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Returning to Distance Learning: What

Returning to Distance Learning: What's Different This Time?

Teachers  |  Virtual Learning  |  School Leadership

A known unknown is a question we are certain exists, but whose answer we are confident we cannot answer. This paradox pretty accurately sums up how many educators entered into this school year. We knew we might return to distance learning and we knew that no one could say whether that would happen, and if so, when. As COVID infection rates and hospitalizations rise across the country, the unknown answer becomes clearer; for some of us, returning to distance learning for some amount of time will happen. 

AND there is good reason to assume that distance learning will be significantly better today than it was last year. This is not a new experience for educators, students, and families. Our understanding of best practices, expectations, and support systems put us in a good position to ensure learning continues regardless of the physical distance between students and teachers.

There are three critical reasons that distance learning will be different (and better) this time:

  • Less ambiguity means students will learn more
  • Greater understanding of how to support students
  • More urgency and agency to address hardships

Less ambiguity means students will learn more

When schools closed last year, we had no idea when, how, or if we would reopen. For many states, time out of school was a moving target that continued to be extended until it was clear distance learning would be in place until the school year ended. Many educators decided to focus on reviewing content students had already been taught rather than teach new material. We were still learning how to conduct class from a distance and with so much ambiguity about the school year, we decided to focus on reinforcing content rather than introduce yet another variable into class time.

This year is different because there is precedent for how to phase back into in-person learning which makes teaching new material more meaningful. We know how to phase-in and phase-out of in-person learning. The indicators and processes we use to return to distance learning are the same ones that will tell us when and how to return to in-person learning. Because we know that learning will continue, both in-person and from a distance, there is good reason for teachers to keep to their pacing guides as much as possible. Distance learning isn’t an indefinite pause, it’s something we phase-into and phase-out of. Therefore, learning new material has good reason to continue for the benefit of students right now and for when we see them back in our classrooms.

Greater understanding of how to support students

Recently, during a breakout session, a colleague asked a group of district leaders, “What data do you have now, that you didn’t have before?” Overwhelmingly, the district leaders in the group shared how they, and the teachers they support, have a much better grasp of and level of empathy for students’ day-to-day lives and realities. While a few district leaders did share greater visibility into when and how students access online platforms, most shared things like knowing what students’ home lives look and feel like, a better understanding of the support they have (or do not have) at home, and a better understanding of what is and is not engaging for students during synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Educators have had months of practice using online meeting platforms like Zoom, Teams, and Hangouts. They have also built greater comfort with using LMS applications and other tools for communicating learning expectations and organizing learning resources for students and families. Though there is much room for improvement, there is more clarity now, compared to last spring, as to the purpose and role of the various applications in each school’s portfolio.  

With greater empathy for students and their lives combined with increased fluency with virtual meeting platforms and web-based instructional technologies, educators are much better equipped to design and lead meaningful distance learning with students.

More urgency and agency to address hardships

Unlike last spring, distance learning is not being positioned as an amorphous fill-in for “real” in-person learning. Parents expect distance learning to help their children progress and make academic gains. Many families continue to extend grace and are patient with schools, but not at the expense of their child making reading gains or preparing for an AP exam. This does not mean that distance learning must mirror in-person learning, but it does mean that the transition to distance learning should happen swiftly, with time dedicated to revisiting or reinforcing routines and procedures upfront so the focus can quickly move to student growth.

Part of what will enable educators to do this are more clear expectations. Last spring, in many systems, the amount of time students should spend online – whether for live classes, collaboration, or independent work – was unclear or inconsistent. This time around, districts and schools have taken the time to define these expectations and set up basic structures for monitoring that they are met. In the transition back to distance learning, it is critical that leaders and teachers take the time to revisit these expectations and communicate them to students and families.

For many, returning to distance learning brings up a lot of bad memories. We have the experience, practices, and systems to ensure this year is different. Putting that experience to work will ensure that meaningful learning happens throughout the entire school year, regardless of where our students are.


Some of our most popular distance-learning resources:

About Noah Dougherty and Justin de Leon

Noah Dougherty is an Associate Partner at Education Elements who loves supporting schools to design student-centered learning experiences that are transformative and culturally responsive. He has partnered with districts across the country to work on strategic planning; personalized learning; curriculum adoption; return to school planning; and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Justin de Leon is a Partner and joined Education Elements in 2012. He began his career in education teaching English at Brownsville Middle School in Miami-Dade. In his first year, he shifted from a traditional model to a blended model as a way to personalize and saw management issues disappear and achievement increase. During several school years, Justin worked with Teach for America to provide mentoring, coaching and professional development to ELA corps members. After moving to the west coast, he gained experience in the charter world while teaching ELA at KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose, CA.

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