The winds of K-12 reopenings seem to be shifting nationally toward remote, or all-online, learning to start the 2020-2021 school year.
Even in a hybrid environment, most students will still have three days a week of remote learning. Since it appears most students and educators around the U.S. will be engaging heavily in virtual learning this fall, K-12 leaders are anticipating the challenges that may come as a result.
An informal twitter poll in mid-August asked teachers what they were most concerned about with regard to remote learning in the fall. For those who answered, the biggest worries revolve around the home—students’ access to reliable internet services and their own child care needs.
The top concern of 39% of teacher respondents was their personal child care needs, followed by students’ internet access (34%). For nearly a third of respondents, having enough time (15%) and professional development (13%) to prepare for remote learning were chief concerns.
“We as educators are trying to plan accordingly and do as much prep ahead of time as we can,” said Joy, a 4th grade public school teacher in New Jersey, who prefers her real name remain private.
Many states and districts acknowledge child care for children of staff is pivotal to the operations of remote learning in the fall. Child care needs are even forcing some schools to modify plans from hybrid to remote due to a lack of available staff for live instruction.
Emerging strategies to address the child care need include repurposing unused school buildings, like what Marrietta, Georgia; Glastonbury, Connecticut; and California are doing. Other places are going out to bid for child care services for staff like a Colorado district. Community learning hubs for high-need students in urban areas are also receiving attention.
Other survey data around the U.S. point to concerns for students needing reliable home internet access. The Tennessee Department of Education's annual educator survey report released in July revealed that educators were most worried about the barriers to students accessing remote learning, with 56% of respondents indicating it as a top concern.
In a survey in Ector County, Texas, teachers were asked in May to assess their students’ internet access given the remote learning they experienced in the spring. The analysis found that about 2 in 5 students in Ector County rarely or never have reliable connectivity at home. And providing fast and affordable access for students and teachers who don’t have it is still a daunting challenge.
Adapting to Change
Even in connected environments, other challenges in the home may present themselves.
“Sometimes students are in a noisy environment, distracted by normal household activity, while they are receiving instruction,” Joy said. “This directly impacts their ability to focus on the task at hand and process new information being introduced.”
For some students, at-home conditions force changes in learning and teaching.
“Students are sometimes unmotivated to work because their environment is not ideal,” Joy said. “When we are in an actual classroom, we can manage distractions and create a productive and meaningful learning environment.”
Without control over the physical environment, teachers have to focus on other strategies to keep students on track.
“Educators are adapting the way they teach because there is little or no separation between home life and school,” Joy said. “Educators [should] establish routines, maintain consistency, and develop well-structured as well as engaging environments that make learning at home possible and successful.”
With change being a constant during the pandemic, flexibility is key, said John DeSario, a high school math teacher in Colorado.
Comments provided by individual teachers in the Twitter poll listed other concerns, such as “total lack of equity around student households” and “perpetuating an antiquated system of teacher-driven curriculum.”
Addressing these concerns will require districts to take new approaches to student and staff needs while school remains in remote or hybrid settings.
Further Analysis and Implications
To make informed operational decisions before and after reopenings, district leaders need to design and institute a process of periodically gathering remote operations data around teacher and student home environments.
In other words, don’t think of recent pandemic data collections as a one-time event. Instead, envision the portfolio of data used heavily thus far in 2020, ask what is still needed, and plan for collections or surveys to be conducted frequently and regularly, using survey and dashboard tools the district likely already has in use.
What is “remote operations data,” you may ask? Examples of analytics include:
How many children of teachers/staff in my district need child care services when remote operations are ongoing?
The answer to this can help the district identify viable child care solutions more quickly and accurately.
How many students and teachers rarely or never have reliable internet access at home? How many students and teachers live outside of known fixed and wireless coverage zones?How many students and families cannot afford internet service?
The answer to these questions can help the district identify viable home internet solutions for families and teachers.
How many students do not have a device at home?
The answer to this question can inform the district’s purchasing decisions in deploying 1:1 programs.
How many special education students will require assistance in a remote environment?
How many students receive meals from school?
How many students have opted for paper-based instructional materials at home?
And other parent/teacher survey data around comfort levels of in-person learning.