Implementation & Takeaways of Remote Learning During Spring 2020

During this unprecedented time of the coronavirus (COVID-19), schools across the country halted inperson instruction to prevent the spread of the disease. Schools had to quickly implement remote teaching and learning, adjusting priorities, lesson plans and educational activities. As part of the Friday Institute (FI) partnership with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to provide remote teaching and learning resources for North Carolina educators, the FI interviewed five districts in North Carolina to learn more about remote learning planning and implementation, as well as key factors for success. These case studies will help inform North Carolina educators as we move forward with teaching and learning during this global pandemic. This case study highlights the practices of rural districts located throughout the state of North Carolina; all of which have participated in the North Carolina Digital Learning Coaching Network (NCDLCN). Rural school districts often face unique challenges related to broadband access, professional isolation, poverty, and teacher retention. These districts have not allowed these typical obstacles to disrupt teaching and learning even during a pandemic.

Profile of Districts

District Region # of Students # of Schools # of School Level ITFs/SLMC
Bladen Sandhills 4,100 13 2/2
Burke Northwest 12,604 25 8/25
Edenton-Chowan Northeast 1,900 4 5
Transylvania Western 3,400 8 7/6
Dare Northeast 5,300 10 10/10

Planning & Implementation

Although districts varied in their approaches to remote learning, all districts created and implemented a remote learning plan within days of the governor’s announcement to close school buildings. As noted in the district profiles, all of the districts are located in rural areas with a significant population of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Districts focused on providing continuity of learning for students, while also supporting the social and emotional needs of students and their families.

In mid to late March, schools implemented their initial remote learning plans. Teachers shifted from daily face-to-face interactions with students to full-time remote learning, either synchronously, asynchronously, or both. Teachers, instructional technology facilitators (ITFs) and school library media specialists (SLMS) connected with students through virtual platforms, phone calls and emails. Teachers delivered lessons via learning management systems platforms (LMS). Initially, teachers focused on review of instructional content; however, by early April, districts and schools revised their remote learning plans as it became evident that remote learning would continue for some time. At this point, teachers started providing lessons on new concepts and instructional content.

Edenton-Chowan County implemented an emergency remote learning plan in mid-March. The district rolled out the plan to all schools the week following school building closures. In the second week, teachers and students were immersed in remote learning in a digital capacity. A key factor in the successful implementation of remote learning was the revision of student device plans to allow students in grades K-5 to take devices home. Prior to school closures due to COVID-19, students in grades 6-12 took devices home, but younger students were assigned devices, but did not take them home.

Inclement weather learning plans helped prepare Transylvania County, which traditionally had missed several days each year due to snow, for the transition to remote learning during the global pandemic. Since 2014, Transylvania has plans for continued learning during school closures due to inclement weather. Teachers and students in grades 6-12 utilized google classroom for lessons and assignments. Teachers provided paper packets for students in grades 3-5. With strong leadership from the superintendent, Transylvania reached out to other states and districts to learn more about strategies and plans for providing learning during extended days of school closure due to weather. Transylvania provided professional development and planning time for technology staff and curriculum staff to work together to develop lessons for weather remote learning. Learn more about professional development and coaching during remote learning in the accompanying case study.

Transylvania County started remote learning in mid-March, adapting their weather remote learning model to address extended learning throughout the rest of the school years. In middle and high schools, teachers presented new instructional content to students from the beginning of remote learning and followed pacing guides. Initially, students in grades 3-5 were provided paper packets for learning and did not have access to devices at home. The technology team was able to repurpose older devices and provide those devices to students in grades 3-5, affording a digital learning experience.

Key Elements for Success

Educators identified some of the key elements necessary for the successful transition from traditional in-school learning to extended remote learning.

Leadership

Communication with Families and Students

Professional Learning Supports for Educators

Social Emotional Learning

Device and Internet Access

Assessments and Attendance

Leadership

During this global pandemic, district and school leadership is essential to help teachers, students and families adjust to learning from home. It is important that education leaders communicate a clear vision for teaching and learning remotely so that teachers, staff, students and families understand expectations, especially in an uncertain environment. For almost all teachers, students and families, remote learning is a drastic change in their normal daily lives.

Burke County Superintendent, Dr. Larry Putnam, focused on ensuring that families and students had what they needed during this time of crisis. First and foremost the superintendent worked with schools to ensure that families and students had access to food. The social and emotional well-being of students and families was paramount.

In Dare County, remote learning was the catalyst for schools to fully implement digital learning. Before remote learning, Dare was working on individual technology goals for each school. When schools transitioned to remote learning, it provided the opportunity for ITFs and SLMS to collaborate with all teachers on planning and instruction. Dare expects an easier transition to blended learning in the fall after this experience. Dare is working towards combining traditional learning and remote learning to provide a more personalized learning experience for all students.

Communication with Families and Students

Schools are often the hub of our communities and play a significant role in their students’ and families’ lives, including and beyond academics. In transitioning to remote learning, regular and predictable communication for students and families is critical. Students and families want and need to understand the requirements and expectations of remote learning, especially as these requirements continue to change and evolve. Families also need information about where to access resources in the community, such as food pick-up locations or free wifi hotspots.

Bladen County partnered with faith based communities to help disseminate communications to families and students during remote learning.

In Dare County, the Superintendent communicated with staff, students and families via email, google meets, live streaming and video recordings.

Transylvania County used the Robo call system, email and social media to inform families and staff about remote learning plans. As remote learning was extended to the end of the school year, communication with staff and families increased in frequency.

Professional Learning Supports for Educators

During this unprecedented time of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, professional learning and supports for teachers, instructional technology facilitators (ITFs) and school library media specialists (SLMS) are more important than ever. In March, North Carolina educators were propelled into full-time remote learning environments with little time for training and preparation. All of the districts interviewed reported that participation in professional learning programs, including NCDLCN, NCTIES, cohorts and other professional development opportunities helped prepare teachers for remote learning. Learn more in the case study, Investment in Digital Learning Planning and Professional Development.

Social Emotional Learning

Addressing social and emotional learning (SEL) effectively is proven to support the whole child and increase achievement; and this is never more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning approaches that connect students and families with teachers, teachers assistants, counselors, administrators are essential. Students and families need the support of their schools and community during these unprecedented times of isolation and uncertainty. Families were also looking to schools for resources, including access to food that is normally provided for their children through the free and reduced lunch program.

Burke County is the second largest state employer with two prisons and a state hospital for physically and mentally challenged individuals. Western Piedmont Community College and the North Carolina School for the Deaf are also located in Burke County. For most students, their parents and/or caregivers are classified as essential employees and were not home to help students transition to remote learning. Parent survey revealed that families were feeling overwhelmed, so schools set up times for teachers to talk to parents and/or students to provide support. Many of these families faced concerns about health issues and food insecurities. Schools recognized that students’ social and emotional learning was the most important component of remote learning during the global pandemic.

Transylvania County encouraged real-time interactions between teachers and students to keep students engaged. Teachers pre-recorded answers to similar style problems to allow more time for real-time connections. Face-to-face interactions through video streaming applications was important to promote SEL. Students reported that they liked how teachers spent time checking in on how they were doing during these live sessions. In order to provide more social interaction, principals participated in google meets with entire grade levels in high school.

Device and Internet Access

While districts have digital learning plans and are at various levels of implementation, moving to full-time remote learning in just a few days presented device and internet access challenges for many students. While nearly all North Carolina schools have fiber internet, many students do not have access to a device or the internet or cellular data at home. Districts and schools acknowledged that device and internet access posed problems for some students.

Bladen County − Lack of connectivity is a big problem for the community. The district can hand out wireless hotspots, but many students lack any type of connectivity at home. To help with access issues, Bladen works with faith-based communities to provide wi-fi hotspots in parking lots throughout the county.

Edenton-Chowan − Not all students have connectivity at home. The district partners with faith communities to provide open wi-fi for students. Additionally, the district turned on guest access for on school campus wireless access. The district leveraged partnerships with businesses and the public library to help provide students with wireless access at these locations. In rural parts of the county, many students don’t even have cell phone service.

Assessments and Attendance

Feedback has a powerful impact on student learning and motivation. During remote learning, teachers continued to complete assessments of student work. However, in most cases, teachers required only a few assignments per week. In addition to providing an indicator of how a student is progressing, assessments can encourage student attendance and engagement. In the Spring of 2020, the State Board of Education announced that no new grades would be counted for the rest of the year. After this announcement, all districts reported that student attendance drastically declined. The lack of assessments and feedback on student work negatively impacted remote learning in North Carolina. Looking into the future where remote learning for at least part of the year is a distinct possibility, districts and schools should consider authentic assessments and teacher feedback on student work to encourage student engagement and progression of student learning.

Bladen County communicated to families and students that remote learning should be reflective of traditional face-to-face instruction. Teachers delivered instruction around key learning standards and continued with assessments and grades for students. Teachers provided flexibility for students by allowing 72 hours to complete an assignment after it was posted on the LMS.

Reflections

The Spring of 2020 brought many new challenges as districts across North Carolina were forced to educate students in a way that they never had done before. While everyone acknowledges that there are things that must be improved moving forward, the pandemic was a catalyst for digital learning. Districts that had been focused on technology integration and personalized learning prior to the Spring of 2020, were able to have a more smooth transition and are better equipped to begin the 2020-2021 school year. Districts also took the opportunity to learn from what happened during the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year to make improvements to their remote learning plans.

Bladen County – In planning for next year, Bladen County virtually convened focus groups of teachers, parents and students to receive feedback on what worked well and identified additional needs.

Listening to both teachers, students and parent feedback about how teaching and learning could be improved will help districts better serve all students and ensure that teachers are prepared for the upcoming year. Taking the time to invest in teacher professional learning and providing supports through professional learning communities and coaching will help teachers to utilize technology to meet the needs of their students. Along with professional learning, regular communication with families and students, finding ways to ensure that all students have access to a device and internet access and prioritizing social and emotional learning will ensure successful transition from traditional in-school learning to extended remote learning.

Authors and Contributors