Remote Learning in Times of Crisis: School and District Triage

Executive Summary

On March 14, 2020, all North Carolina K-12 schools closed due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Educators across the state were tasked with developing inclusive remote learning plans while receiving minimal guidance around best practices. As school closures went from temporary to permanent for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year, students, families, teachers and administrators adapted to long-term remote learning. This unprecedented situation provided the opportunity to gather critical information regarding the implementation and administration of remote learning that will help inform how school districts will return to school this fall.

This white paper examines the responses of schools and districts across North Carolina to COVID-19. As part of a broader effort at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation to better understand how educators have responded to this crisis and to support the transition back to school in the fall, this paper aims to document what districts prioritized during this crisis, how these priorities shifted over time, and where valuable lessons and best practices from the field can be found that might guide North Carolina’s transition back to school this fall. We report on our examination and critical review of 1) school district remote learning plans, 2) transcripts and participant feedback surveys from remote learning support programs delivered by the Friday Institute, and 3) school district leaders’ responses to a statewide survey administered by the NC Department of Public Instruction.

Key Findings and Lessons Learned

How do NC schools triage education services in times of crisis?

  • Schools initially prioritized content review; educators then pivoted to delivering new content and prioritizing social and emotional needs. Although adhering to state standards remained a top priority, teachers recognized the need to adjust and craft lesson plans tailored to the remote learning needs of their students. Prolonged remote learning prompted teachers to transition from reviewing previously taught content to introducing new instructional content. It also brought forth the need for teachers to address their students’ emotional needs by facilitating intentional social-emotional learning (SEL).
  • Educators quickly discovered the need to avoid instruction that was too complicated, too unpredictable and too lengthy. Shortly after transitioning to remote learning, educators discovered that the number of daily instructional hours required in the physical classroom was an unrealistic expectation for remote learning. Shorter yet consistent schedules proved to be more effective. Additionally, educators realized that housing all instructional material in a centralized place (an online platform) was helpful to students.
  • School districts employed a range of strategies to support students and staff in the transition to remote learning. Accessibility and feasibility were the focal points for all support provided. School districts offered technical assistance/resources to students. Additionally, students with special learning and personal needs received accommodations accordingly. Teachers received professional development regarding delivering remote instruction and were offered resources in areas that supported their holistic well-being.

What lessons can help us determine appropriate priorities for the transition back to school in the fall?

  1. Simple strategies are usually the most effective strategies. Teachers and schools should take care to limit the number of new tools and processes introduced and should work to standardize as many elements as possible across a student’s teachers. In order to create a routine and a sense of predictability for students and families, the establishment of “norms” in a remote learning classroom is a critical success factor for remote learning.
  2. There is no “right” way to do remote learning. There is no formula for remote learning, and it will look different for every student, in every classroom, in every school and in every community. Remote learning needs to reflect and support the needs of the student and community where it is occurring. For example, a school district where every student has a device and internet access is reliable and widespread will have very different challenges than a district that is now working to provide these resources for the first time.
  3. It is critical to remain aware of the trauma teachers and students experience. The challenge of remote learning compounds the trauma (i.e., the pandemic) that prompted schools and districts to move to remote learning. For the same reasons that remote learning is traumatic for students, it is also traumatic for educators. It’s critical for educators during these periods to extend grace and flexibility to themselves as well as to each other, practice and promote self-care, and focus on the needs of students.
  4. The systemic inequities inherent in our education system and society are exacerbated by remote learning, impacting our entire school community, including students and staff. One of the primary concerns when schools shifted to remote learning was providing food and specialized services for families; our schools provide for the well-being of many of our students, and this support system has been stretched during the pandemic. Additionally, our non-white families are impacted by COVID-19 at a significantly higher rate than white families.
  5. Our students with disabilities and our English learners cannot be easily served remotely, especially if intensive interventions are needed. Many of our families who do not have internet access because of cost or location are finding themselves increasingly cut off from a world that is more dependent on virtual communications each day. It is important to remain aware of these inequities at all times, but in this time, it is especially critical to keep these disparities at the forefront. We must act with intention to avoid creating further inequities, and we must take intentional action to reduce inequities at every opportunity.
  6. We cannot approach remote learning in a vacuum. We must learn from effective instructional practices and allow effective classroom practices to inform remote learning and vice versa. Specifically, teachers and school leaders should consider how these principles factor into procedures and norms during remote learning: we must consider how to maintain connections with students and families, how to select content and how to assess students. Different school communities will also need to identify and address the needs of the unique subpopulations within each school community.