Ready or Not, Schools Shift to Full-Time Virtual Learning

An AP World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School displays a wifi hotspot. The devices are being handed out to students in Dallas.

An AP World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School displays a wifi hotspot. The devices are being handed out to students in Dallas. Associated Press


Connecting state and local government leaders

In many of the districts closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, school officials are trying to figure out how to connect students while they prepare online lesson plans.

When school officials in the Grossmont Union High School District began putting together a distance-learning plan to guide students and teachers while schools are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, they made sure to include one important goal: stay flexible.

“We are in an unprecedented situation. We have to lean into ambiguity, learn from our mistakes, and adjust as needed,” the plan says. “If changes occur at the state or local level, we will make adjustments to this plan.”

The language was necessary to remind teachers that even with adequate technological infrastructure in place to tackle distance learning, it wouldn’t be easy or feel normal. Students might be scared. Teachers could be stressed. Now is not the time to get hung up on certain requirements, said Dan McDowell, director of learning and innovation for the San Diego County district that includes 12 high schools.

“We’re trying to push teachers to be lenient, to scale back their expectations, and to understand that we’re in a pandemic,” he said. “This is not a snow day. This is not even a series of snow days. This is not business as usual. This is something where it’s dangerous, and people are dying, and it’s much harder. There’s this underlying fear that’s out there. And we’ll have to be prepared to handle all of that on top of instruction.”

Roughly 124,000 public and private schools have closed to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, forcing school districts to formulate long-term plans for full-time distance learning. Some districts were already using distance learning technology on snow days and other short-term closures, but officials even in those places were caught off guard. Shifting to virtual lessons for a day or two is completely different than a months-long pandemic during which students would have to attend school, somehow, from home. 

“In general, districts were not ready for this, unfortunately,” said Kristina Ishmael, senior project manager for education policy at New America, a nonpartisan think tank focused on technology and public policy. “It varies, but we have 15,000 public school districts across the country and there is probably only a very small percentage that were ready for something like this. And that’s because they had leadership that prioritized technology, had funding to allocate toward devices and made sure that kids were able to be connected at home. But even those places didn’t transition seamlessly to virtual learning.”

That’s in part due to unequal access to broadband internet, a known issue that has for years hampered many students’ ability to do research and complete assignments at home. The federal Department of Education in 2017 estimated that 14% of homes in urban areas and 18% of homes in rural places still lacked internet access, and an Associated Press review of census data found that 17% of U.S. students—or 3 million kids—do not have a computer at home, while 18% don’t have internet. In normal times, students can access the internet at libraries or coffee shops, but with most public buildings closed, high-speed internet at home is a necessary component for online learning.

Aware of that fact, many school districts began their lesson planning by surveying families about their home connectivity, including questions that specified whether kids had computers or tablets to access the internet or were relying mainly on smartphones with data plans. 

Across the country, school officials are reporting major participation gaps that reflect the economic disparities among the families they serve. Los Angeles school officials at the end of March said about a third of high school students aren’t in daily contact with teachers and 15,000 hadn’t been heard from at all. In Atlanta, 10% of students haven’t logged into the remote learning system, while Superintendent Meria Joel Carstarphen said 6,000 students still lack computers.

In the Grossmont Union district in California, roughly 750 out of 16,500 high school students told school officials they couldn’t get online at home, so administrators worked to find solutions to help bridge the gap. Local internet providers are offering free service for several months, McDowell said, and the district is producing paper versions of weekly lessons that will be available for students who live in rural areas where there is no WiFi available.

“We’re hoping that group is much smaller, and we’re in discussions on whether teachers are going to do that on their own or if we’ll have a district-wide packet for certain subjects,” he said. 

Brainstorming solutions to connectivity was relatively straightforward in McDowell’s district, where each student receives a Google Chromebook in the 9th grade and uses it for the duration of high school before purchasing it for $20 upon graduation. In school districts with less robust technology programs in place, the pandemic meant having to play catch-up—quickly.

“We weren’t prepared from a technology standpoint,” said Brian Bassett, a spokesman for the Howard County Public School System in Maryland, where a longstanding health fund deficit forced officials to make cuts to multiple programs. “We cut positions, we cut our entire television department, so technology was one of those things where we just didn’t have the luxury to purchase what we needed. Forget the goal of trying to teach from a distance—in general, we just didn’t have what we would have liked to have. We weren’t there.”

A connectivity survey for the district, which is one of the most prosperous counties in the state, revealed that about 9,000 of 59,000 students needed either a laptop or a WiFi hotspot to be able to adequately participate in distance learning. Officials raided the laptop caches at schools and purchased supplementary equipment using savings from facilities expenses and substitute teachers’ salaries that won’t be needed because of closures. Those measures, along with free wireless from Comcast, should be enough to allow the vast majority of the district’s students to participate, Bassett said.

But ensuring access was only the first step, he added. District leaders had been discussing possibilities for distance learning for weeks as the virus spread, and those preparations intensified once Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon closed the state’s schools for an initial two-week period in mid-March. A comprehensive distance-learning plan wasn’t ready by then, so officials cobbled together grade-specific activities that parents could do at home with their children to help keep their minds engaged. (For example, third-grade activities included comparing different kinds of maps and discussing what they’re for and creating a script to turn a book into a movie.) None of those will be graded, he said.

“We just needed to give them something,” he said. “When we started to think there was a chance that schools could close, we developed those within 24 hours and had them posted online and printed and in backpacks before kids went home that Friday.”

The next phases of the plan included training the district’s teachers on remote learning technology and sketching out a timeline for implementation. Some staff members had gone through technology training, Bassett said, but not every teacher had taken the same classes, and none were sufficient for transitioning full-time to digital classrooms. In general, high school teachers were more prepared because their classes use technology more than middle and elementary school students.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” he said. “High school students are able to access and use those tools more proficiently, so our high school teachers were a little bit further down the road in terms of being prepared than our middle school teachers, and our middle school teachers were more prepared than our elementary school teachers.”

The district staggered the implementation of its distance-learning plan accordingly, having high school students begin online classes this week, with middle- and elementary-school students starting a week later. Administrators are expecting hiccups, Bassett said.

“Nothing’s going to go perfectly, because we have never done this anywhere,” he said. “We had to shift the way public education is delivered in a matter of weeks. They don’t prepare you for this in the teacher accreditation process, and we don’t provide professional training in this kind of environment. We’re getting our staff as prepared as we possibly can, but this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Grossmont Union High School District students will begin distance learning April 20, McDowell said, with teachers following the framework of a comprehensive, color-coded schedule that designates days for certain subjects and times for digital “check-ins.” Teachers are free to work within the template to find the virtual teaching method that works best for them.

“For instance, we have a weekly lesson module guide where we have a template and example lessons, but we’re not requiring teachers to use those,” McDowell said. “If a teacher is used to giving their instructions orally to their class, and now all of a sudden they have to do it digitally, we’ve provided a way for them to do it. But for teachers who already have an effective way, we’re not saying they have to change and do it our way. Above all, we’ve told them, ‘You’re going to do less than you normally do, and you have to be OK with that. It’ll be better for your kids and better for you.’”

Given the unprecedented circumstances, many districts are still grappling with the question of how to issue grades for the work students will complete at home, said Ishmael with New America.

“There tend to be two thoughts on that,” she said. “Some people say, ‘We just need to give kids something to do and we’re not going to grade it.’ The other side is, ‘We’re going to continue learning, so we have to grade this, because kids won’t do it if we don’t.’ It really depends on where the school district leadership falls.”

Howard County hasn’t settled on a grading system, Bassett said, and may wait for guidance from the state before doing so. Discussions are also ongoing in San Diego County, McDowell said, as officials try to decide if nontraditional grading systems will alleviate students’ stress at the expense of their academic motivation.

“There’s a lot of talk about hold-harmless grades, where your grade can’t get worse, it can only go up—but how does that affect motivation for the students who are doing moderately well and are maybe just fine with their B in the class? Or their A, for that matter?” he said. “It’s a question of how we engage them meaningfully without a grade attached. Frankly, I think this is not the time to have a critical conversation about grading practices. We have to get through the school year.”

Despite the challenges and the question marks, the push to full-time virtual learning could have some positive lasting impacts for schools. The urgency of the situation allowed Howard County to update its cache of technology with little red tape and to plunge teachers into intensive training they normally wouldn’t have time to complete.

“This pushed us into a place where we had to develop or purchase technology and we had to develop plans to leverage that technology,” Bassett said. “Our teachers are going to come out of this so much better trained and, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that we’re going to be in a really good place tech-wise. But that doesn’t mean we see it as a viable replacement to the traditional method of teaching and learning.”

But it can still provide meaningful education at a time when students need it most, McDowell said.

“I think it’s our moral obligation to continue educating and to help engage students,” he said. “And I absolutely think there’s going to be some meaningful instruction and learning during this time.”

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Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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