Amidst Challenges, Some Bright Spots in Distance Learning

By: Jennifer Hogg and Emily McCaffrey

As students head back to school this fall, nearly two-thirds (62%) are doing so entirely virtually, while another 19% will attend some form of hybrid schooling.[i] Even for districts that planned to start the year in-person, several have quickly reverted to virtual or hybrid learning in response to rising COVID-19 cases or changing preferences in their schools or communities. Therefore, the vast majority of school and district leaders continue to face difficult decisions about the ways in which teachers, students, and families will engage in learning from home. Leaders have been working since March to create virtual school environments that are accessible to and provide high-quality learning for students.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures across the country, the SPR team has engaged in conversations with nearly 400 educators and leaders, from over 60 schools and districts in 14 states, as well as dozens of their community partners. As a result, our team has amassed a deep understanding of school and district adaptations to COVID-19, systems of support for students, families, and educators, and the educational experiences of students around the country.

So, what are schools and districts doing to create an environment where students and families are supported and engaged in learning? While it is still early in this endeavor, below we share some patterns we have noticed across schools and districts that are experiencing success during distance learning.

Attending to technology and access needs. Across the country, distance learning relies on access to online learning environments, including video conferencing, online learning platforms, email, and websites. Some schools and districts have been successful in providing laptops or tablets, as well as internet access, to all students and families. While some districts already had devices for all of its students prior to the pandemic (1:1 districts), others quickly met this need via generous donations from companies and individuals and rapid deployment of those devices. One large, urban district on the West Coast even partnered with an internet provider to ensure all families were able to access free internet during the duration of distance learning. But providing devices and internet are just the first step to ensuring students can access online learning. Many districts and schools recognize that for many families, learning to use the technology is challenging, and are therefore providing outreach and technical training to equip users with the knowledge they need to stay connected and engaged in their student’s learning, paying particular attention to diverse language needs. Additionally, many students have family members who continue to work outside the home, and need support during the school day to connect with and engage in their learning. In locations where public health orders allow, some cities and districts have partnered with community organizations to provide supervised sites where students can go to receive technology support and lunch while they attend their online classes.

Streamlining online learning platforms. The sudden shift to distance learning last March left most school communities scrambling to quickly launch new online learning and communication platforms. Across the country, it was common to see multiple platforms being used by one teacher, and teachers within one school using completely different platforms. The summer provided time for schools to reflect on what platforms worked best for their teachers and students and to identify a more uniform structure for online learning for the fall. For many, this meant reducing the number of platforms, streamlining the amount and type of information communicated to families, and providing robust training to teachers and parents on how to successfully navigate the online learning environment.

Attending to adult mental health. School and district leaders are cognizant of the increased stress and trauma caused by the overwhelming conditions created by not only a public health crisis, but heightened public awareness of racial injustice, difficult economic conditions, and, in some parts of the country, natural disasters such as fires and hurricanes. Attending to adult mental health helps to ensure that teachers and staff, as well as families, can provide the type of social emotional support to students that is critical for learning at this time. Leaders are not only encouraging their staff to attend to their own needs, but are also providing opportunities for both staff and families to learn new techniques, such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and in some cases, providing opportunities for therapy. Furthermore, because of the physical and emotional isolation of distance learning, school leaders are noticing low levels of morale among staff, so are focusing on keeping teachers connected to each other to ensure they continue to have the collegial support and collaboration that would take place when in physical proximity. Many districts and schools continue to hold professional learning community (PLC) meetings to ensure not only the sharing of ideas, but to keep staff connected and in relationship with each other.

Recognizing families as partners and equipping them with the tools they need. Many school and district leaders recognize the critical role parents and family members play in ensuring students are connected, engaged, and learning. In particular, schools and districts that appeared successful in engaging families are attempting to provide support to families that is both responsive to their unique situations and recognizes the diversity of assets each family brings. Of primary concern is ensuring families’ basic needs are met, including food, housing, health care, income, and school supplies. For example, some schools are providing family members and teachers with training to promote partnership and ensure families have important pedagogical and curricular tools and strategies, given that home is now the classroom. Providing translation services and individual outreach via different modalities (phone, email, texting), and equitably distributing resources to respond to student and family needs are all ways that schools and districts are strengthening their connections with families.

Collaborating with community partners. When the pandemic hit, educators quickly realized that many of their families and students were facing unprecedented mental health and basic needs challenges and recognized that online learning could not be successful without first meeting these urgent needs. School systems with strong pre-existing partnerships with community-based organizations quickly leveraged these relationships to gather data, triage, and connect families to available resources. Community based organizations across the country have also played a critical role in supporting families and students with access to food, protection from eviction, health care needs, and personal protective equipment. Several school systems have also received support from local expanded learning opportunity (ELO) providers, including yoga, dance, and STEM organizations, that created enrichment activities and videos and partnered with teachers to share these resources with students.

Empowering teachers with the basics, then letting their creativity shine.  While COVID has upended many things in education, one thing remains true: teaching is still both an art and a science. As a science, there are research-based best practices that have been proven to “work” across most teaching contexts, including some limited research on virtual/online education. But the art of teaching brings those practices to life, tailoring their implementation to the unique learning needs of students, and acknowledging that education by its very nature is relational; it is not a one-way delivery mechanism, but a process that occurs in relationship between teachers and learners. Many school and district leaders recognize that this paradigm still applies during COVID, and have focused on equipping teachers with the best available practices and technical skills they need (the science of pandemic teaching) so that teachers can get back to the art of connecting with students academically, socially, and emotionally.

Continuing what worked before, just reimagined. Many of the schools and districts we partner with were on journeys to school improvement prior to the pandemic, guided by strong, research-backed frameworks for school improvement. These frameworks included pedagogical approaches focused on students as co-facilitators of knowledge creation, personalized learning, strengthened collaborative structures for continuous improvement, and others. While the pandemic disrupted the way in which instruction was delivered, many school and district leaders quickly found ways to retain their visions for instruction and the principles that were working for their teachers and students before, just reimagined for a different delivery mode.

Investing in a renewed commitment to racial justice. The recent rise in awareness and public discourse on racial injustice and policing has led many to feel a renewed commitment to being part of the solution through racial justice in education. While many school and district leaders are hesitant to add anything else to teachers’ plates, others recognize this moment as an opportunity to harness teachers’ enthusiasm, provide training, and examine how their schools can attend to the injustices present in their school communities, both during the pandemic and afterwards. In neighborhoods where protests and police conflicts take place on the same streets were students live, school leaders recognize the role they can play in helping students understand the context, process the events, and develop their own opinions and sense of agency. Teachers are encouraged to continue their own learning around racial equity and justice, and to bring those conversations to the classroom.

Planning to keep the “good changes” post-COVID. Many of the educators we’ve interviewed have found this disruption to business as usual to require creative problem solving that could have some long-term benefits beyond COVID. The primary example of this is in family engagement practices; as distance learning has required deeper partnership with families, many teachers are now communicating more regularly and casually with families (via text message, for example). Rather than feeling like a burdensome, temporary stop-gap measure, many teachers have found this more personable, less strictly “professional” relationship with their students’ family members to be more authentic and effective. In addition, many teachers would like to continue using video recordings, online presentations, and virtual portfolios as options for students to demonstrate their learning. Finally, schools and districts are being forced to rethink data sources for student learning and engagement, such as student assessments and school attendance , resulting in innovations that may actually be closer approximations of these indicators and result in long-term improvements in measurement in education.

As the school year continues, districts and schools will continue to adapt and innovate, providing more examples of success despite the overwhelming challenges. SPR will continue to lift these promising practices through our research and evaluation work to enable their scale and spread. Given the unprecedented nature of this time, sharing lessons and best practices is more important now than ever.


Jennifer Hogg is an Associate in SPR’s Education Division and a former middle school math teacher. When not working, she enjoys listening to podcasts and spending time with her cat, Louie.

Emily McCaffrey is an Associate in SPR’s Education Division, and previously worked in high school expanded learning programs. In her spare time, she enjoys getting outdoors with her dog, Foster.