Florida’s Duval County Public Schools was not a total newcomer to online learning. The district operated a K-12 virtual school, and it regularly included blended virtual learning in its professional development for teachers.

But the necessary decision to transition into a full-scale virtual learning environment for all 130,000 students in the Jacksonville school district shortly after state officials ordered schools closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus was a huge undertaking.

One challenge: getting devices to students. Duval was not a one-to-one district. “None of our students took any of the devices home, so we had to start pulling the technology out of classrooms, cleaning it and preparing it so they could work from home for our students” as well as order additional devices, explains Jim Culbert, the district’s executive director of information technology. In the process, Duval distributed more than 35,000 laptops to students who did not have access to a computer and was prepared to make more available.

“We are finding that many parents are using their home computers to allow them to work from home, so a student that may have had access to a computer no longer does,” Culbert says.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of schools, districts are facing the unprecedented experiment of moving their entire teaching and learning programs online. Meeting that goal with a system that never intended to totally replace face-to-face learning in order to continue educating the nation’s 50 million public school children has been challenging at best.

“We have states and school districts having to implement this without a lot of preparation, planning, and practice,” says Candice Dodson, executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association. Even for those districts and states with experience conducting e-learning, “it’s a much harder lift right now,” she says.

Equity of access

Most school districts have purchased devices and installed broadband high-speed internet access in their buildings. However, efforts to move all instruction online have exacerbated equity issues, including the fact that too many students lack reliable home internet access.

According to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics, 14 percent of children ages 3 to 18—about 9.4 million in total—are without home access to the internet. An analysis by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee (JEC) puts that number as high as 12 million.

And although students in both urban and rural districts lack high-speed broadband connections at home, the JEC reported that in 15 states, the majority of rural residents do not have access to broadband.

An estimated 37 percent of Native American students and nearly 20 percent of black and Latino students have no internet access at home, compared to 12 percent of white students, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Future Ready Schools initiative.

Through the federal E-Rate program, there has been significant progress in expanding high-speed broadband access to school buildings and public libraries, says Robert Mahaffey, executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust. “But as far as residential access, it’s not unusual to pull into small towns where there is a Dollar General Store or fast food restaurant and find kids there in the parking lots. That’s how they get the broadband access they need because they don’t have it at home.”

With social distancing protocols and stay-at-home orders, however, gathering at stores, restaurants, libraries, and other public locations for internet access is often impossible.

Districts and states have attempted to respond to the connectivity problem. Like many other districts, Duval County distributed loaner hot spots and helped families sign up for discounts from private providers.

a school bus with a sign declaring "public wifi access"

The 5,600-school bus fleet in South Carolina is owned and operated by the state. Every bus purchased since 2015 has been equipped with the hardware for Wi-Fi (approximately 3,000 available buses). PHOTO CREDIT: SOUTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

 Using school buses as mobile hot spots is another response used in many districts and statewide by the South Carolina Department of Education. It deployed hundreds of school buses equipped with Wi-Fi to neighborhoods around the state so students can access remote learning. In some cases, the buses also are used for meal delivery. In South Carolina, priority for the Wi-Fi buses is given to districts with the highest levels of poverty, says Ryan Brown, the department’s chief communications officer.

Scaling up

Indiana’s Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township is a veteran of delivering e-learning. Even with its experience, it has been “a huge challenge to scale up” for districtwide remote learning, says Pete Just, chief technology officer for the 17,000-student district in Indianapolis. He also is the board chair of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a membership organization for school technology leaders.

In particular, Just points to the demands of running a large program for many days, making the appropriate adjustments for each grade level, and supporting teachers with little experience teaching in an online environment.

“For the vast majority of our teachers, this is something they’ve dabbled with, some to greater degrees than others. But for some, this is brand new.”

Vital to the district’s remote learning program is a learning management system (LMS) to serve as a central digital hub, Just says. “It looks very different for different teachers, but what we’ve seen is that if everyone starts in the LMS by logging in there, it not only simplifies use, it gives us useful statistics in terms of participation and engagement.”

Veronica Garcia, superintendent of New Mexico’s Santa Fe Public Schools, anticipated that the move to distance learning would be “a little choppy at first” for her 13,000-student district. “We’re not geared up to be a full, districtwide online education program.”

Growing pains aside, she took comfort in the fact that all students in the district have a digital device: an iPad for grades K-2 and Chromebook for grades three through 12. “Even though we’re a high-poverty district, we’ve been regularly integrating technology in the classroom,” Garcia says, noting that that effort got a significant boost thanks to an Educational Technology Note first approved by voters in 2016, and then again in 2019, that raised funds from property taxes.

“We are fortunate that our teachers know how to use the technology, and we had digital coaches in the classroom working with them,” she says. “Now, [distance learning is] not as big a leap, just a little bit different in that we don’t have the students face-to-face in the classroom.”

Help for families

Here are some of the tips for families to help with the transition to online learning offered by Duval County Public Schools Chief Academic Officer Paula Renfro, district teachers, and parents:

  • Set up a comfortable space for learning. Do not feel pressured to have a “mini-classroom” environment. Children just need a space where they feel comfortable sitting, with easy access to the tools they need to learn.
  • Establish a schedule and set clear expectations and goals. Balance flexibility with structure to ensure tasks are completed.
  • Use a checklist to break up assignments and tasks. As items are completed, checking them off will help you see progress.
  • Make time for breaks and exercise. Stretching and stepping away from the work is important. Take a 15-minute break here and there to relax, go outside, or just chat about how the day is going.
  • Include a family meeting to recap the day. Discuss things family members liked, struggled with, and want to change.
  • Turn off the TV; remove distractions. If background noise helps, consider finding a classical music station. Classical music has been found to improve memory.
  • Encourage children to stay in touch with friends. We can shift a child’s education into the home, but with social distancing we can’t replace the little interactions they have with friends. Encourage children to catch up with friends during the day; set virtual playdates for younger children.
  • Check for updates from your child’s school. As part of your start to the day, check in with your school on social media or on its website to see if there are any announcements or updates.

Getting information out was part of the e-learning plan for Glenbard School District 87, an 8,100-student high school district in DuPage County, Illinois. Melissa Creech, director of instructional technology, says the district created FAQs for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. They covered when students should check in for attendance, what kind of homework and classwork they would have, how long it should take, what time teachers would post assignments, how to make videos for students, and how to do videoconferencing with equity issues in mind.

Because the interactive technology can disadvantage students whose internet infrastructure is poor, who use a shared device at home, or who have other family members who need the internet bandwidth for other things, “we wanted to make sure we did not have any required synchronous videoconferencing” that mandated students interact with each other in real-time online, says Creech. Overall, the district’s e-learning is asynchronous (with students attending as they are able), with some optional synchronous opportunities (with all students in virtual attendance).

Duval County follows a similar approach, delivering its classroom content both synchronously and asynchronously “in respect to the challenges families may be faced with during this pandemic,” says Paula Renfro, chief academic officer. “All live teaching sessions are recorded and archived for students.”

Student-teacher relationship

Ensuring equitable outcomes for both students and teachers was a top priority in planning the district’s virtual system, dubbed Duval HomeRoom, says Renfro. “We needed to create a professional learning platform that was equitable in meeting the needs of all levels of teachers. In our instructional rollout, it was important that every single teacher who taught a course could see themselves in this virtual learning environment.”

The same attention was given to continuing the education of students with Individual Education Plans and other special needs. Specialists who worked with exceptional students have been reaching out, often virtually, to those who receive services, says Renfro. In addition to teachers who work with students with more profound disabilities and are medically dependent, “we have nurses who are working with schools and families to continue to support students and parents virtually.”

The district has long had adaptive technology that it issues to students, and they can continue to use the devices at home, “allowing them to participate in Duval HomeRoom like anyone else,” adds Culbert, chief of information technology.

a high school student learns remotely at her desk

A student at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, works on her honors chemistry e-learning. PHOTO CREDIT: GLENBARD TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 87/MELISSA CREECH

The school day is 8 a.m. to 2:50 p.m. Although students may work on assignments outside of those hours, “during that time, they can be assured that [teachers are accessible],” Renfro explains. “Teachers hold live and recorded lessons and have open work sessions for students to come in on a chat session and ask questions that they may have. Those are the times that students can virtually touch their teachers. The district has committed to retaining the relationship between student and teacher,” she adds.

There has been tremendous community buy-in of the program, says Warren Jones, chairman of the Duval County School Board. “People are far more patient and understanding about any kinks because of the uniqueness of the situation.”

In applauding the creativity and innovation of Superintendent Diana Greene and staff for developing the home-learning model, Jones says recognition also needs to go to “those board members and superintendents who preceded us and were so proactive” in investing in the technology and infrastructure that’s paying off today. “Decisions to fund technology have not always come easy” in the district, Jones says.

Three-option approach

Denver Public Schools’ new remote learning plan also emphasizes equity for students and teachers, along with technology access. In conjunction with a family technology survey, the district purchased an additional 9,000 Chromebooks for student use, while also creating professional learning webinars and online classes for teachers and building leaders. But instead of creating and supporting one remote-learning program for all of its students, it designed three options to ensure that individual school communities can adopt a plan best suited for their needs.

“What we wanted to do was account for and provide for equity in terms of the number of devices needed while also accounting for low-tech options, with the intent of reaching every student in DPS,” says Tamara Acevedo, deputy superintendent of academics.

Tips to moving to online learning

Pete Just, chief operations and technology officer of Indiana’s Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, shares advice his district has learned on its journey into remote learning.

  • Have students log into a single platform. This helps districts track participants and could be considered “attendance” in some states. It also lets administrators know with whom to follow up.
  • Remind teaching staff to leverage the digital resources the district already has vetted and paid for before opting for nonapproved resources. Place these all in one launch point or learning management system.
  • Create a tech support help desk to manage lost login information and broken school district technology. Wayne Township used schoolbased staff members and provided them with the resources to handle issues.
  • Provide a solid set of virtual learning resources to help teachers ramp up.
  • Prepare in advance for the reality that many devices may not come back in good shape. Be ready to start the next school year with fresh, functioning technology that won’t impede learning. 

Some schools already were immersed in digital instruction, with teachers proficient in leading instruction in an online environment, but that was not the case across the district. With its three models of instruction—district-provided instructional materials, teacher-led hybrid instruction, and teacher-led full digital instruction—all students are provided opportunities to continue their course of learning, Acevedo says.

“The learning, the content, the standards, and those pieces connected to our students’ well-being and relationship-building with their teachers are all the same,” she adds, “but there are different options for being able to get there and ensure that everybody is able to do it.”

Don't go off the grid

Education technology consultant Kecia Ray, president of K20Connect, says she’s been heartened by the efforts put forth by parties “throughout the education sector, be they districts or nonprofits or for-profits, coming together to see that our most vulnerable population—our children—are taken care of during this time.”

In California, for example, Google donated 4,000 Chromebooks to students and free Wi-Fi to 100,000 rural households for a minimum of three months. At a press conference announcing the donation, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, said about 20 percent of all California students do not have access to the internet at home. She said the donation could cut the number by nearly half.

If there’s one lesson that school systems have hopefully learned from the national health crisis, it is that “you can go low tech, but you just can’t go off the grid and disappear as a school district and not be available for your students,” says Ray. “That really isn’t the right thing to do.”

That’s why you see so many districts, even those that are unable to move their teaching and learning online, work to give their communities “lifelines,” from study packets to meals, to community resources and referrals to free, alternative learning models, such as the popular Khan Academy website.

An important low-tech offering that has paid high dividends is the distance learning programming offered by many public media stations across the country that allow students without sufficient digital resources at home to consume curriculum-approved education on TV, says Ray, the former executive director of learning technologies for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

If anything, the 2020 pandemic has underscored a message that many in education technology have said for years and is now “marked in stone,” she adds: “Technology will never replace the teacher, but it can amplify that teacher’s efforts.”

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