Like an uninvited guest, the COVID-19 pandemic swept into town, upending the school year and our very way of life. As we reinforce the need for social distancing and hand washing, school closures are affecting around 55 million public school students nationwide, with schools shuttering for the remainder of the year including here in Massachusetts. But just because the schools are closed doesn’t mean that school is out. Thousands of educators around the country have had to quickly shift from the familiarity of their classrooms to the uncharted terrain of distance learning in a crisis.
Many teachers are navigating distance learning for the first time, asking questions like, “How do I ensure my students are still receiving high-quality education?” and “Will I be able to track the learning that is taking place?” Educators understand it will be crucial to keep students engaged in the virtual classroom to prevent residual learning loss. Research shows that students across all socioeconomic backgrounds experience nearly three months of learning loss in math over the summer, and new research based on summer slide is predicting a “COVID slide” of half a school year or more. These losses will be particularly acute for low-income students, as they are for summer learning loss.
However, what we have learned from efforts to stem summer learning loss in math can guide educators, districts and parents as they transition their education plans to the virtual realm. For the past three summers, EdVestors has partnered with several public schools in Boston to pilot a virtual learning model as part of our “Zeroing in on Math” blended learning work. The initiative has helped us better understand how existing technology-based interventions can be part of the solution for closing knowledge and skill gaps when school is closed.
Amid this unprecedented public health crisis and recent guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), there is an opportunity to explore what works with these tools in this remote learning environment. Some of the lessons we learned over the past three years through “Zeroing in on Math” may be useful when putting any tech-based remote learning into practice including:
- Set clear and reasonable expectations for students, teachers, and families. Teachers and leaders set clear expectations, as best as one can in this uncertain time. Educators can use data provided by various tools to monitor student progress and use the information to celebrate students, provide more challenging work to students and identify areas of focus.
- Maintain relationships. Teachers and leaders set up structures for active communication with students and families to both create spaces for student discussion and as a way to check-in with students who may not be logging in. Connecting via phone or text was more effective than email in many cases, especially for younger students. Tools like Google Classroom or Class Dojo can help drive this communication, adding other helpful resources such as dedicated spaces for questions.
- Use student incentives to drive engagement. With relationships and community maintained, the most important incentive is always a relevant and engaging learning task. Additionally, teachers and leaders can use a variety of other incentives to drive student engagement on the Ed Tech tools. They can show students working from home and celebrate student independence, ownership and resourcefulness. Some educators also provide an easy-to-use tracker for students to use throughout the week as a Google Doc so they can see their progress and have more ownership.
- Encourage distributive leadership around technology troubleshooting. Have a school-level point person who can field technology concerns from staff members, while also encouraging staff to reach out to tech support on their own, so that all staff members have ownership and agency around their use of the tools. This is a learning opportunity for students and for their teachers.
- Give grace: to students, families, teachers—and yourself. This is a transition and a learning moment for all. To start, know that virtual learning is not the same as in-person learning. It won’t be without its kinks.
Finally, see the opportunity. Although putting a system in place for distance learning may seem challenging, these investments will be worth it as they will get us through this pandemic and provide lessons for the future. Not only is it an effective way to connect with students and meet their educational needs, but these approaches will also advance educators’ ability to connect with students, their families, and our world in a time that is reassigning the role of school to be a collective effort.