3 Questions Parents Should Ask About Remote Learning This Fall

3 Questions Parents Should Ask About Remote Learning This Fall
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

As school ended last year, parents and teachers were ready for a reset. Summer not only promised a break from an exhausting spring of remote learning; it provided much-needed time to bend the COVID-19 curve low enough to safely return to schools in the fall, and for districts to create an aggressive learning plan to make up for learning losses in the spring. Of course, the resurgence of COVID-19 thwarted those hopes and forced districts to plan for the fall amidst tremendous uncertainty. As the last weeks of summer passed, many plans to return to school buildings fell by the wayside as districts announced that they would return to remote learning this fall.

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This summer, I had the chance to discuss reopening options with district leaders across the country. Those that decided to reopen remotely wanted to assure parents of one thing: “remote learning” this fall would be far better than the “emergency learning” they experienced this spring. I certainly hope they make good on that promise, because my analyses of what districts offered showed far too many were perfunctory attempts at quality “remote learning” students needed then and will need now. As I reflect on the shortcomings of many school offerings last spring, and watch my own child start high school on a computer, there are three key questions parents should be asking that will determine whether remote learning will indeed be better this fall.

1. How will schools set expectations for students and parents this fall? In the early days of spring’s emergency remote learning, just 18% of schools were in districts that explicitly expected students to participate. Although that percentage grew over the semester, more than one out of three schools were in districts that never clearly stated expectations for participation or stated that it was not required at all. The lack of clear expectations may not have caused more than 20% of students nationwide to be “essentially truant” for remote instruction last spring, but it certainly did not help. Moreover, the relaxed grading expectations for emergency learning last spring—when 12 percent of schools did not grade student work and another third graded work based on completion—won’t cut it this new school year. The same challenges and temptations that caused many students to put in minimum effort in the spring will still be at play in remote districts this fall. If schools don’t reset those expectations clearly, they will set remote learning up for failure.

Parents will have an outsized role in ensuring that remote learning works by providing structure for older students and being co-teachers in the early grades. It is imperative that districts clearly communicate what they expect of parents so that they, and their students, can make remote learning a success. For districts, deciding on the role parents should play can be dicey because they know some will be more willing or better able to support to their child than others. While schools can’t do much to even out those differences, their solution should not be to shy away from communicating what parents should do. That would only magnify the widespread frustration and helplessness that parents felt last spring.

2. How will districts set expectations for teachers? In the spring’s rushed development of emergency remote learning, many districts struggled to communicate how, and how much, teachers should provide instruction. While many assumed schools would shift to online platforms like Zoom, by May, only 44% of schools were in districts whose websites mentioned these synchronous learning tools. A separate survey by CRPE found that only 22% of school districts made live instruction compulsory. The weakness of spring’s emergency learning offerings is laid bare by Census data showing that students across the U.S. received just 4.2 hours a week of live virtual contact from their teachers. 

There is no perfect prescription for how much live instruction will make remote learning successful this fall. Still, districts should start by asking what forms of live instruction students need, and in what amounts, and then figure out how to deploy their teachers to provide it. Whether that looks like extended live instruction, or using recorded master lessons or independent work to free teachers up for live small group discussions, students deserve more than an hour of live instruction each day. I’m not optimistic that remote learning in the fall will be much better than emergency learning last spring unless districts expect teachers to provide more live instruction.

3. How will schools foster personal connections between teachers and students? Last spring, three-quarters of schools were in districts that listed at least one way teachers should make regular one-on-one contact with students. That may seem like a glass half full, but the most common contact method was by email (52 percent), while just a quarter mentioned phone calls. Email can be efficient for communicating with students, but it is a lousy way to support personal connection and relationship building. Relationships are crucial to schooling; building them will be critical when virtual barriers separate so many teachers and students. As I wrote with my colleague Rick Hess, “no technology investments or revamped remote curriculum will stand in for the human connection students would be missing.”

Most students, teachers, and school leaders would prefer a return to face-to-face instruction. Nevertheless, remote learning is a reality in many school districts, and they have to make the most of it. Whether districts set high expectations for students, teachers, and for making the connections between them will play a significant role in determining whether students can make progress with markedly better remote learning this fall, or fall further behind during another season of emergency learning.

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