Will remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic bring transformative change to education? | Delaware First Media
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Will remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic bring transformative change to education?

Apr 10, 2020

Contributor Larry Nagengast has spent the past two weeks detailing how schools across the First State have ramped up remote teaching with their buildings closed until at least May 15th under Gov. John Carney’s emergency order.

This week, he turns his attention to what this sudden shift in teaching could mean for the future of education in the First State.

As Delaware educators assess their work since the coronavirus outbreak forced the shutdown of their buildings four weeks ago, some compare it to flying an airplane that is still being built.

One likened it to a fire drill, while another suggested it was analogous to the on-the-fly repairs to the Apollo 13 spacecraft after internal damage aborted its mission to the moon 50 years ago.

Whatever the comparisons, there’s no doubt that the education community has been anticipating a transition into an environment that places a greater emphasis on distance learning – but no one expected it to occur with so little planning time and with the probability that it would last until mid-May, or perhaps the end of June, before they could catch their breath.

“This has reshaped how we approach education,” says Casey Cashdollar, a nine-year teacher who works with English learners in the Milford School District.

Whether in-classroom instruction resumes on May 18, as is now hoped, or later in the spring, or in September, two things are clear. First, while schools and districts have varying expectations about how the spring semester will play out, the emphasis will be on teaching the basic concepts for each grade level and content area. Second, come fall, there will be far more emphasis on catch-up and remediation than is typical at the start of the school year. The incidence of summer learning loss, well documented for a century primarily in low-income and urban settings, will now extend more broadly into districts and community where access to tech devices and the internet is restricted.



Once the pandemic is under control and schools acclimate themselves to “the new normal,” whatever that is, educators will assess this spring’s experiences and chart a path toward a different future.

One thing that’s certain, educators say, is that the experience will put a spotlight on statewide systemic disparities.

“My big fear is that this will further widen the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots,” says Tami Lunsford, a high school science teacher at Newark Charter School.

"My big fear is that this will further widen the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots." Tami Lunsford, Newark Charter School science teacher

“It’s going to highlight some districts that have the resources to do things that districts like mine can’t do,” says Heath Chasanov, superintendent of the rural Woodbridge School district in northwestern Sussex County.

“When all is said and done, I hope some will say ‘this district hit it out of the park,’ and ask what can be done so other districts do the same,” he says.

While Chasanov was speaking of the disparities associated with districts that don’t have the funds to provide laptop computers for every student, and to those in areas where internet connections remain spotty, his thinking parallels longstanding complaints about uneven distribution of resources to schools with high concentrations of low-income students and English language learners – schools whose students often score well below state norms on annual assessments.

Interviews with teachers and school leaders turned up three broad areas likely to receive strong consideration: increased use of technology in and out of the classroom, expanded use of distance learning for professional development and employing distance learning to eliminate snow days or provide instruction when students are otherwise unable to attend school in person.

Technology in and out of the classroom

Expanded use of technology might well be a case of teachers catching up with the learners.

“Things that might seem new to some of us will seem very natural to our students,” says Teresa Messmore, communications director at Tower Hill School.

The sudden switch to distance learning “forced the hand of the reluctant adopters,” veteran teachers who had gotten used to their routines and saw little reason to change when they’re just a few years from retirement, says Tara Saladyga, instructional technology coach at Delcastle Technical High School.

“They’re starting to see the value of what tech can give us, without having to give up what’s already working for them,” she says. “They can take the best of the traditional and the best of technology. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

“Teachers who were scared before might not be scared anymore,” says LouAnn Hudson, supervisor of instructional support in the Cape Henlopen School District.

"They're starting to see the value of what tech can give us, without having to give up what's already working for them." Tara Saladyga, Delcastle High School instructional technology coach

“It’s hard to tell now what works and what will not work, but we’re adding tools to our tool bag,” says Lunsford, the Newark Charter science teacher.

Teachers becoming more familiar with technology increases the likelihood of building on initiatives already under way in several school districts.

Several pointed to work begun through the BRINC Consortium, a multi-district collaboration begun in 2013 with funding from the state’s Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education. BRINC has brought more technology into the classroom and altered instructional delivery. Its advocates speak of “blended learning” – delivering content through a mix of in-person and online instruction – and the “flipped classroom” – meaning that the pen-and-paper exercises that used to be considered homework is now done in the classroom, where the teacher is on hand to help students who are having problems, while the content delivery once offered in a classroom lecture is now available online for students to absorb at home.

Another possibility is the broadened use of online tools to help schools expand their curricular offerings. The Red Clay Consolidated School District has used closed-circuit television system to enable one teacher to instruct students at two or more schools in electives like sociology, military history and Advanced Placement statistics. In some years, there wouldn’t be enough students at one school to justify offering the class, but using technology to bring the students together makes the class offering feasible.

Some Delaware schools have linked with the VHS Learning, a virtual high school that offers specialized classes that might appeal to only a limited number of students. “Say you have an engineering student who is interested in thermodynamics. Maybe he can take a course online for credit that we don’t offer in our high schools,” says Lincoln Hohler, acting superintendent of the Brandywine School District.

Hohler also notes that one of the goals of Brandywine’s “success plan” is to develop a system that enables every high school student to take at least one class online before graduation. “Colleges require kids to do online coursework,” he says. “Our students have to be taught that.”

"Some students will find that distance learning suits them, especially the introvert. They may find it a welcome relief." Anthony Pisapia, assistant head of Tower Hill School.

The prospect of instructional transformation isn’t limited to public schools.

“We’re going to deliver content in new and exciting ways,” says Michael Benner, assistant head for academics at Wilmington Friends School, hinting at changes both in and outside a school’s four walls. He says he spoke recently with officials at a private school in Seattle and was told that some families there were reporting that distance learning provided a better fit with their lifestyles.

Anthony Pisapia, assistant head of Tower Hill School, expressed a similar view. “Schools will have to ask if we can provide both in-person and distance options,” he says. “Private schools everywhere should be asking that question.”

Eric Anderson, head of the Sussex Academy charter school in Georgetown, says that one positive that could come out of the shutdown would be “stepping away from the traditional way schools have been run. Perhaps we can differentiate our approach in educating kids who are not successful in the regular setting.”

On this point, Pisapia adds, “some students will find that distance learning suits them, especially the introvert. They may find it a welcome relief.”

Professional development

Over the past month, the shutdown suggests a need for more professional development for teachers on topics associated with distance learning as well as the potential for delivering more of this training via the internet.

Gary Henry, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Delaware, notes that distance learning topics are part of several classes taken by future teachers at the university, but there is no undergraduate course devoted primarily to distance learning. And, Henry notes, in recent years, many new teachers are actually starting a second career in education, following a five-course “alternate route to certification” that is less comprehensive than a bachelor’s degree program.

If the state is to take a big leap into distance learning, teachers will require more training.

Henry has formed a task force of UD faculty, who met for the first time last week. He says he expects that it will solicit observations from teachers currently working with Schoology and other distance learning platforms to determine what works well and areas where additional training might be needed. “We want to infuse more effective approaches into the delivery of coursework,” he says.

Lisa Mims, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasantville Elementary in the Colonial School District, points out that her district has a significant cache of training materials available online and says they were helpful in helping her and her peers transition into distance learning.

She was one of several who mentioned that selective professional development programming could be more cost-effective than assembling large groups of teachers at a central location to participate in a training session.

No more snow days?

Of all the ideas being considered, using distance learning to eliminate snow days may have the best potential for implementation. “We’ve talked about cyber days for snow days for several years,” says Matt Burrows, superintendent of the Appoquinimink School District.

Other possibilities, Chasanov says, include reaching students who are homebound for health reasons or who are serving out-of-school suspensions.

Obstacles to change

While educators are talking about how the pandemic-forced changes in instructional methods might lead to broader reforms, it is not yet clear how they might occur.

Many of the resource-related disparities that exist in Delaware’s schools, whether it be the uneven availability of tech devices for students or the inadequate allocation of resources to benefit high-need students, are related to shortcomings in the system the state used to fund public education. A lawsuit challenging the funding system is now working its way through the state’s Court of Chancery, and it now appears unlikely to be resolved until late this year or, more likely, sometime in 2021.

Also, the economic impact of the pandemic cannot be understated. It is likely that, by the time the General Assembly resumes its session and begins addressing the state’s budget for the next fiscal year, estimates of the state’s revenue will have dropped significantly.

Uncertainty about the outcome of the lawsuit would tend to work against significant changes to the school finance status quo, while the pandemic’s economic impact is likely to result in a squeeze on school funding.

A teacher’s worry: is it justified?

As these discussions evolve, teachers are concerned with the possible impact distance learning could have on their careers.

“We can’t replace school. We don’t want to replace ourselves. I don’t want them to think that kids can learn just as well with a computer,” Lunsford says. “That’s a terrifying thought.”

“These devices are not a substitute for a teacher,” adds Saladyga, the Delcastle technology coach.

While “all learning doesn’t have to take place within the four walls” of a classroom, Appoquinimink’s Burrows says, there will always be a role for the teacher.

“The human component is what online education has not gotten right,” Pisapia says. “Education is never about the lecture. Students need to be known, and to know their teacher It’s the teacher’s role to turn on the lights in their minds.”