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Seven Distance Learning Priorities to Consider Before Reopening Schools

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When U.S. schools initially closed in March, distance learning emerged as a way to keep kids learning. Classroom teachers scrambled to learn how to put lessons online and tens of thousands of Chromebooks and other devices were distributed in a matter of weeks in large school districts. The kind of change that typically takes years to implement in school systems happened practically overnight.

School leaders are now weighing how and if to reopen schools in the fall or sooner; and if they reopen, how to prepare for closing schools again when COVID-19 outbreaks recur. 

Diana Laufenberg wants decision-makers to make sure they’re asking the right questions while developing their plans. She is the executive director of Inquiry Schools and previously taught at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. She speaks regularly at SLA’s EduCon conference about how to change schools to meet students’ needs.

She was also in her tenth week working as a long-term substitute teacher in her rural Wisconsin community when shelter-in-place orders went into effect and her history lessons for 115 students in grades 7 - 12 had to be transformed to distance teaching. 

“Tech is not an issue for me, and I'm still telling you this is really hard,” said Laufenberg of distance teaching. 


She said we’re still struggling to process the ripple effects of school closures amid this pandemic because schools play such a fundamental role in society. 

Understanding Trauma During Distance Learning

“It's trying to rethink a base societal structure that has been serving communities for a hundred years, and then we just stopped and tried to send a version of that into their homes,” said Laufenberg.

Schools provide education, medical care, counseling services, technology, transportation, physical activity, meals and a place for kids to be. Without schools, parents can’t work; and businesses can’t function without its workforce. Children miss out on developmental needs they typically get at school. 

“Schools are kind of complicated, but they've been functioning in society for so long that we almost don't think of them as complex societal structures,” she said. “We're currently finding just how both necessary and core to the function of how we do life that schools have been.”  

Right now, school closures are exacerbating inequities among the most vulnerable, who are already bearing a greater brunt of the financial, physical and mental harm caused by COVID-19. Students are not showing up for distance learning. Many don’t have internet access and some students are taking jobs as essential workers to make up for financial losses in their family or taking care of siblings while parents work. 

So as school leaders are thinking about reopening schools, how can they improve upon what they’ve done so far and better serve student needs? Laufenberg says it’s imperative that educators take a moment to pause and reflect by asking these questions: 

-What did we do?
-What worked? Why did it work?

-What didn't work? Why didn't it work?

She offers questions to educators because the answers will differ for each community. She says you then have to think about what people are doing right now to make distance learning as good as it can be. What she sees that falls into that category is “light academics and mostly trying to support kids to not fall apart in the midst of some really, really challenging times.” 

There are, however, specific issues to address in order to improve learning for students when the next disruption strikes, according to Laufenberg.  

1. Ensure students have devices and internet connectivity.

Schools distributed WiFi hotspots, Chromebooks and other devices when shelter-in-place orders began. Educators have also helped families sign up for the internet at home, but there are still significant obstacles to making sure students have the connection they need to learn. Internet service providers still have more work to do to provide connections to students in need. When schools first closed, broadband companies offered free or discounted internet for low-income families of students, but restrictions — such as no overdue bills in the past or residential documentation — are still getting in the way of helping kids get the internet they need to learn. Some school districts have suggested sending students to parking lots with their devices so they can access the Internet in order to do distance learning. (It turns out, teachers have been resorting to parking lots to do the teaching.) And some of the data packages offered to low-income families can’t support multiple family members online at the same time. 

2. Know when to pause. 

At many schools, teachers jumped online with incredible speed in order to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine. But taking some time off could have served everyone better in the long run.

“It was kind of amazing how fast the teachers made that turn,” said Laufenberg. “But in retrospect, as I talked with our principal, we both kind of chuckled and agreed that we should have taken a couple of days off from instruction to retool and to pause and to breathe and to just enter that space with a little less frenzy.”

3. Examine what kind of skills would be helpful for students who struggled. 

A lot of students are missing out on distance learning, but some are thriving at home. Laufenberg says there's an opportunity to teach kids the skills they need to be more self-reliant, which would help with distance learning. For example, when a child’s school schedule is planned to the minute, it might be more difficult for them to learn at home in a situation that requires more self-motivation and self-regulation. This might mean teaching students about time management or how to advocate for yourself when they’re struggling. Some students know how to ask for help online, but for others, it’s too overwhelming. 

“They're not sure of themselves. There's not that feedback loop that you can get in person,” said Laufenberg. Students are missing out on the reassurances that keep them plugging away at their work. “So kids question whether or not they're doing it, ‘right’ or ‘right enough’ and get a little anxious about that.”

4. Understand how people self-motivate. 

There are a lot of feelings to work through right now for teachers and students. People are grieving over the way things used to be. It’s important to figure out how to be productive while scaling back expectations of teachers and students.  

“Just the social and emotional side of what's going on is so overwhelming that a lot of folks kind of start beating themselves up that they're not doing better at it or being efficient enough or effective enough,” said Laufenberg.

She advises teachers that the kind of emergency distance learning few had adequate time to prepare for “is not going to be as good as your classroom. Ever. Breathe that truth in and then let it go. Grieve the loss of that because it hurts. It's not going to be as good; that's a fact. You will make it as good as it possibly can be under the circumstances, under what we are functioning under. But it will not be as effective as what we were doing in school.”

5. Understand that emergency remote distance learning has a shelf life.

Laufenberg said there’s nothing wrong with well-crafted distance learning done by educators who know the pedagogy that goes into online learning. 

Many schools are trying to figure out how to make up for lost learning and are looking to extend the current school year into summer break or starting the next school year as early as July. The school district where Laufenberg teaches did the opposite and will end new instruction for middle and high school students three weeks early. She said people understood that the kind of distance learning they were improvising couldn’t continue. 

“The general feeling is we can’t keep this thing on the rails and feel good about what we're doing,” she said. “The challenge of trying to meet everybody where they are in all of these very unique scenarios inside their homes — it’s almost impossible for teachers to strike that balance and to meet the needs of everybody.”

6. Starting the school year with testing won’t help.

Schools that assess learning at the beginning of the school year to look for “gaps” in learning will feel brutally unfair and inequitable. 

“I would just caution any system that thinks August is for benchmarking their kids to see what they did get. We know what they didn't get,” said Laufenberg. “It really can wait until we get students back into feeling safe and supported at school so that they can learn instead of just fast tracking them back into this track of producing scores.”

7. Get past “falling behind.” 

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has many people trying to get back to where they were pre-pandemic. Students and parents are looking for the same schoolwork, grades or experiences needed to keep them “on track,” especially for college admissions, despite the fact that colleges are adjusting their admissions requirements. Laufenberg worries about administrators who pressure teachers to catch students up to a standard that doesn’t take into account the harmful effects of the pandemic and what that could do to kids. 

Laufenberg says there are valuable insights to be gained from the scramble to do distance learning. There is time to do things differently next time and better serve students’ needs. The crisis created an opportunity to prove how quickly schools can implement change. Her hope is that schools use this moment to constantly improve and figure out how to do better next time.


“There is forward and there is through on this thing. There is no going back. We will be a different kind of system out the other side of this.” 

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