Skip to main content

Jersey Jazzman: On Remote Teaching and Learning in an Ongoing Pandemic

Some recent stories I've been thinking about (all emphases mine). Tennessee:

Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is getting pushback in Memphis on new Tennessee restrictions that make it harder for district leaders to close school buildings and shift students to remote instruction as pediatric COVID cases climb.

Meanwhile, school board members with Shelby County Schools held a moment of silence Tuesday to remember two students, two teachers, and one young alum who recently died. School officials did not release the cause of death for any of the five.

“We must stand together during this difficult time,” Superintendent Joris Ray said.

A day earlier, district officials encouraged families to direct their complaints to the governor’s office as a petition circulated demanding a virtual option that allows students to stay with their teachers. More than 13,000 people had signed the petition by Tuesday afternoon, and a small group of parents also protested outside the district’s headquarters on Monday. 

“We hear your concerns and understand your frustrations regarding options for remote learning,” said a statement from the district. “Stand for safety with us by contacting Governor Lee and state legislators.”

The call to action reflects the ever-growing divide between the Republican governor and Tennessee’s largest school district over the best way to teach while protecting the health of children too young to be vaccinated. COVID’s delta variant has returned Tennessee’s case numbers to levels not seen since the pandemic’s wintertime peak.

Shelby County leaders said their hands are tied on remote learning options beyond enrolling in Memphis Virtual School. They cited new rules and criteria passed recently by the Tennessee State Board of Education for closing schools and remote learning. 

Those rules allow individual students to switch temporarily to remote instruction if they’re sidelined by the virus, either because of illness or exposure. But districts can’t toggle back and forth with remote learning without an executive order from the governor, according to state officials. School systems that have to close entire schools because of COVID outbreaks must use days usually stockpiled for inclement weather, flu outbreaks, or staffing problems.

New Jersey:

As students head back for a third school year impacted by the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to complicate the education landscape and the impact of remote learning has yet to be fully assessed. As achievement gaps have emerged, many districts are planning to return fully in person learning in hopes of restoring traditional learning, even as safety concerns mount around the highly contagious delta variant.

But remote learning will remain a part of students' lives for the foreseeable future, experts say, with tens of thousands of students in quarantine just weeks into the school year for some. How schools approach remote learning is varied: While some view it as a Zoom extension of the classroom, others are taking novel and holistic approaches to try to improve the quality of instruction.

For now, in-person learning is the only option for students like Cosby's daughter, a rising senior, as New Jersey's governor was among several leaders to require full-time, in-person K-12 instruction this school year. Other large school districts, like New York City, are starting the year without a remote option.

In recent days, however, the New Jersey state education department has issued guidance that "strongly encouraged" schools to provide remote instruction for students during reported.


(ATLANTA) — A few weeks into the new school year, growing numbers of U.S. districts have halted in-person learning or switched to hybrid models because of rapidly mounting coronavirus infections.

More than 80 school districts or charter networks have closed or delayed in-person classes for at least one entire school in more than a dozen states. Others have sent home whole grade levels or asked half their students to stay home on hybrid schedules.

The setbacks in mostly small, rural districts that were among the first to return dampen hopes for a sustained, widespread return to classrooms after two years of schooling disrupted by the pandemic.

When the school year ended last year, I was sure we were going to be going back to something relatively close to "normal." But then came Delta, with Lambda and who knows how many others on the horizon. Combined with vax resistance that is, infuriatingly, larger than I expected, and an anti-mask movement fueled largely by inanity on social media, it's clear this year will be anything but "normal."

Which means we've got to come to terms with remote learning; it's not going away any time soon, if ever. For all its faults -- and they are many -- remote learning is a schooling option that can and should be deployed if necessary as a public health measure. 

But the patchwork approach we're taking to remote learning isn't smart policy. We need to start delineating when and why we need remote learning, and then set standards for what it should be. We also need a clear-eyed acknowledgment of the challenges inherent in implementing remote learning, including an accounting of what resources will be necessary to make it work.

I propose we start by laying out some scenarios for when schools will need remote learning:

1) The all-out emergency. This is the Spring of 2020 scenario all over again: a new health threat emerges that is so grave and/or uncertain we have no choice but to fully close down all schools. I think most of us acknowledge the chances are quite good this will happen again sometime in the not-too-distant-future.

What was lacking in early 2020 when we tried this for the first time? Universal broadband connectivity for all students and staff. Devices of high enough quality that instruction could be delivered. Curricular materials suitable for remote learning. Staff training in remote instruction. Student training. Parent training. Support infrastructure. Time flexibility to meet parent/student needs.

I'm leaving out a host of other things that aren't under the control of schools: adequate space for students at home, time off for parents, social services, etc. Remote learning doesn't work without them, but these are issues outside of education policy. And, arguably, so is broadband connectivity. It's clear the internet is now as indispensable to modern life as electricity, and high-speed access should be seen as a necessity.

Getting students devices is probably the easiest challenge to overcome: it's a matter of money and will, although supporting all those devices will require adequate staff. Developing high-quality instruction is another matter. I can see teacher prep programs developing entire courses on the subject, and on-going professional development for teachers will inevitably be focused on improving remote instruction. 

You can probably guess my feelings on this: we already ask an awful lot of teachers. Now we want them to be able to turn their practice on a dime, always ready to jump to another mode of instruction immediately and seamlessly. This means teachers will not only have to add remote instruction planning to their already jam-packed days; they will need to develop skill sets similar to the ones already in demand in other parts of the economy.

If we're going to have a school system that is able to transition to remote learning in an emergency, we're going to have to pony up. We need more resources, we need more staff, and we need to pay teachers for their extra time and the skills they will develop. There's just no way we do this on the cheap.

2) The local response. In this scenario, a local outbreak requires a temporary transition to remote learning for all students in a class, a school, or a district. In some ways, it's similar to the scenario above, except the participants are limited: other classrooms or schools carry on as usual.

The biggest difference I see between the local response and the all-out emergency is that totally going remote may not be the only option. A district or school may opt instead to implement a hybrid schedule, where students rotate their in-school and at-home days. Maybe all students attend in-school part of the day and learn remotely during another part. This was the case for many districts through the last school year, and I believe it's the most likely scenario for a local response to a pandemic.

The "good" news is that at least some of the preparation and planning for the all-out emergency can be transferred to the local response: broadband, devices, training, planning, etc. But, as I discuss below, there is a big difference between teaching everyone on-line and teaching some on-line, some in-person.

Again, adequate resources will be essential in providing accepted local responses. There is an obvious and clear connection between a school district's ability to provide hybrid instruction and its funding. Districts will not be able to provide acceptable remote learning models unless they have the resources to plan and implement them.

3) The individual response. Like everything else, America is divided on whether children should be back in school. Context matters a lot: people who might be comfortable sending their children to a school with mandatory masking may not want their child in a school without it. But even with strict mitigation in place, some families may see the risk to their child -- or other members of the family who are immunocompromised -- as too great.

In addition, a student who is exposed to the virus outside of school might need to quarantine for a while, even if they don't contract Covid. What sort of schooling should they be offered?

I see three possible responses. First, regular classrooms are set up to accommodate remote learners, essentially joining a regular class synchronously via Zoom or Google Meet or whatever. Second, separate schooling is provided to students that is entirely on-line and run by a teacher who only does on-line instruction. Third, some sort of combination of the two.

Each of these has its pros and cons. Teaching some students in-person and some on-line is really, really difficult. The classroom has to be set up to accommodate both sets of students. Lessons have to be planned so that everything students need at home is provided, and so delivery can take place simultaneously to remote and in-person kids. Some subjects -- PE, art, music, lab science -- are almost impossible to imagine being taught with both sets of students in sync. But in this model the students who are remote stay with their classmates and current teacher, which, if they return to live instruction, would make things easier.

Moving students to a separate class might work for those who make a long-term commitment to stay at home. One big advantage is that teachers who are immunocompromised, or who had family who were, would still have a place to teach. It's very difficult to imagine, however, a student who needed to quarantine for a short while benefitting from being temporarily placed into an entirely separate class with a teacher who had no prior experience with that student.

It's also worth noting the structure of school districts may make fully on-line classes harder or easier. Large districts may be able to set up and staff these classes more easily than smaller ones. Small districts may need to pool their resources to reach a critical mass where they can offer these classes.

Finally, it might make sense to have some sort of combination of the two. But no matter the mode of instruction, I believe there are several changes that would have to be made to make them work. Among them:

  • Class sizes will have to be lowered. You can't expect a teacher to give kids getting remote instruction the attention they need in a hybrid setting if the class is already too large. The cues teachers observe and react to during in-person instructions aren't available in remote learning. During hybrid instruction, their focus can't be distributed in the same way it is during in-person learning. Lowering class sizes is the best way to make sure teachers can respond to all of their students' needs in a mixed-mode setting.
  • Staff will need more planning time. If it's coordinating across classes or simply planning lessons with two modes of delivery, teachers can't be expected to add this to their plates without additional time to figure out how to make it work.

I'm not arguing here that remote instruction can't or shouldn't become a regular part of K12 schooling. I am laying out the challenges -- and I'm sure there are many more I haven't thought of -- to make the point that this will not be easy, more resources will be needed to make it happen, and this will take time

No one who knows how schools actually work could possibly think we can just rearrange a few schedules and buy a few more laptops and schools will be all set for remote instruction. But if this has to happen -- and I think it does -- we'd better start making plans for it now.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Jersey Jazzman

Jersey Jazzman is the pseudonym for Mark Weber, a New Jersey public school teacher and parent. He is the Special Analyst for Education Policy at the New Jersey Po...