Survey Shines Light on Lessons Learned From a Spring of Remote Learning
Due to COVID-19, the 2020 spring semester was completely turned on its head. Since then, educators and administrators have been reflecting on the successes and challenges of their schools' rapid transitions to remote learning, with the results of a survey conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) that polled 82 school districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) providing insight into what seemed to work well and what needs improvement.
With the ongoing pandemic likely to impact much if not all of the 2020–2021 academic year to at least some degree, let’s take a deeper look at the CRPE's findings.
The good: Significant remote learning strides
As schools shuttered in mid to late March, administrators and educators rushed to assemble multifaceted action plans. According to the CRPE survey, their top priorities at that time included meal distribution, student health and safety, and addressing various elements of the shift to remote learning, with "about half (26 of 46) ... sharing links to online general educational resources" and "about a third (15 of the 46 reviewed) … exploring device distribution."
An updated survey of the full sample set conducted in late May yielded some heartening successes, chief among them the fact that 81 of the 82 districts were offering students access to a formal curriculum. Indeed, pairing a formal curriculum with teacher feedback was the most common trend among respondents, with 77% of districts and 89% of CMOs reporting that they used this approach. While instructional hours and access to live teaching also underwent improvement, respondents indicated that these still needed further refinement.
The not-so-good: Amplification of inequities
With regard to challenges, the CRPE broke down the major limitations identified by its survey into three categories:
1. English language learners (ELLs) and students with special needs are often left out.
How are states providing guidance to districts in terms of supporting ELLs and students with special needs during remote learning? Responses to the survey suggested that the specifics of such guidance are worryingly unclear, which caused the CRPE to raise "red flags" in this area of its analysis. To remedy the issue, the center recommended that districts prepare more "meaningful compensatory services, intentional efforts to support socialization, and an intentional strategy to address lost learning.
2. Device distribution and connectivity challenges limit access.
The digital divide is hardly a new concept. As Education Week reported, prior to the pandemic, nearly one-third of the country's 50 million students lived in households that lacked digital devices, internet access, or both—as did almost 1 in 10 public school teachers.
When the pandemic hit, districts and CMOs scrambled to get devices into the hands of as many students as possible, with varying levels of success. Ultimately, only 55% to 61% of those surveyed were able to provide devices to every student, and while almost all respondents (85% to 94%) equipped at least some learners with devices, the fact that they were forced to use needs-based prioritization created an imbalance in reasonable expectations of student performance.
In terms of combating internet connectivity challenges, 66% of districts and 34% of CMOs reported leveraging hotspots or shared hubs—sometimes in the form of parked school buses equipped with Wi-Fi—to serve students without the ability to go online at home.
3. Traditional student data tracking systems are largely absent.
With COVID-19 sweeping across the nation, many schools scaled down or even completely suspended everyday metrics. For instance, only 32% of districts and 61% of CMOs that took part in the CRPE survey required attendance-tracking to be part of remote learning during the spring.
Among educators at schools not required to take roll, concerns piqued about student welfare. "My main thing is are you OK, are you safe, have you eaten today?" Oakland, California-based special education teacher Reyna Guerra told EdSource. "I'm taking it very slow on the academics, because who can learn in this situation?"
Certainly, such a dramatic departure from "business as usual" warranted a measure of academic leniency—but on the other side of the coin, educators use formal grading to monitor student progress. Among those polled by the CRPE, 51% of districts and 50% of CMOs continued administering formal assessments throughout the spring semester, albeit mostly on a pass/fail basis in lieu of using letter grades. While this seems like a fair compromise, the CRPE noted that "the absence of standards-based academic data will make it harder for districts to identify students for targeted supports."
What comes next?
With many schools anticipating fully virtual or hybrid learning for most—if not all—of the fall semester, questions remain regarding how best to support ELLs and students with special needs, facilitate digital device and internet access, and strike a balance between tracking meaningful metrics and allowing for a degree of academic leniency. The main difference? Educators and administrators can look back on lessons learned from a spring of remote learning as they strive to amplify successes and address challenges.
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