August 7, 2020

Learning From National Innovators Part 3: Educating Students During COVID-19

By Krista Kaput

Right now, schools and districts across Minnesota are building their own, unique back-to-school plan. While this allows a customized approach based on the local COVID-19 situation, student and family needs, and school infrastructure realities, it also means that we will see a lot of variation in the quality of plans. Decision-makers should be learning from promising models across the country, and families and advocates should hold them accountable for implementing them. 

Here, we highlight some of the latest promising innovations from districts and state departments across the country. In the coming weeks, we’ll report back on what we’re seeing as local Minnesota plans are released.

Ensuring Rigor Across Models 

In California, the state legislature enacted a number of new distance learning requirements to address gaps that emerged and were exacerbated in the spring. Districts must align distance learning with grade-level standards, provide tailored support to students who are behind, and provide daily live interaction for teaching, monitoring progress, and maintaining relationships—which can happen online or over the phone. Teachers are also required to communicate with parents about student learning progress. 

Rhode Island’s Reopening Planning Template requires schools to offer comparable levels of rigor between online and in-person instruction. This involves teachers providing “live” instruction both at home and in-person, as well as using Google Meets so that all students can take an active role in learning, regardless of their location. 

Rhode Island also requires districts to develop a plan for assessing student learning progress and learning loss, and then identify and implement appropriate interventions to ensure all student needs are met—particularly students with special needs and English Learners. 

Supporting Vulnerable Learners through Hybrid Models

A hybrid model doesn’t have to mean two days in-person and three days online. It can also mean offering limited, prioritized in-person services to meet the needs of traditionally underserved students and family work situations. For example, charter schools in New York are planning to prioritize in-person learning for younger learners, students with special needs, and those who face barriers to distance learning challenges at home. New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities IV plans to have most students attend school in-person at least once a week, while creating the opportunity for students with special needs—as well as those who struggle with distance learning—to attend in-person four times a week. On Wednesdays, both staff and students participate in distance learning so that advisors can contact families and host office hours. 

East Harlem Scholars Academies plans to start with distance learning and then transition to hybrid learning towards the end of September. While students are in distance learning, they will have full online schedules from 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM that mirror their in-person schedules. East Harlem did this so: 

  • Students would understand that distance learning days are still school days and should be treated as such; and 
  • Full schedules take the burden off parents, caregivers, and siblings.

When East Harlem does transition to the hybrid model, they will focus on welcoming younger learners and students with special needs in order to better accommodate parent work schedules, since many of them work service or hourly wage jobs. 

Using Diagnostics to Measure and Address Learning Loss 

Many states, like Rhode Island mentioned above, will require some assessment of learning to identify gaps and academic needs as students return to school. The Louisiana Department of Education (LDE) has developed one of the most robust plans, where schools will assess student learning needs by:

  • Administering appropriate screening or diagnostic assessments;
  • Analyzing student results and then communicating each student’s readiness with their parents; and 
  • Addressing gaps in learning within grade-level work. 

LDE also offered guidance to schools on how they can support learning loss and requires districts to create individualized support plans for students so they can reach grade-level standards. 

Missouri is also taking action to gauge student learning loss—or growth—that was experienced due to spring COVID-19 school closures, and they are dedicating $10 million in federal CARES Act funding to the effort. They are working to create an assessment tool to be used not for accountability, but rather to help educators better understand where their students are academically and how they can best support them. 

Tutoring and Extended Days to Accelerate Learning

The Newark Board of Education’s plan indicated that they will utilize teachers and support staff to accelerate learning for students by focusing on grade-level content and using the following strategies: 

  • Saturday academies, which would provide an additional 6th day of school; 
  • Extended school day for tutoring; and 
  • Extra support during the school day. 
Meeting the Needs of English Learners 

Santa Ana Unified School District’s reopening plan specifies how the EL department will support teachers in developing deeper and more extended lessons for distance or hybrid learning, naming that they will work to ensure students develop their English language skills while also promoting the preservation of their primary language. The plan includes the following components: 

  • Having an explicit focus on precise, rich academic language development in all curricular areas; 
  • Access to audio instructions, videos, and images to support learners; and 
  • Using digital choice boards that align with the Universal Design for Learning Framework during asynchronous instruction. 
Meeting Students’ Social-Emotional Needs 

Baltimore City Public Schools expanded upon existing social-emotional learning (SEL) efforts to develop lesson plans aligned with grade groupings and weekly themes like connection or courage. Teachers facilitate these lessons, which can be as simple as check-in prompts or breathing techniques, at the start of virtual meetings with K-12 students. There are also point people who call at least 20 families each day to ensure ongoing touchpoints from the school and conduct Google Classroom “office hours” daily to keep up connections with students.

Closing the Digital Divide

In response to feedback from stakeholders who identified universal internet as a top issue, the Maine Department of Education (MDE) secured internet and devices for 100% of families with school-aged children who reported a need. This required securing nearly 14,500 wifi-enabled tablets and 7,500 Chromebooks. MDE was also able to order MiFia wireless router that acts as a mobile WiFi hotspotto fulfill internet-only needs. 

In Connecticut, the Governor’s COVID-19 Learn From Home Task Force conducted a statewide survey to determine student engagement, connectivity, and participation in distance learning. From this survey, the Task Force identified and coordinated the distribution of 60,000 devices to the districts where less than 60% of students had a one-to-one device at school. 

And, in South Carolina three local agencies worked together to distribute mobile hotspots and monthly internet to at least 100,000 families with students in K-12 or college if they are below 250% of the federal poverty line. 

Read other pieces in the Learning from National Innovators series: