Many of the nation’s schools are now closed—some indefinitely—leaving educators and communities with more questions than answers. Chief among them: How will families and students cope with closures? And how can schools roll out effective remote learning plans in a short amount of time?
While it’s tempting to fret about how students will learn, and what online tools will make that possible, all that should take a backseat to something more important: their mental health and wellbeing, says Reshan Richards, director of studies at New Canaan Country School in Connecticut and a board member of Global Learning Academy.
The long-term health of the institution—like our society—will be better off if [mental health] becomes the priority. We’ll figure out the math, we’ll figure out Hamlet and the Odyssey.
“If your online school gets delayed by two weeks because you’re solving the mental health question, then I think your energy’s in the right place,” he said. “The long-term health of the institution—like our society—will be better off if that becomes the priority. We’ll figure out the math, we’ll figure out Hamlet and the Odyssey.”
Reshan was among the guests during an hour-long, interactive webinar, Understanding the Impact of Coronavirus on K-12 Education, hosted by EdSurge and ISTE, our parent organization. This will be a recurring weekly series on Fridays 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET.
Other speakers included Melissa Dodd, the chief technology officer for San Francisco Unified, and Diana Neebe, director of teacher development at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, Calif.
Listen to the audio below or check out the full video on YouTube. You’ll find a partial, condensed transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: Should schools be prioritizing home internet access for remote learning right now?
Reshan Richards: I think if your school is asking about connectivity at home, we hope you’ve already addressed all other dimensions about what schools provide for students—whether it’s food, safety or supervision.
But let’s assume that you’re at that point where the planning for that is in place. Give your school permission to phase out. What that means is that the first two weeks of school doesn’t have to look like the next two weeks, which doesn’t have to look like the two weeks after that.
In your first two weeks, if you’re planning a lot more disconnected, offline, asynchronous, self-paced, at-home lessons—that’s okay. That’s what you plan on. And then your school and leadership can focus on whether you want to extend learning using any kind of online platforms and making sure that you are creating the conditions where everybody has access to it. So the focus then could be on, what could we do for connectivity? What resources locally, regionally, nationally are making themselves available? But build yourself time to plan that.
Don’t think you have to go from zero to fully online, high-tech, digital, remote school just because an announcement is made.
We’re thinking about the social-emotional wellbeing of the child. What are the ways that we can foster points of connection?
Diana, you helped create a well-regarded, widely-shared digital learning plan. What needs to go in these plans? What are things that can probably be left off?
Diana Neebe: My colleague Joy Lopez and I drafted our Flexible Plan for Instructional Continuity, which is available for anybody who wants to use it as a resource, or use it in whole. It’s available under a Creative Commons license. We welcome you to use it.
When thinking about the digital learning plan itself, I’m thinking: What is essential? At the teacher level, I’ve been talking with colleagues all day for the last few days about: What am I actually going to translate online? What am I going to keep? And what we’re talking about is lesson planning one-on-one. What are the things that you know students absolutely have to be able to know and do by the time that they get out of your class, and what is essential in planning to get them there? If it’s not on that list, cut it. I would leave off anything that’s going to add stress right now, such as high-stakes assessments.
Also, we’re thinking about the social-emotional wellbeing of the child. What are the ways that we can foster points of connection?
We’ve got so many great questions about, what exactly constitutes being present for an online class? What if we’re completely asynchronous? Then, how do I tell the school that a student isn’t showing up, and what if a kid’s falling through the cracks? I would encourage schools to think really carefully about the basics that we always consider as a whole institution—attendance, participation, getting kids into class, what they need to know and do—and then how that translates to the individual teachers. From there, think about setting some boundaries.
In our case, we’re asking teachers to give students two assignments, spread out over the week, so that they can get a check in and get a sense that students are following through. Our counseling team is going to be sending out weekly emails to ask teachers: Are there any students that you’re very concerned about for their social, emotional state? We’re trying to catch kids in the ways that we would normally do in the halls.
How do you use these first few weeks off to get into a routine?
Richards: One of the most important things, especially in initial communications, is to give a clear sense of when to expect the next communication. When you don’t have these regular physical movement touch points, people really want to have a sense of when they can expect the next official communication with next steps. I think it’s helpful for families to know the type of routine, what their kid is doing Monday through Friday.
This doesn’t mean you try to replicate the school schedule. But recognize they’re used to being around a bunch of other 7-year-olds at 8:30 a.m., so that is something that has now been subtracted. Recognize that they’re used to a certain rhythm and cadence to the day.
One thing schools could do is suggest to families the types of things that you do at school. So, telling parents: Here’s something that you can do at home. It doesn’t require anything technical. Even if it’s simple: maybe you play a card game and then you read a book. It’s not because it’s going to accelerate their learning or promote their academic excellence, but because children will feel safety and comfort in that familiarity and routine. And that’s the priority.
If you think about this period that we’re in, we’re bridging between a time when school is closed and when school is reopening. We’re not necessarily trying to substitute the full experience, but to recognize that in this ambiguous period where the end point might be moving, what we can do best is help students feel a sense of safety, a sense of connection and familiarity. Schools can educate families who are going to be the primary caregivers in many cases of how to best serve students’ needs.
Melissa, tell us about San Francisco Unified’s approach.
Melissa Dodd: We have been in deep planning mode. With serving such a large diverse community, equity is at our foundation, and we know that while some of our families have access to technology and internet at home, not all do. Our guidance to schools has been around non-digital as our primary focus.
We do have a couple of middle schools that do have one-to-one [device] take-home programs with internet access through the Digital Promise Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program. We’re working with those schools a little differently. We’re really personalizing it for each individual school, and thinking about what’s appropriate also by grade span. We are not looking at a district-wide online distance learning model because of all of the conditions and factors that need to be considered. Our primary focus is the health and safety of our students and families.
What might an offline strategy look like?
Dodd: We’re working on that now, soo it’s in progress. We recommended that school leaders send students home with materials, reading resources, books from the classroom library, books from their school library so that there’s reading taking place. Teachers I know have been working on instructional packets. We’ve partnered with our curriculum and instruction division to develop more teacher-facing supports and resources organized by grade level and content area, so that they have lesson recommendations, lesson arcs and frames that they can take and adapt. Those are publicly available now on our website.
And then for our schools that do have one-to-one device programs, or can guarantee both technology and internet access at home, we do have a guide for them around preparing for digital distance learning. I’m using the tools and platforms that we have in the district.
How do schools prioritize mental wellbeing right now?
Reshan Richards: It might be figuring out the close networks or clusters of people around a child or a family to make sure that more proactive check-ins are happening. And maybe from a sense of prioritization, if the school has a high percentage of students or families who need that, maybe that is what takes priority over figuring out what video conferencing solution we are going to use.
Again, I can’t say it enough: If your online school gets delayed by two weeks because you’re solving the mental health question, then I think your energy’s in the right place. The long-term health of the institution—like our society—will be better off if that becomes the priority. We’ll figure out the math, we’ll figure out Hamlet and the Odyssey. That’ll be all right. It’s all of these other things that school provides that you can’t diminish and you can’t create online.