Covid tested our ability to teach during a crisis. As a new school year begins, how are we doing?
Sep 2, 2021

Covid tested our ability to teach during a crisis. As a new school year begins, how are we doing?

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Some states have put limits on remote learning as schools open up again for in-person instruction.

Schools across the country are opening their doors to students again. Many have remote options for those who need it. But a handful of states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, have largely banned remote learning, saying it’s just not effective enough.

But as COVID-19 cases continue to rise, more kids may need to quarantine at home — and without remote options, they could miss weeks of school.

Many school districts face a lot of uncertainty, said Michael Horn, founder of the think tank the Clayton Christensen Institute. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Jed Kim.

Michael Horn: They don’t know, ‘Are we allowed to provide a remote option? If we legitimately have students that need to quarantine, that have maybe had COVID in their families, and they conclude that they shouldn’t go to school, does that mean that schooling is not open to them?’ It’s highly unclear, and districts are therefore limited in the preparations that they can make and really handicapped in being able to serve these students, for really what is disaster preparedness at this point, right? Even if it’s not in this year, we know that there’s going to be future pandemics, natural disasters, things that necessitate students learning from home at various points in time. Districts ought to be able to prepare for that, and right now they feel like they’re not supposed to.

Michael Horn, wearing a pink collared shirt, stands in front of some greenery as he smiles for his headshot.
Michael Horn (Courtesy Horn)

Jed Kim: And I’ve seen some districts are actually offering permanent virtual classrooms. Talk a little bit about that.

Horn: Yeah, that’s exactly right. A lot of districts have concluded that these permanent online learning modalities are incredibly important. For example, Iron County in Utah, they’ve used digital curriculum in schools for the last many years. But out of the pandemic, they realized, ‘Hey, there’s a subset of families, home-schoolers, others that do better in this medium, and now will be public schoolers. Let’s include that option on a full-time basis for these students.’ They set up their own teaching staff for them, so they’re not having their in-person teachers teaching simultaneously remote as some districts made folks do, which I think is incredibly painful for both teachers and students. They’re instead saying, ‘Hey, this is a medium that deserves its own way of doing this. Let’s set up an operation and make sure we’re providing that option, not just for this year, the third year of the pandemic, but something that is going to remain an option from here on out.’

Kim: If it does become more widespread that there are always some teachers dedicated to online learning, I mean, do traditional schools have the budget for that, or is it going to force districts to, like, outsource to private companies?

Horn: I think you’re gonna see a mix in the future in terms of how districts will manage both the remote option and an in-person option. And by the way, it could bring more teachers back into the teaching force, who for a variety of reasons right now feel skittish about being in person. For many districts, I think they’ll be able to manage the dollars, but other districts will certainly contract out. That’s an option for certain districts to be able to say, ‘Hey, we can’t afford a full [full-time equivalent] teacher, but if we essentially spread it out across a few districts, and we pay for part of it through a contract arrangement, we can make this work. And, by the way, now we can provide a lot of courses that previously we weren’t able to provide.’

Kim: Class size is always a big deal when it comes to in-person learning. What about online learning? Is there like an ideal and a realistic ratio of virtual teachers to virtual students?

Horn: It’s so interesting when you go in the online environment, because these rules around class size just don’t fit neatly, because in good and online environments, you still have an in-person adult who’s part of the learning team. It’s generally a parent, could be a guardian. It could be some of these microschools we’ve seen pop up around the country, where there has to be an in-person adult for virtual or remote learning to work. It just doesn’t work for the majority of students unless that adult is there. Now all of a sudden, you have that adult in-person, and then you have the subject matter expert, the teacher, who is remote and online, and now you’re teaming up, right? You’ve got at least two adults for that student, and so a lot of those traditional assumptions of how to think about class size sort of fade away, and it really depends on the instructional model.

You obviously don’t want one teacher working with a thousand students or something crazy like that. We’re not talking about scale like that. But if you assume that in a traditional high school, one teacher is working with 125 students across five periods a day, you can see similar teaching loads in the remote environment under that assumption. But really, that in-person adult is so critical. And if you don’t have that adult at home that can be part of the learning as a child for a district, that’s where I would step in and say, ‘Hey, this just isn’t a viable option for you. You need to be in person, and we’ll figure out a way to make it work for you.’

Kim: I mean, I imagine this is going to be problematic for families that just can’t afford to keep a parent at home during the day because they’ve got to work.

Horn: You’re 100% correct. I think this is the biggest danger of the remote learning option, which is that it can be highly inequitable, and that families that may want the option, their child may learn better in a remote option, if that adult can’t be around, that’s a huge problem. So what we’ve seen cities do like Cleveland and Boston is create microschools or pods. They were called pandemic pods a year ago — that phrase seems to have faded away. But these are organizations that are run by the YMCA and other after-school providers in and around the city, and they partner with the district to basically provide an environment where eight, nine students can come every single day with an in-person adult who’s going to care for them, make sure that they get meals, make sure that they sync up with their learning.

It’s an incredibly cool support structure, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a lot of these pods actually last much longer. Because if you can create a schooling environment in which it’s a 1 to 9 ratio or something like that, that’s an incredible amount of support you can provide an individual. And so I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of those sorts of things emerge out of this.

Kim: Well, speaking of at-home, what are some best practices for families to adopt in order to make the most of virtual learning?

Horn: Yeah, I think the biggest thing for families that are moving into a virtual learning environment is have a set schedule, a routine that provides predictability and sound structure so that the adults can get the work that they need done accomplished, and that kids know when they’re going to be online with their remote teachers, when they’re going to be online doing their own work by themselves, when they’re going to be working with that adult, and that there’s check-in points built into the day so that adult can actually make sure that the kid is staying on task, is getting done what they need to, and things of that nature. The routine is so important.

The second thing I would say, for adults and families trying to figure this out, you got to figure out what’s your social experience outside of that online environment. How are you going to have other activities? Whether it’s basketball leagues, whether it’s going to museums, whether it’s working on projects with other kids around the neighborhood, you’ve got to figure out those opportunities for that social experience to be part of it. Because the majority of kids, they want to be having fun with friends as they’re learning, and they don’t want an isolated experience. And this is what home-school families have found out over the years is that co-ops and other arrangements, where you’re actually getting together with other families, is so critical. Setting up that support structure for both the adults as well as the kids is incredibly important upfront.

Kim: What about for students who are studying to become teachers? Has their curriculum shifted at all?

Horn: This is always the $64 million question. Will schools of education that train teachers actually keep up with the latest in the teaching force? I think on that front, you’re seeing some modest changes, because for the first time the growth of technology, which was already well underway before the pandemic, now it’s staring everyone in the face. Like, you need to know how to use Zoom. You need to know how to use digital materials in case you go back to that experience. You need to know how to manage a classroom in these new environments. We’re seeing some evidence that some schools of education are starting to ask questions that perhaps before they pushed off, just because it’s so inevitable, and it’s staring all of us in the face.

By the same token, if we’re being totally honest, schools of education build their curriculum around the expertise of their faculty members and what they’ve themselves researched. If you don’t have much of a grounding in this yourself, it’s very hard to start to stand up classrooms. The one thing in the favor of teachers that are going to be coming out of those schools in the years ahead, all of those professors, for the most part, had to teach in remote learning themselves. They now have some first-hand experience with the negatives and the positives from that that they can start to hopefully incorporate in the teaching and learning themselves.

Related Links: More insight from Jed Kim

If you haven’t seen it, you’ve gotta read our beloved host Molly Wood’s Twitter thread on schooling during the pandemic. Essentially, why aren’t we treating schooling the way we treat working? Lots of great links in there, like an article on teens advocating for mental health days for students. I could’ve used some of those.

As we mentioned, Massachusetts is one state that has mostly banned remote learning, saying the learning losses are too great. That’s causing a lot of anxiety for families nervous about sending their kids. According to the Boston Globe, the state does have two virtual schools. They have long waiting lists.

Not many states have taken steps to ban or restrict remote learning. Most are choosing to keep some sort of online option, according to Education Week. Yes, there have been lots of problems with remote learning, but districts need to be smart about how they proceed. There’s lots to consider when making decisions, like does your area ban mask mandates, and how is your vaccination rate? Gotta do your homework.

Much like a stressed-out student the night before a big exam, some school districts are scrambling to figure out how to teach safely and effectively this year. Witness Madison, Wisconsin, where The Cap Times says the school district offered a last-minute option to elementary-aged students to attend school fully virtually. Anyone who does it commits to staying there for a full semester. They said they would let families know who got in just days before classes were scheduled to begin. Seven hundred fifty families applied — that’s five times what the district had planned for.

Finally, even with remote school, there are going to be sick days. And that, of course, means lying in bed, watching television, too wrecked to even hit the “next episode” button. “Are you still watching?” Yes, I’m still watching; don’t be judgemental. Anyway, if you’re curious about the future of the streaming wars, IGN’s looking at that this week. Things like, who’s leading? What’ll it take to stay ahead? Also? An angryish op-ed on how streaming sites get away with having terrible user interfaces. I, too, feel all of the rage.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer