There are challenges to teaching in highly uncertain pandemic times that no amount of planning can mitigate. Still, teachers are tirelessly putting in their best effort to make distance learning work for their students. Engaging students as individuals meaningfully and equitably, supporting students’ well-being as their social and family lives are disrupted, and monitoring learning while teaching online full-time or simultaneously teaching students in person and online remain educators’ top priorities.
Through a large-scale, multi-year, federal project focusing on early literacy, we were able to gather feedback from educators on how instruction has been going this school year. From our conversations with kindergarten through third grade teachers, literacy coaches, and principals in 17 elementary schools across the country, we highlight below three ways schools are reimagining student supports during a year of distance instruction.
We are grateful for the educators’ generosity in sharing their experiences and offering a firsthand glimpse into their strategies to meet these demanding times. These strategies hold potential to inform visions of future schooling as the country recovers from the devastation of COVID-19.
Teachers are changing the nature of the partnerships that schools typically have with students’ families.
Although even the youngest children are adept with technology for entertainment, students in early elementary grades need significant support to use technology for learning. Teachers are relying on parents to foster consistent home learning environments. They’re communicating expanded roles for parents and caregivers in supporting their children’s learning this year.
“I don’t [typically] lean on my parents, but we’ve been leaning on each other a little bit because I have such a young group online. … I’ve had some seriously awesome parents this year and they have really paid attention to what we’re doing in class or some of the strategies I’ve been using and moving that outside of class.”
— Teacher who is teaching remotely full-time at a school that offers full-time distance and in-person learning models
“We learned [that] parents were learning as well as the kids. Even though kids had iPads, parents were not sure [how to use them for class]. We sent cheat sheets to parents. Teachers adapted from screen to screen, gave step-by-step directions out loud.”
— Principal at a school with a hybrid learning model
In many cases, parent involvement understandably extends to supporting students in taking online assessments. While parents may be guiding students to improve their performance, educators do not necessarily receive an accurate picture of what students are able to do independently in those cases. Teachers and principals are emphasizing to parents and caregivers that assessments help identify student needs so that educators can better plan instruction to meet those needs.
“For many adults, assessment was for your grade [when they were in school]. Now it drives instruction. [Parents] think kids need to do well [on assessments] to get good grades, and [that] it has nothing to do with driving instruction. The more we talked to parents, the more of an ‘a-ha’ it was for them. That was the biggest lesson learned, really emphasizing to parents that assessment is to drive instruction.”
— Literacy coach and interventionist, at a school with a full-time distance learning model
These examples show how teachers are increasing family engagement through greater communication and guidance regarding the purpose and appropriate use of online learning tools, and how they are elevating their partnership with parents and caregivers in supporting their children’s education.
To support all learners, schools are implementing broad changes, modifying roles and responsibilities of support staff, and increasing the amount of time dedicated to tailored supports for students.
In addition to family members, literacy coaches, reading specialists, teachers on special assignments (TOSAs), counselors, and school psychologists are partnering with regular classroom teachers differently to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs. In some schools, additional social-emotional learning sessions and/or increased literacy intervention time has been embedded into the school schedule so that support staff can work strategically with the students struggling the most and who need differentiated attention.
“We have a full-time instructional TOSA who pulls small groups from every grade level and she takes the 15 lowest readers from each grade level every day. So kids are getting additional time with an instructional TOSA in addition to their synchronous time … and now I’m pulling groups of kids. … It’s not in my job description, but I actually really love it.”
— Literacy Coach A, at a school with a full-time distance learning model
While providing direct and differentiated instruction to students leaves coaches with less time for coaching teachers, some coaches appreciate the additional context they gather from working with small groups of students. They can help teachers monitor student needs and plan their small-group lessons with that additional information.
“I helped the teachers progress monitor kids because we work with the most intensive kids and those kids have an action plan. So all of the support staff progress monitors these kids. And that’s how we support the teachers.”
— Literacy Coach B, at a school with a full-time distance learning model
Teachers and coaches sharing instruction has afforded new opportunities for thought partnership on instructional planning and differentiation. Teachers had made significant strides in differentiating lessons via small groups prior to the pandemic. However, for primary grades, facilitating online small groups and ensuring students can easily navigate among different links and schedules, as well as work independently while the teacher attends to each small group in turn, has been far less manageable online than in the classroom. Thus, dedicating additional staff and time periods for targeted differentiation has allowed schools to meet individual student needs this year beyond what teachers would have been able to accomplish by themselves within a virtual classroom.
School leaders tackle an expanded set of duties—both instructional and non-instructional—to buoy teachers and families.
Responding to the pandemic this year introduced new responsibilities for school leaders and their administrative teams as they strive to meet students’ learning needs and social-emotional well-being. In cases where in-person instruction is taking place alongside distance learning, administrators have become health coordinators for their schools. Updating COVID-related protocols and safety precautions to align with district and county health policies, while carefully managing communication to families, has become a new routine for those administrators. School administrators also play a bigger role coordinating the distribution of technology devices, internet hotspots, and school supplies and materials to students to support continued learning from home. Most of these activities have never been part of schooling, and the need for them is now constantly urgent.
“I’ll work with teachers to problem-solve different things. … So much of my time is spent on tech issues. … We offered parents info sessions [on tech support].… A lot of times, if kids are not logging in, I have to call them to see what’s going on. … Every time someone has possible COVID, I’m moving classrooms, disinfecting, contact tracing. … [Mornings] I have to be outside taking [kids’] temperatures for 30-45 minutes, checking kids in, and doing a similar process in the afternoon to make sure buses are socially distanced.”
— Principal A, at a school that began with a hybrid attendance model in the fall
A second set of responsibilities have been part of school programs and supports, yet during the pandemic, leaders have experienced a greater load and intensity in sustaining and expanding them. For example, principals have taken on the role of coordinating external mental health services, implementing instructional programs and supports, and filling in for teachers wherever necessary.
“I run the [new] high-frequency-word program rather than my teachers running it. Our conversation with them is, ‘I will set the goal for your kids. I’ll get all the flashcards ready. I will send the people to your classroom to pull kids. If it’s not a good time, just say it’s not a good time. [The support staff will] come back another day or another time.’ So the teachers don’t have to worry about that low-level goal of doing high frequency words.”
— Principal B, at a school with a hybrid learning model
“We had to quarantine 16 staff. I taught the entire second grade for two weeks. Sixty kids, with 16 in front of you [in person, the rest online]. You can understand it’s challenging, but until you do it, you don’t really know.”
— Principal C, at a school that began with a hybrid attendance model in the fall
Even though their jobs typically demand a wide range of responsibilities, during the pandemic, principals have absorbed the extraordinary workload and unfamiliar duties of public health and tech support, in addition to intensified efforts in attending to parent support, students’ social-emotional health, and engagement in learning.
As we have all learned, this year of distance and hybrid learning has stretched the limits of what teachers, parents, caregivers, school support staff, and school leaders can do. Importantly, this year has elevated the collaboration and partnership with stakeholders that should be central to the vision of schooling post-pandemic. That partnership will be essential as we grapple with accelerating the learning of students farthest from opportunity and contend with the inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated.
For resources to support teachers and schools respond to the instructional challenges imposed by COVID-19, visit our Online Learning page.