The number of daily new COVID-19 cases reported across the U.S. has tripled since mid-June — and district and school leaders are taking notice. As of August 4, 35 of the top 50 school districts are now planning to begin the 2020-21 school year with fully remote learning.
Teaching and learning remotely is no small challenge and we have a lot to learn about how to do it well. But we do know that preparing for 100 percent remote instruction requires thinking differently about schedules, staffing and professional support for educators.
Regardless of where you currently are in the planning process, when you might end up transitioning back into hybrid and in-person models, or what those transitions will look like, here are five rules of thumb for school and district leaders to keep in mind as you create, assess and refine plans for fully-remote school:
1. Simplify the schedule. Living with a pandemic is complicated and unpredictable. Leaders can ease the pressure on families and educators by making school simpler and more predictable.
Each of the seven remote schedules included in our first round of COVID Comeback Models is designed to focus on the basics. That means consistent daily time for “face to face” instruction in both whole group and small group settings — particularly in core subjects like math and ELA. It also includes other informal touchpoints to help foster relationships among students and educators. Students will need consistent breaks for lunch and independent play. And where possible, especially in elementary school, students should only need to log in once for all instruction each day.
2. Maintain school-level structures. Leaders can reinforce predictability and belonging by maintaining structures at the individual school level, rather than having the day-to-day implementation of remote learning take place at the district level. This can help to minimize the potential for disruption when it comes time to phase back into in-person school.
For example, in most cases, schools have the resources needed to staff 100 percent remote models, with opportunities to assign staff and determine roles even more strategically than before. But there are exceptions — leaders in some districts may need to pool resources collectively across schools to sustain certain course offerings (especially at the high school level); leaders in other districts may use this school year to initiate longer-term strategic moves, such as creating a districtwide virtual school.
Not only do approaches that lean on existing school-level structures for day-to-day implementation set the groundwork for smoother transitions later in the school year, they also help maintain continuity in relationships among students, families, and staff. Time spent 100 percent remotely is an opportunity for individual schools to identify and refine ways for engaging families that can be preserved even after school begins to return to normal.
3. Leverage what makes remote school different to best support students and teachers. In spite of the challenges, fully remote school opens up new opportunities to support students and accelerate learning. For example, multiple certified and classified staff can push into online “classrooms” for small-group intervention blocks. Remote models also allow teachers to hold office hours, where they can provide flexible, individualized support to students. Daily virtual community circles and regular “care team” check-ins make it possible for adults to provide targeted social-emotional support for individual students.
Teaching online is meaningfully different from teaching in-person, so it’s as important as ever for remote school models to organize for Connected Professional Learning, including weekly 90-minute collaboration blocks. Fortunately, these become easier to schedule and sustain in a remote model: for example, teachers could collaborate for an extended period of time after teaching four sessions, since their planning time no longer has to be squeezed into periods where students have another adult-supervised activity.
4. Rethink traditional staff assignments. Not all traditional roles fit easily into a remote model, but each educator still has an important role to play in helping students learn and thrive. Without pressure to “cover” students during lunch, planning periods, and arrival/dismissal, remote school creates more space for more staff to support students’ instructional needs. Examples of new roles for remote school are outlined in the System Conditions guidance recently released by the Council of Chief State School Officers; others are sure to emerge based on leaders’ creativity and strategic thinking during this unprecedented school year.
5. Be thoughtful about phasing back into reopening. Early on, many assumed that schools would spend the 2020-21 school year toggling back and forth among remote, in-person, and hybrid models from week to week. But schools, like most institutions, are more likely to need a “close fast, open slow” approach — “close fast” means being prepared to go fully remote if the local health situation deteriorates; “open slow” means being thoughtful about transitioning back to in-person school.
For example, for the many districts starting the school year fully remote, an “open slow” approach first entails committing to the fully remote model for a set period of time, such as a full grading period. It then involves continuously monitoring local public health conditions and back-timing any feasible milestones for transitioning to in-person school — for example, measuring family and educator readiness to return three to four weeks before a potential opening date.
Fully remote school is about to become reality again for millions of students, teachers, and families. It isn’t easy for districts and schools to organize resources to support remote school — but with thoughtful approaches, leaders can craft approaches ease pressure on families, foster community, support teachers, and give all students a better chance at success during these uniquely challenging times.
In the coming weeks, we will continue to share what we’re learning about planning and implementing remote school models. In the meantime, visit our COVID-19 Toolkit for Districts and Schools and identify the most pressing areas for your school or district this school year.