School Districts Face the Pandemic: Traditional or Remote Learning?

Middletown CT classroom

Photo: Students return to in-person learning at Van Buren Moody Elementary School in Middletown, Connecticut. (Courtesy of Jennifer Cannata)

Across the country, teachers, principals, administrators, and students have begun—or are just beginning—the 2020–2021 academic year. The return to school takes place in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to be a major presence and affect the daily lives of millions of Americans. In each state, school districts have implemented back-to-school plans designed to best serve the needs of their communities. Depending on those needs, these plans have called for in-person attendance, remote learning, or a hybrid model.

Shaped reached out to several districts to discuss how the re-entry process has gone for them thus far. We spoke to:

  • Dr. Steve Flynt, Associate Superintendent for School Improvement and Operations, Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, Georgia (serving approximately 176,000 students)

  • Dr. Michael Conner, Superintendent of Middletown Public Schools, in Middletown, Connecticut (serving approximately 4,800 students)

  • Dr. Jesus Jara, Superintendent of Clark County School District, in Las Vegas, Nevada (serving more than 300,000 students)

  • Dr. William Hite, Superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (serving around 200,000 students)

Each official also described the challenges they've faced since the school year began and what they've learned along the way that will help prepare them for whatever lies ahead.

Plans of Action

Gwinnett County, the 12th-largest school district in the United States, began the new school year on August 12 with all students learning remotely, and then took a phased-in approach to in-person learning and a return to the buildings. Last semester, the district had gone all-remote on March 12 and immediately created a pandemic task force. Once the semester ended, according to Superintendent Flynt, the district convened the team "and really started planning from that day to get to where we are today, using what we learned from last semester."

Throughout the summer, district leaders held weekly meetings on Zoom with all of the principals and got their input on the re-entry plan, which followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the local health department. "[We started out by] discussing kindergarten because obviously, our kindergarteners, they needed the instruction the most," Flynt says. "They hadn't really had formal schooling as such, so we thought, we've got to get them in as soon as possible, to start that learning and get them acclimated to the process."

With the staggered re-entry schedule for 2020–2021, students in Grades K, 1, 6, and 9 returned to the physical classroom environment on August 26. The following week, Grades 2, 3, 7, and 10 were added. On September 9, all grades were back to attending school in person­­—though the district did offer full-time remote learning to any families that preferred it.

Collins Hill HS BTS 0910 0237

Once the decision was made to begin the year with an all-digital strategy, the goal was to build in a solid structure. "At the end of last year, we saw students and teachers working at all times of the day," Flynt says. "It was not uncommon for teachers to work late into the evening and try to get in touch with parents. ... We started out this year fully on schedule. Students went to class on time. All of our schools are a little different as far as the way they schedule, but if they have a six-period day, they progress through the day. Students go to each class, and we expect an engaging, synchronous type of lesson from the teacher to the student, so the students can interact with each other and with the teacher and there are meaningful activities."

For Middletown, a hybrid model was adopted and classes began on September 3. The district placed students in three cohorts: A, B, and C. Cohort A goes to school on Mondays and Thursdays, B on Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are a synchronous distance learning day for all students, while teachers engage in professional learning. Cohort C is comprised of students whose families chose full-time distance learning, five days a week.

"We weren't ready to have a full reentry," Superintendent Conner says. He explains that the district's plan was the result of experimentation conducted over the summer. "We got to build and test and scale for the fall," he says. "I think we're well prepared because of the pretext of the summer experience. There's constant feedback from our practitioners. We're taking an ethnographic approach, learning from the people that are implementing [this plan], and then we're going back and readjusting the model constantly."

Conner explains that the district will assess its status every eight weeks to determine when it can return to full-time in-person learning. "The bottom line is, I don't want to put anybody at risk," he says. "If we make a decision too quickly, that could be a life-or-death situation for somebody."

Clark County, the nation's fifth-largest school district, opted for an all-remote model, with no set date to return to in-person learning. "It would depend on what the health data looks like," Superintendent Jara says. "The data is trending downward, which is always good. But it's a bit too early to tell."

At its middle schools, the district is operating with a semester-based instructional model so that students are given four courses to complete in one semester. "That's [based on what] we learned from the spring when we closed our schools," Jara explains. "Kids and teachers maintaining a six-period, seven-period load online was going to be troubling. So four courses will be completed in one semester instead of over the course of a full year."

As such, the classes are longer, with periods running 120 minutes instead of the regular 45. "It's new for us," Jara says. "We have some principals that really love it." Meanwhile, the district's high schools are maintaining a traditional year-long course instructional model.

Jara also notes that schools in Clark County's rural communities are able to have in-person learning. "We have seven schools out of 360 that are doing a hybrid," he says. "Some are hybrid and others are doing face-to-face five days a week."

Philadelphia, the eighth-largest district in the U.S., also began the school year with all-remote learning but hopes to transition to a hybrid model after the first marking period ends on November 17. "Sooner if possible," Superintendent Hite says. "But it could be later, [depending] on recommendations from the CDC or the state health commission or the local health commission."

Hite anticipates a staggered return, similar to Gwinnett County's. "We've already begun to think, 'How do we get our youngest learners back in first, and children with complex needs and children who are English language learners?'" he explains.

Re-entry Reactions

All four leaders say the unique back-to-school process for 2020-2021 has been successful, for the most part, and that the responses from their respective communities have been mostly positive.

"From our perspective, it's gone extremely well," Flynt says about Gwinnett County. "We have a lot of [safety] rules and regulations. Students have got to wear masks and walk in one-way halls. They've got to wash their hands on a regular basis."

Still, the district found many takers for the option of full remote learning. According to Flynt, 60% of families chose to go all-digital, with 40% sending their kids back to school in person. "From what we're hearing, some parents felt really comfortable with digital learning and how well it was going, so they felt like they could keep their kids at home," he says.

In Middletown, only about 26% of the families chose all-remote learning. Conner attributes that to the operational drivers his district put in place. "Whether it be temperature scans—and we have desk shields, constant cleaning going on in the classrooms, students have to wear their masks, the class sizes are half because of the hybrid model—families and students feel they're able to matriculate back into the school in a safe manner," he says, and adds that the hybrid model itself has gotten a positive response. "It isn't perfect, but in some of the responses we've gotten, [parents say it feels like their kids are] actually in school and learning."

In Clark County, Jara says adapting to remote learning has been a challenge, particularly in the elementary schools, where he says that there has been "a little bit more anxiety around it. Elementary school kids need social interaction. But it can't happen right now." He adds, "I'm proud of the work our educators are doing, and I think things are getting better every day."

In Philadelphia, Hite says there has been "a tremendous appreciation for what teachers and principals and district staff have [done] to plan for what we've been able to deliver in terms of instruction." He adds, "Parents can now be in the child's classroom virtually in a way they have not been able to do before. I think that exposure . . . will create a better understanding for what's happening in classrooms. It's going to challenge us as educators to actually get better at the art and science of instruction. I think that's going to be a byproduct that will then change how instruction is delivered when we return to some form of normalcy."

Lessons Learned

The four leaders say that while their districts' plans have proven sound thus far, there have been challenges—technology chief among them. Flynt says that on day one of the school year, Gwinnett County's system overloaded. "It's not all that surprising when you're requiring all students to log on in a synchronous manner that morning, and you've got [around 180,000] log-ins within one second," he explains. "Immediately, we were able to go into trying to improve that system and what was wrong with it—we have a team dedicated to do that. By that afternoon, we had a lot of it figured out."

At Clark County, educators have been using Google systems including Classroom, Slides, and Meet. The problem is that students have been sharing classroom codes with each other over social media and entering remote classrooms that aren't assigned to them. "The kids are outsmarting the technology, and that's what we need to address," Jara says.

In Philadelphia, Hite notes that a key concern was addressing the needs of parents who must go to work but have young children at home. The district worked with the city, the mayor's office, and the Office of Children and Families on a solution: "access centers"—safe places for students to be during the school day while their parents are working. "These spaces have access to the internet," Hite says. "Children can log on to their devices and connect with their teacher. There are no teachers at the centers, but there are individuals who supervise the children. There are desks; the children are set up in cohorts and they social distance, and they're fed there."

Given this particularly unusual time, the districts are also emphasizing social-emotional learning (SEL). According to Flynt, Gwinnett County has implemented SEL-based advisement programs at all levels that include online and teacher-led activities. "The teachers get engaged with the students and talk about some of these challenging issues they're facing right now," he says.

Philadelphia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes the HopeLine, a free and open phone service to all students, families, and staff of the district (1-833-PHL-HOPE, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.). "This is a partnership we have with the Uplift Center for Grieving Children, and individuals can connect with master's level clinicians," Hite says. "It's for students experiencing grief and loss, either through isolation or loss of family members, and for families who may be experiencing depression or loss."

Now the districts move further into the school year armed with observations and insights that could only come from having implemented their plans and experienced the initial results.

"Transparency at pretty much all levels has helped us because we've gotten a lot of input," Flynt says. "We learned that everybody really does have good ideas, especially the people running our schools and teaching our students. If you can create a process to get their input, it will only make your plan stronger. And It's important to have touchpoints along the way, where you change your plan when you need to—you're going to have to do that because no plan is foolproof."

Connor echoes those sentiments and adds, "Definitely let data, science, and environmental statistics drive decision making."

Jara stresses the need for patience, flexibility, and grace. "That's the message I sent out to the entire community on day one," he says.

Hite's assessment aligns with all the others, and adds the importance of unity: "The only way that we're going to be able to navigate through this thing that none of us have lived through before is together."

How are you navigating a remote and in-person school year? Explore HMH Connected Teaching and Learning to address instructional planning, remote teaching and learning, equity and access, and professional learning.