strategies, particularly in underserved communities.
The authors set out to uncover how these schools approached remote learning by conducting research, interviews with school leaders, and focus groups with teachers and other academic staff last spring. They found that all twelve schools struggled with the transition to distance learning and lost learning is a big concern. While no school found a perfect model for distance learning, they did develop effective strategies for supporting students.
LiBetti, an associate partner at Bellwether, notes that the headlines we often see about schools failing at remote learning lack nuance and don’t tell the full story.
“It's unfair to expect schools to shift to an entirely different learning environment over 48 hours with a limited foundation of what effective practice looks like,” LiBetti says. “When we think about all of the things that schools were asked to do and all of the things that schools were able to accomplish, saying that they failed doesn't get at everything that happened.”
This report offers a closer look at schools that handled the transition to remote learning successfully and details promising practices that are worth exploring, as well as the hurdles ahead as schools continue to learn and adapt in this uncertain environment.
Schools Prioritized Basic Needs, Technology, Family Engagement
While each of the schools profiled in the report took a different approach to implementing remote learning to meet the needs of students and families in their contexts, researchers uncovered some common themes.
Addressing Students’ Basic Needs Came First
In the immediate aftermath of school building closures, addressing students’ basic health and wellbeing came first. Researchers found that schools made intentional choices to prioritize students’ access to school meals and health services as they figured out plans to adapt rigorous academics to a remote learning environment. While schools are not positioned to provide families with all the services they need, they were able to help families navigate supports outside of the school. Some schools, including Steel City Academy located in Gary, Indiana, used data to keep close tabs on student wellness by tracking “human essentials” metrics, such as whether students had access to two meals a day.
Prioritizing Access to Technology for Continued Learning
Ensuring students had access to the technology necessary to continue learning at home was another top priority for schools. That included triaging students’ technology needs and partnering with internet service and technology providers to provide devices and equipment to students who lacked these at home. Some schools, including Gentry Public Schools in Arkansas, took innovative approaches to bridging the broadband gap and turned school buses into mobile hotspots to reach students in remote areas without wifi.
LiBetti notes that prioritizing access to technology was a key factor among schools making a successful transition to remote learning.
“All of these schools invested in making their instructional model as effective as it could be under the circumstances, but an instructional model doesn't matter if your students can't access it. And so schools made sure that they did what they could to ensure students were able to access distance learning,” LiBetti says.
Student and Family Engagement Was a Key Success Factor
All of the schools that participated in the study invested in strong relationships with students and families as a part of their core practice prior to the pandemic. Not surprisingly, strong family and student engagement was even more important in the context of virtual learning. Some schools leveraged existing teacher-student cohort structures and others created these structures in response to the pandemic. Each school had a different name for their cohort model, such as “pods,” “squads,” or “crews.” Through these cohorts, teachers could support small groups of students, and provide individual academic and social-emotional support through office hours, advisories, and other touchpoints.
School leaders also set an expectation that someone from the school would contact families at least once a week—sometimes daily—to check-in and offer support, especially for students who were absent. As a result of these communication structures, many schools could adjust their remote learning strategies to meet students’ and families’ needs, such as offering additional synchronous learning time.
One teacher from Breakthrough Public Schools in Cleveland, Ohio, noted in the study that the crisis ended up building a stronger community with students and families. “We were so successful with distance learning because of the relationships we had built prior to the pandemic happening. In a weird way, the pandemic brought me closer to parents and families.”
Schools Focused on Pragmatic & Resourceful Approaches to Remote Learning
Adapting In-Person Instruction to the Online Environment
As schools worked to adapt to remote instruction quickly, most schools in this study implemented a distance learning model that reflected their in-person instruction and schedules. To the extent that they could, schools prioritized live online teaching, using breakout rooms for small group work. This meant that schools could preserve some familiarity with the school day structure rather than make a radical change.
“Schools were equipped to translate the work they had done in brick and mortar classrooms into an online environment,” LiBetti says. “And in doing so, it allowed students to have some stability and continuity in a way that I didn't realize was going to be possible given the drastic shift in the environment.”
However, transitioning to the virtual classroom meant schools had to be creative and make the best use of synchronous learning time to avoid so-called “Zoom fatigue.” Some schools, including New York City’s Hamilton Grange School, restructured the virtual classroom to combine students from the same grade level into one class, rather than having multiple periods of the same subject and grade level. Schools supplemented synchronous learning with asynchronous, self-guided work.
Because teachers had limited visibility into how students were engaging in asynchronous learning, teachers had to adapt these lessons as if they were teaching in person, anticipating where students would have questions and providing additional guidance in the recorded lesson.
Leveraging Existing Resources for Distance Learning
Schools were incredibly resourceful in their response to the pandemic. With some schools having as little as a weekend to plan, they reimagined how to leverage existing resources, rather than making major shifts or investing in new resources. School leaders leveraged their teams’ strengths and skills, calling on teachers and support staff to fill new roles and needs that arose during school closures. Teachers with technology expertise produced video lessons and coached others on how to adapt their lessons for the online classroom. Front-office and support staff helped make contact with families.
Schools Struggled to Serve Students With Disabilities
Effectively serving students with disabilities was a primary challenge that all schools in this study faced during the shift to virtual learning. This challenge was exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for students living in remote areas without access to wifi and adaptive technology to continue learning at home.
For students with disabilities who were able to access remote learning, some schools were able to use technology effectively to provide targeted support and skill-building. Other schools found success by connecting disabled students with a paraprofessional teacher who would accompany them during virtual classroom sessions and use these observations to provide targeted support during remote coaching sessions.
However, social distancing rules meant that many students with disabilities could no longer receive in-person support, such as physical therapy. Schools struggled to engage students with disabilities when virtual adaptations fall short of offering the help they need. This group is especially at risk of widening learning gaps. Therefore many schools are prioritizing students with disabilities as one of the first groups to return to in-person learning as soon as it’s safe to do so.
“That's a promising system-level approach,” LiBetti says. “Think about which of your students would benefit most from being in person and prioritize those students when you're considering who is coming back to the physical classroom—students with disabilities are at the top of that list.”
“We were so successful with distance learning because of the relationships we had built prior to the pandemic happening.”
Planning for an Uncertain Future
Last spring, schools were in reactive mode and forced to make decisions with little time to plan. As the pandemic continues to create an uncertain future, schools now need to think about the long-term plan for remote learning.
The report highlights the logistical challenges schools face this year as many schools begin the school year, at least partially, if not entirely, online. As rates of COVID-19 continue to fluctuate in communities, many schools are envisioning how to manage the shift between virtual and hybrid instruction. This school year also presents an additional challenge as schools start the year with new families and don’t already have in-person relationships in place. Schools in this report are thinking creatively about how to engage families remotely by offering virtual field trips, town halls presented in multiple languages, teacher TikTok videos, and online learning parties.
As schools look ahead, the report outlines some of the difficult questions they will have to address, such as how to assess student engagement and progress and provide equitable remote learning for all students. The learning gap may widen for marginalized students—those with disabilities, Black, Indigenous, and students of color, and students from low-income backgrounds. Some schools that participated in this study are analyzing distance learning gaps through a racial equity lens to understand the role that racial bias might play within their systems. Without state assessment data from last year and uncertainty around how to handle assessments this year, the report suggests that schools will need to find ways to gather interim data to inform decisions about learning.
“Schools need to figure out how they're going to measure and then accommodate lost learning,” LiBetti says. “We can't identify gaps in proficiency or growth if we don't measure them, and we can't target scarce resources unless we know who needs them most.”
Considerations for Future Research
Schools will continue to be nimble this year as they respond to changing circumstances and challenges of the pandemic. This report just scratches the surface of what researchers aim to uncover about the pandemic’s impact on education. LiBetti hopes that this is just the beginning of a long term effort to learn and share best practices about distance learning among schools.
“Schools are going to continue navigating really dynamic circumstances throughout the end of this calendar year and likely for the foreseeable future,” LiBetti says. “So it's critical to continue engaging with school and district leaders who are experiencing success and then take the things that they are learning and share those experiences as broadly and as quickly as possible.”
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