In summary

Distance learning will never be as good as in-person learning, but we can do a lot better. New research provides key lessons for how to ensure high-quality educational opportunities.

By Heather Hough, Special to CalMatters

Heather Hough is executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent, non-partisan research center, hjhough@stanford.edu.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that all K–12 schools in California counties with rising COVID-19 infections should close for in-person instruction. As a result, 90% of California’s more than 6 million students could start the school year with distance learning.

This decision to begin the school year remotely, while necessary, is troubling for students, parents and educators alike. This spring, COVID-19 disrupted our educational systems without notice, and educators at all levels had to scramble to respond. 

Many districts in California did not offer new instructional content; individualized student support for learning was almost nonexistent; and many students were not engaged in school activities at all. 

Many fear the closing of school buildings will mean a continuation of “emergency education” and that student learning will suffer as a result. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

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Distance learning will never be as good as in-person learning, but we can do a lot better. Newly released research by Policy Analysis for California Education provides key lessons for how to ensure high-quality educational opportunities for all students in California:

Good distance instruction starts with a focus on individualized student needs. Our research demonstrates that distance learning models must prioritize interaction, collaboration and individualized feedback to support and accelerate learning of grade-level content. Pre-recorded lectures, videos and readings should be assigned for students to engage with asynchronously (on their own time) so that synchronous (face-to-face) class time can be reserved for active learning and interactive class engagement. 

Schools must prioritize supporting students who have been hit hardest by the pandemic. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected low-incomeBlack and Latinx families, and these students were least likely to receive high-quality education this past spring. This fall, educational leaders must work to ensure that student needs are met, particularly for students with disabilities, students learning English and students who have fallen behind during school closures. Schools will need to develop processes for monitoring student engagement and reaching out quickly with personalized support.

Local and state leaders must deploy a wide range of resources to support students and families. Teachers are being asked to completely redesign instruction to be virtual while confronted with unprecedented levels of student need. They can’t do this alone. We call on our state’s leaders to set statewide expectations for learning and monitor implementation with an eye toward ensuring equity; to develop large-scale, cross-sector policy approaches, such as universal free WiFi; and to secure the additional funding that is critical to meeting student needs. 

School and district leaders can support teachers by developing curriculum and instructional resources as well as providing training on their use; reimagining educator roles within grade-level or content-area teams (for example, supporting shared planning and delivery of lessons); and utilizing other school staff, such as instructional aides and expanded learning providers, to offer targeted supports to students. 

State and local leaders should make the call now for distance learning through at least December. If schools are expected to make decisions about opening and closing on rolling 14-day intervals as infection rates rise and fall, our entire education system will be thrown into chaos. If our state’s leaders commit now to distance learning as the primary mode of education in regions with increasing rates of virus transmission, teachers and administrators can focus their limited time and resources on developing plans and materials to do it well. When it’s safe, districts can start to supplement that distance learning plan with limited in-person support for students who need it the most

The decision to start with distance learning this fall does not  – and can not  – mean that California is pressing pause on educational quality. All students can learn during the pandemic, but only if our state and local leaders maintain high expectations for learning and give educators the support they need to provide a high-quality, engaging education to each and every student. 

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Heather Hough has also written about making children’s education a priority.

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