Is It Time for A Permanent Remote Learning Contingency?

From June through October each year, my family waits for “The Big One.” My husband is a weather buff by interest, but also part of the team that plans for and responds to hurricanes and tropical storms for our coastal city. When the kids were small, he created a full-wall chalkboard hurricane map on their wall, where we track any storms that come our way. (Pictured here is Tropical Storm Omar, may he RIP.)

For a time, both my husband and I were city employees – he a firefighter and I a coordinator in our local school system’s central office. Our paths did not cross professionally, except when it came to disaster preparation. When “The Big One” DOES come, both of us will have colleagues at the table to discuss how a storm could hypothetically affect our city. Recently, my husband mentioned a potential benefit of the COVID pandemic on schools: the ability to move quickly into a remote learning scenario if need be. 

 

I just read an article in ASCD Educational Leadership called What School Leadership Looks Like in the Era of Extreme Heat. Friends and family have been affected by wildfires in the West, flooding in the South, and Hurricane Ida in the Northeast. As a mom of young, unvaccinated sons in a city that argued over whether or not kids should have to wear masks almost until school opened for the fall, COVID-related closures were already top of mind. As with many topics in this era of living, working, parenting, and educating, this is one that overwhelms me: What if this feeling of uncertainty is forever? What if COVID lingers, but even after it clears, climate-related disasters or other unexpected events become the norm? Why DON’T we have a coordinated remote learning plan that every parent at every dinner table is aware of?

 

I’m a firm believer in Circle of Control/Circle of Influence thinking in times of stress. As a freelance educator and mother, I have limited influence and can’t control much about the state of public education or the systemic decision making of my local school district. I have plenty of opinions, of course, and a long list of preparations we could make at the organizational level, such as:

  • Remote learning “drills” on scheduled staff days to prepare students, teachers, and caregivers, just like any other emergency plan
  • Required off days built in as a default at the beginning and end of remote learning for teachers, families, employers, and service providers like food and transportation to adjust
  • Clear expectations and contingency plans written into employment agreements for all workers who have children as part of HR onboarding (including, and perhaps modeled by school district employees who have children so other employers can follow suit).
  • Asynchronous plans for the first two weeks of remote learning that are ready to deploy at any moment, created by diverse teams of educators, so teachers have time to create additional plans for their students
  • A suite of familiar and clear tools that everyone knows will be used, both in person and remotely
  • Added systems of support for students, caregivers, and teachers who are most vulnerable to social, physical, and/or economic instability
  • A much shorter remote learning schedule compared to a regular school day with flexible options, less like a “school” day, and more conducive to the myriad of situations students, teachers, and caregivers find themselves in, thoughtfully planned before an emergency arises

 

Unfortunately, these bullet items are well outside my sphere of influence or control, concerned as I may be about them. I can, however, prepare for the permanent possibility of remote learning in a few key ways. I want to share them here to show how a self-authoring parent, teacher, leader, or advocate can proactively prepare for events beyond their control at a time when control seems hard to come by. Let’s explore what I – or anyone else who serves in the same roles as me – can do:

 

Parent

 

My son’s teacher sent a note home this week suggesting replacing the “what did you do in school today?” question with questions focused on social-emotional learning, placing a premium on the benefits of the in-person learning experience. On our walk home from the bus stop, we now talk about:

 

  • Did you work in a group today? What was fun about that? What was challenging?
  • Did you share an idea in class today? How did it go? 
  • Who did you talk to most today?
  • Did you make any mistakes as you worked today? What did you do about it? 
  • What are you most proud of today?

 

These kinds of questions show my kids what our family values about in-person learning. The questions can and will shift if we return to virtual learning, which has its own benefits and can be the center of our conversations.

 

We are also working on celebrating learning that happens outside of school, calling it out whenever we see it. Yesterday, I challenged my older son to figure out the differences in scoring between his two fantasy football leagues, predicting the score of a player if they were in the other league, then looking up the results to see if he was correct. We talked about the math skills involved and how proud we are of his agility, using the skills he learns in school in meaningful ways. My younger son, who is an emerging reader, practiced his letters while jumping off the diving board. I would say a word and he would guess the next letter by doing a jump making his body into the shape of the letter. We talked about patterns, like vowels that usually come after consonants, as he worked to spell each word. These types of activities give me (and them!) confidence that learning can occur anywhere, any time, even if schooling conditions change.

 

I am also working to establish meaningful and human relationships with my sons’ teachers. Quick notes of appreciation, sharing their great ideas on social media, asking questions as soon as they arise, and challenging my sons to uncover new understanding of their teachers all go a long way toward establishing a firm partnership in preparation for a changing learning environment.

 

If you are a parent, what is within your control? What can you do to prepare your children for remote learning?

 

Teacher

 

While I am not a traditional classroom teacher, I do find myself in the position of teaching quite a bit. There are steps I can take personally to model behavior I think could be helpful to my teaching colleagues. For example, I like to share lessons in student ownership – ways activities can be as autonomous as possible, encouraging teachers to explicitly provide feedback on successes and challenges their students face as they attempt to learn alone. Remote learning is the ultimate lesson in transfer; when kids are at home in a variety of circumstances, often learning without an adult guiding every step, can they still manage their routines? Can they demonstrate skill? Can they use what they learned previously to meaningfully engage with new material? Teachers should heed these questions.

 

In-person learning should not be taken for granted while we have it. The most important benefit of face-to-face learning is efficiency in building relationships. This should be the core focus of in-person instruction. The investment of time is well worth the benefits in the long run. This was always the case, but even more so now. Teachers who get to know each student individually and the class as a unit have absolute advantage in remote learning. Many did not get the chance to build these relationships in person last year. Let’s take advantage of the time we have together whenever we can.

 

In addition, teachers can choose a core set of technology tools to use consistently, explaining to students what the tool is for and how to use it so they can seamlessly continue learning if they are no longer in the classroom. Classes can practice “remote learning” in school during station activities. Teachers can monitor student activity and provide individual feedback to ensure success. 

 

If you are a teacher, what is within your control? How can you prepare your students for remote learning?

 

Leader

 

As a leader of educators, one of the best things I can do is help others invest in inquiry-based learning strategies that have meaning and value well beyond the current measures of “success” in schools. Kids who can use transferable skills in meaningful ways are more successful in life. Whether in person or remote, pedagogy that engages students at increasing levels of complexity in these skills will have enormous impact on their future success. It is very difficult to establish inquiry-based learning strategies like Project-Based Learning (PBL) in a remote-only environment, but not quite so difficult to transition to PBL if routines, expectations, celebrations, and feedback have already taken place in person. Establishing inquiry-based learning as a priority well before remote learning is necessary can ease the transition and ensure students have meaningful learning experiences that lead to results, no matter what. Focusing on traditional standardized tests or trying to cover hundreds of standards will never touch the kind of results students and their teachers enjoy if they focus on meaningful, authentic learning, both in person and remotely.

 

If you are a leader, what can you invest in now to improve remote learning?

 

Advocate

 

As an advocate for sustainable improvement of public education, it is important that I use my voice in meaningful and productive ways. There is a lot of noise out there, but it is often fear-based and focused on the current moment. I am choosing, for my own sanity, to focus on forward-thinking improvements. For example, a huge challenge of widespread remote learning is equitable distribution of childcare, food, and broadband access. Let’s not solve this problem over and over again in each locality each time we return to remote learning. Let’s instead establish long-term solutions and communitywide prioritization of making sure kids are cared for, fed, and able to access remote learning resources. This likely means not expecting schools to shoulder the burden of solving childcare issues. Here are a few things I consistently speak up about:

 

  • Employer-focused childcare contingencies – How can employers create plans with and for their employees to ensure adequate supervision and support of children when inevitable schedule changes occur? Can we shift our focus on “work hours” to “work products” that show respect and trust to employees? More than pay, this kind of treatment will motivate workers to choose and stick with jobs where they aretreated as whole people. A great place to start? Public schools. We can model this behavior for school employees by putting together design thinking groups that can  think through what this kind of strategy could look like in the long term. 
  • Broadband as a public utility – It is not up to schools to solve the problem of inequitable internet access. Now that students AND employees are facing the possibility of regular and prolonged work-from-home situations, we need to invest in broadband for all, just like we do clean water, waste management, electricity access, and other community services. Citywide task forces that include school officials focused on this transition, but do not require schools to solve the problem alone could go a long way toward making sure all families can successfully work and learn from home. 
  • Incentives and hazard pay for “essential workers” adaptable by challenge – Depending on the disaster or challenge, “essential” workers will likely change, but most often the folks in service industries are needed the most. We need to reprioritize not only how we treat and pay people who work to make sure our basic needs are safely, efficiently, and equitably met, but we also need to pay close attention to the pipeline into these industries. What are we unintentionally expressing to young people who may be considering these jobs? If we are showing them lack of regard, respect, and reward in these positions, we could be in long-term danger of shortages in multiple key areas. 

The world is heavy right now. We are facing the ultimate combination of messy, complex problems. It can be overwhelming and demoralizing. When I feel myself sinking into despair, it helps me to write and share what I think we can do next to build back better. If it helps you too, I hope you’ll share some ideas in the comments or on social media so we can keep this hopeful conversation moving forward.

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