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The Biggest Distance-Learning Experiment In History: Week One

The Biggest Distance-Learning Experiment In History: Week One
Chris Youssef for NPR
The Biggest Distance-Learning Experiment In History: Week One

For 6-year-old Sadie Hernandez, the first day of online school started at her round, wooden kitchen table in Jacksonville, Fla. She turned on an iPad and started talking to her first grade teacher, Robin Nelson. "Are you ready to do this online stuff?" her teacher asks, in a video sent to NPR by Hernandez's mother, Audrey."Yeah," Sadie responds."It's kind of scary isn't it?""Kind of." Sadie's teacher reminds her that they'll be using the educational software that she is already familiar with from her face-to-face classes at Ortega Elementary School: "It's iReady, so we've got that. And we've got WritingCity. And now you know how to meet me in the morning." Every state has closed at least some public schools to fight the spread of coronavirus, and some are starting to say they expect to be closed through the end of the school year.

Thrown into the breach, public schools are setting out on an unprecedented experiment: With little training and even fewer resources, in a matter of days they're shifting from a system of education that for centuries has focused on face to face interaction, to one that works entirely at a distance. Diana Greene, the superintendent of Duval County Schools where Robin Nelson teaches, sent an email to her staff on Friday, March 20 that illustrates the magnitude of the effort educators around the country are faced with: "It is amazing to me that it was just 3 days ago that we made the decision to close schools. In less than 72 hours, Team Duval moved the entire district to an at-home, virtual instruction model. We have managed to troubleshoot the mobilization of meal programs, lack of technology equipment, online teacher training, and a whole host of issues that come with a change of this magnitude. Three days! "Three days to create, print and distribute about 5 million pages of instructional content. Three days to load classes onto an online platform. Three days to gather online resources so aligned instruction could continue to take place. Three days to train about 8,000 teachers in a whole new way of work. Imagine that! "Three days to conduct a survey of technology needs from 130,000 students and to prepare thousands of computers for student use. Three days to prepare for neighborhood delivery of school lunches and snacks on our buses so children would not go hungry. Just three days to mobilize a community of partners and volunteers to assist our schools."Some families, like Sadie's, are adjusting reasonably well. Her parents are both working from home, still earning paychecks. When Sadie has to concentrate on her lessons, they turn on "Daniel Tiger" for her little sister Kate. There's a backyard swimming pool for cooling off when lessons are done. But as a crisis often does, this one has exposed existing inequalities — among schools, among districts and among students. Just over half of the nation's public school children are from families considered low-income, and an estimated 12 million lack broadband Internet access at home. Robin Nelson, an educator with 10 years experience, says one of the students in her class has special needs and needs significant accommodation, and the family also struggles financially. "I've spoken to his mom. There's another little one on the way, if not already arrived."And, Nelson notes, for that family and many like it, "survival is a priority and not, you know, accommodations right now for him." Nelson thinks the student may end up repeating a grade. She's also concerned about children whose parents must go out to work, and who are sending their kids to home-based daycares that remain open. She tears up talking about her "babies" and how much she misses greeting them at the door with a fist-bump, handshake or hug. Sadie Hernandez wrote a note and drew pictures to leave on her beloved teacher's doorstep. Because of these inherent inequities, some researchers are advocating that public schools focus on making up lost learning when things get back to normal — through summer school and other remediation. That will take extra funding, including money to pay teachers. Douglas Harris, an education researcher and fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a post calling for school districts to focus on making up time, not on teaching remotely.: "Studies of online learning suggest not only that students learn less in online environments, compared with in person, but that disadvantaged students learn the least. And that's true even when online teachers have experience and training with online teaching. Under the current emergency, most teachers will not have any experience at all with this approach."

Nevertheless, with its latest guidance, the federal Education Department has encouraged schools closing due to coronavirus to pursue distance learning quote "creatively" and with "flexibility", even if they can't reach every student that way.


Reminding everyone that this is an unprecedented situation, "No one wants to have learning coming to a halt across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak," reads the guidance, "and the U.S. Department of Education (Department) does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students on-line."

The Senate coronavirus relief package passed on Wednesday includes $13.5 billion earmarked for schools, which they can use to keep paying staff as well as to buy new technology.

As they wait for clearer direction, materials, and training, states and districts are choosing different paths. In the Philadelphia area, districts may use up snow days left over from the mild winter. In Chicago, teachers are offering enrichment resources only, instructed to make sure there's "no new learning." Harking back to an earlier era of distance education, Los Angeles Unified is partnering with the local public television stations to pair educational broadcasts with some online resources.

Florida, where Robin Nelson teaches, is an example of a state that has moved swiftly to transition as much instruction as possible online. Partly that's because it is home to the Florida Virtual School. That's a public, nonprofit K12 school that has been around for over two decades, and has a solid reputation — its students do about as well as, or a little better than, other students in the state. Before the outbreak, FLVS directly enrolled 200,000 students, primarily in Florida but also across all 50 states and overseas. Now they are looking to double that direct enrollment by the end of April. And the school is also training at least 10,000 Florida teachers to transition their own classes online — via live online trainings and pre-recorded webinars.

"We've partnered with the [state] Department of Education to work with the school districts to support teacher professional development at the district level, to help them ramp up and to be able to teach students online," says Courtney Calfee, executive director for global services at FLVS. Nelson says she and other teachers at Ortega Elementary cobbled together online lessons from various sources: "It's teachers going through and kind of pulling out their materials, saying, hey, PBS has a good thing over here ..." Paula Renfro leads professional development for Duval County Public Schools, the district where Nelson teaches. She says that in making this swift transition, they decided to lead with their existing "blended learning resource library," including software programs and digital textbooks. "Really, when we considered how this rollout was going to look, we needed to provide tools, especially in the beginning, that teachers and students had a high comfort level with." Another big consideration for schools making this transition is how much time per day to attempt to connect live with students — known as "synchronous", or real-time, learning — versus putting out assignments for students to complete on their own — known as asynchronous learning. Where schools and communities have more resources, they seem to be gravitating more toward the synchronous model.


NPR put out a call on Twitter and Facebook, and among the responses were families with students at a dozen private schools around the country that are holding live online classes via video chat for up to five hours per day. Interestingly, Justin Reich, an online learning researcher at MIT, says this isn't necessarily the best approach to use, especially in the younger grades. "Young people don't have the attention or the executive function skills to be able to sit and learn online for hours every day on their own." He advocates instead a pattern sometimes known as "hybrid," "blended learning" or a "flipped classroom." It's a combination of relatively short, live video check-in meetings and self-paced work, with teachers available to students over email, phone, text or any other method that is convenient to both. In fact, if you are working remotely right now as an adult, it might look pretty similar to that.

That's more or less what Robin Nelson is doing with those of her students who are able to connect with her. They do a version of "morning meeting" using Microsoft Teams, videoconferencing every morning at 8:30. There, she gives them the assignments for the day. After that, Nelson makes herself available for virtual "office hours" from 9 to 11 a.m., so parents can check in. Families are also contacting her throughout the day on their smartphones using ClassDojo, a program she was already using to keep in touch. She's encouraging parents to read to children every day, and even to have some kind of recess. Florida Virtual School does something similar with what it calls its "high teacher touch" approach. Assignments are designed to be completed on students' own time. The teacher holds live lessons via video chat either weekly or daily, depending on the course, where students can also talk to each other. At FLVS, some courses also have what's called "discussion-based assessment," where the teacher has a live video conversation with the student to check for mastery. There's one big caveat. This model, Reich says, overwhelmingly relies on a parent or caregiver who can serve as a coach, cheerleader, IT support and general troubleshooter. Until you get perhaps to late middle or high school, there is no such thing as independent solo school via computer — most students just aren't developmentally capable of it. Most of all, Nelson is wondering why her district threw "a ton of work" into creating an online model when many of the students she calls "her babies" don't have adequate resources to connect right now.

"Some of them have laptops. Some of them have siblings that will be sharing that technology. So, you know, that will make it more difficult." Others, she says will be using a parents' phone at best. "But if the parents are trying to work from home or whatever they're trying to do, it's not gonna be a priority."

These students who told the school they lacked connectivity, for now, are getting paper homework packets, handed out along with free food from the school lunch program. The plan is to collect the packets in two weeks. The district, like others around the country, is lending out laptops and mobile hotspot devices, but in Duval County middle and high school students get priority over the elementary school students.

For the paper packets, "Who's collecting and who's grading it? How are these kids getting feedback on what they're doing?" Nelson asks. "All that's just pretty gray right now." She said that during the first week, out of 19 students, "I have 12 that are working online for at least some (if not all) of the assignments, four that have packets only, two more that have packets but plan on picking up a computer from the district to borrow, and one student that is AWOL."

Renfro, who works for the district, notes that this is early days, and the district hopes to continue getting resources out to students who need them. For students who don't have computers yet, "we are contacting families through email, telephone each day," she says. "We still have our hands and our arms wrapped around them to support them."

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