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Prepare for Distance Learning in the Fall and Beyond: What We Can Do

Prepare for Distance Learning in the Fall and Beyond: What We Can Do

Will distance learning continue into the fall? Will the expectations be higher in the fall than they were this spring?

Come fall, depending on the COVID-19 national and by-state arc, physical distancing rules may still apply, perhaps with modifications. Schools may go back to school at a staggered pace: half the students attending Tuesdays and Thursdays, the other half attending Mondays-Wednesdays-Fridays, for example.

A second wave of SARS-COVID-19 may strike in the fall, necessitating a reinstitution of distance learning. One year, two years, five years from now, another pandemic may take place. No one knows for sure, but the only certainty seems to be that the post-COVID world is unpredictable. For schools to be prepared to deliver quality education regardless of the situation, distance learning should be made a robust and ongoing component of the education toolbox.

First, we’d like to acknowledge that many school districts have made enormous efforts to roll out effective remote education guidelines, learning how to do it on the fly, and largely succeeding. Even with varying degrees of success, schools across the country focused on the immediate needs of the students. From our personal experience, we’ve seen schools bring their full resources to bear to bring remote learning opportunities to every student’s household.

However, Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, thinks that for colleges, this spring’s version of remote learning just won’t be enough. He writes:

If you’d asked most people months ago whether a higher education enterprise that many write off (often unfairly) as hidebound and change-averse was capable of a wholesale pivot in a matter of days or weeks, they’d have laughed. And yet it happened. Amazing.

So take a bow — and a deep breath. Because now comes the hard part.

The Dreaded “COVID-19 Slide”

Most schools across the U.S. were closed for almost a third of a school year. Some students lost weeks of instructions. Educators and administrators suggest that some students face the prospect of a potentially devastating “COVID-19 slide” that will leave the most vulnerable students behind.

According to Laura Boyce, director of Teach Plus, an education nonprofit in Philadelphia, who touches upon the COVID-19 slide in her recent article for The Philadelphia Inquirer, some kids will be returning to school in the fall without having received any instruction since March. At the same time, others will come better prepared because they had access to high-quality instruction at home plus parental support.

Research suggests that students “will learn 30% to 50% less this school year than in a normal year, and existing inequities will be widened for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners.” Also, some students haven’t even been going online and doing the work because they lack the resources and the support, not to mention that many are experiencing trauma, loss of loved ones, economic insecurity, and social isolation.

So, while we all navigate the uncharted waters of the global pandemic, what can we do — as parents, educators, and school district administrators — to give our children the best distance-learning opportunities, in September or beyond?

What Parents Can Do

Aside from arming themselves with patience, helping their child navigate homeschooling, and keeping the lines of communications open with the child’s educators, there’s not much parents can do. From the tech viewpoint, making sure that your household has enough devices and a reliable Internet connection can also help. That is, if it’s financially feasible in these difficult times, when many families are experiencing financial insecurity and anxiety about the future.

Many schools provide at least one device per family for distance learning, and some companies are providing discounted access rates and cheaper plans for low-income families (while CyberReef does its part by providing free CIPA filtering). Families that are doing well can consider donating devices to their school for other children (especially if they are upgrading their own Wi-Fi/tech).

What Schools and Higher Ed Admin Can Do

Schools and districts can do number of things, including:

  • Boosting their online access capacity
  • Reviewing and finding the best online provider plan that works for them
  • Upgrading teacher tech
  • Making sure there’s a solid tech support plan in effect
  • Providing professional development opportunities for teachers
  • Making sure every student has a device at home to perform the work
  • Collecting feedback from teachers of what worked and what hasn’t this spring, and streamline processes
  • Keeping school bus drivers on as Wi-Fi mobile hotspots for Internet-access challenged families
  • Exploring all opportunities to acquire state and federal stimulus funding
  • Extending support for the most-behind students, and students recovering from trauma — not just academic, but services like advising, mental health counseling, and financial aid.

What Teachers Can Do

To prepare for remote learning in the fall, teachers can review their procedures and processes, and assess what worked and what didn’t. Teachers can be open to provide feedback to their administrators and compare notes with other teachers. Which platforms worked best? What do they wish they could have done differently? Are there any alternate solutions that can help with any hiccups they experienced? Not all digital tools introduced this spring worked for everyone, so there’s room for experimenting and improving performance.

Learning from School Districts with the Most Success

As we’re learning, a truly successful online program requires consistency, ease of access and use, and integrated support — a seamless blend of student and academic services, and a curriculum that’s easy to navigate. Schools that are successfully showing how distance learning works tend to have three things in common:

  1. Schools that were able to secure funding to provide students and teachers with technology and Internet access.
  2. Schools that provided support to teachers who need to enhance their remote instruction skills.
  3. Schools that continued to provide meals to students.

After Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced last April that remote learning will continue for the 2019-2020 school year, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has worked with the Illinois Department of Human Services to provide families with funds to buy more food. The ISBE also secured waivers to allow schools to carryover federal funds for low-income students to support their return in the fall and came up with recommendations on how to check students’ daily engagement. The ISBE also provided guidance on how to deal with their social and emotional needs when they go back to school in the fall.

Each public school district in Illinois has implemented a plan to ensure all students have access to instruction and to their teachers, showing how the digital divide could be successfully tackled as the pandemic continues.

Of course, no one really knows what awaits us a week or month from now. The challenges the schools are grappling with are unprecedented. These challenges are why collaboration is required across the board to come up with effective and innovative ways to reshape and reimagine learning for the U.S. students, while we do our best to protect the emotional well-being and the quality of the educational experience for everyone involved.

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