Navigating the Journey to Remote Learning: Tips for School Districts

This post originally appeared on Eric Sheninger's blog, A Principal's Reflections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted the world in ways that many of us have never seen or could have predicted. Social distancing has quickly become the thing to do and will soon be the cultural norm. Gone are handshakes and fist bumps, replaced by conversations at a distance of six feet or more or through tools like FaceTime. The world has moved from business as usual to business as unusual. In some cases, life as we have become accustomed to has come to a screaming halt. In my hometown of Houston, bars and restaurants have closed for 15 days, which has been a trend occurring across the world to limit the spread of the virus.

The ripple effect has impacted schools across the globe. Many have already shuttered their doors for weeks, while others have opted for months and even indefinite amounts of time. Teachers, principals, district administrators, and other support staff have now been thrust into uncharted territory and are facing unpredictable challenges. My heart and respect go out to all of them for working to navigate through this crisis. I cannot overstate that they all need our support and patience right now.

Prior to the coronavirus turning into a pandemic, school districts began preparing, and others are now following suit with ways to provide instruction and learning for who knows how long. I am not in a position, nor is anyone who doesn’t work in a school or district, to tell anyone what they should or must do. However, I do know one thing, and that is that there is no one right or wrong way to develop realistic strategies for remote learning. The right way is your way that aligns with your vision, mission, and available resources. Below I will offer some of my ideas, knowing full well that they don’t represent a silver bullet.

However, it is essential to focus on remote learning versus distance learning or virtual learning. In my mind, there is a clear distinction. Distance and virtual are appropriate where all kids have access to a device and the internet. Remote, on the other hand, focuses on both digital and non-digital pathways to keep realistic learning going. I must emphasize the need to be realistic as this rests on the mere fact that most teachers have never been adequately trained in this area. Whereas parents and guardians have to be patient and understanding with teachers, the same can be said in terms of administrators and the expectations that they place on their staff.

Here are some ideas I have.

• Get a plan in place: If there isn’t a plan, be proactive regardless of your position. Provide guidance and support to teachers and administrators while reassuring them that there is no one right or wrong way to go about remote learning. The best way is your way. Once a plan is in place, convey it to parents, guardians, and other stakeholders. The Mount Olive Township School District in New Jersey, under the leadership of superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki, has been way ahead of the curve.  You can check out their entire plan here.

• Come to a consensus as to what is feasible in the community where you work: Provide devices and mobile Wi-Fi, if possible. In the case of the latter, this is what the Mount Olive School District did. Equity matters more than ever. 

In Mount Olive, school officials were initially doubtful that the district could support virtual learning. Then, they hatched a last-minute plan. The district distributed 1,300 Chromebooks to its middle school students and decided to pay $4,600 to provide wireless access for any student who didn’t have it at home. “We have achieved equality of online access in a week,” Superintendent Robert Zywicki said. “Boom. Mic drop.”

• Develop a manageable workload and time limit for learners: As this is new to everyone, piling on too much work will be counterproductive.

• Don’t put the responsibility on parents for students in Grades 5 and above: Our youngest learners will need some help and guidance, especially if their elementary schools have not been 1:1 or Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Parents are juggling an equal amount of challenges and pressure. Asking them to take on this added responsibility will very well push some over the edge.

• Shy away from low-level packets and worksheets: These aren’t an effective practice in school and thus shouldn’t be a go-to as a means to validate a remote learning plan.

• Use playlists and choice boardsThese have quickly become a high-agency, pedagogically sound strategy to personalize learning in school, and can be adapted as part of a remote learning plan.

• Suggest lots of independent reading: You really can’t go wrong here.

• Determine how feedback will be given once school reopens: In the case of districts and schools that have limited digital resources, it defeats the purpose of assigning lessons and work if kids don’t know how they did upon their return. Notice I am not saying to grade the work. There are too many variables outside the control of teachers that would make grading anything completed during an extended school closure fair. Feedback is often a more powerful conduit to learning than grades anyway.

• Use Google Voice for parents and guardians to ask questions and get needed advice: It is free, easy to set up, and masks your real phone number. Voxer can also be used. If technology is available and equity has been ensured, take some of these ideas into account.

• Consider a balance between synchronous and asynchronous: Facilitating lessons using live video is excellent. However, with these chaotic times, learners might not be able to tune in at a specific time each day. Asynchronous options such as flipped lessons and self-paced assignments have the added bonus of teaching kids how to manage their time and develop a greater sense of responsibility. PK–12 students can even go through a pre-set schedule using Khan Academy, with access available here.

• Fully utilize a learning management system (LMS) if one is in place: If you or your staff use Google Classroom, Canvas, Schoology, or another LMS routinely in the classroom, then this is a logical decision. Plus, kids are already used to logging on, completing assignments, and receiving feedback.

• Develop the means for real engagement: Within the LMS, a slew of digital tools can be included for backchanneling, collaboration, checks for understanding, and creation. To assist, check out the resources in this post

• Make the time for digital check-ins with learners: Consider having virtual office hours or use communication tools embedded in each LMS. 

I also tried to articulate this information in a video, which you can view below.


Consistent communication is vital for the success of any remote learning plan. Digital leadership compels all of us to meet our stakeholders where they are and engage in two-way communication when possible. Now more than ever, this is crucial in keeping everyone’s sanity. Think about what tools your community, including students, regularly uses, and blend with traditional means.

When the dust settles, and after reflection, educators will have a much better idea of what worked and what didn’t. From there, districts and schools can begin to put in place professional learning plans that transform practices in the classroom that can be used for remote learning if the need arises. 

For more ideas, follow #remotelearning on social media.

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To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources. You can also view free 20-minute webinars from the International Center for Leadership in Education—a division of HMHin partnership with The School Superintendents Association for advice and strategies on the most critical issues education leaders are facing during this time.

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