Virtual School Meanderings

August 1, 2020

School Re-Opening Update: A Possible Way Forward?

An interesting read from John Watson.

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School re-opening update: a possible way forward?

BY JOHN WATSON

The last post ended with this text:

Even as these discussions [about school reopenings] are occurring, new information continues to emerge. In particular, three related ideas may point to a new direction…These ideas are:

  1. Remote learning has been, and will likely to continue to be, much harder for the youngest students than for older students.
  2. Young children seem to be showing less propensity to spread COVID-19 than older students.
  3. For comprehensive K-12 districts (leaving aside districts which are just elementary or just high school), a step towards a solution for instruction in the coming school year may be to treat elementary schools and high schools differently, perhaps very differently.

Let’s break each of these down.

1. Remote learning is harder for younger students…

This is fairly intuitive. As the New York Times reported months ago:

 “Younger students need help to learn online — lots of help. Parents may need to assist their child with turning on a device, logging into an app, reading instructions, clicking in the right place, typing answers and staying on task.”

The key element—as online teachers and school leaders understand well—is that a caregiver must be involved with the youngest students, both for supervision and for instructional support. Generally speaking, the younger the student, the more support is required. It’s well documented that many parents of young children have struggled with their role in remote learning.

2. Young children seem to be showing less propensity to spread COVID-19 than older students, who appear to transmit COVID-19 at the same rate as adults.

To this point, there is no scientific consensus on the benefits and risks of school re-openings. As a report out of the University of Washington states:

“There is a lack of scientific consensus about the impact of school closures and re-openings on community transmission of SARS-CoV-2.  There is considerable concern about the indirect effect of school closures on students and parents.”

But another study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests that

“Children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do.” (The quote is from a New York Times article on the study.)

These two ideas—that the youngest students benefit the most from learning face-to-face, and may be at the lowest health and transmission risk—lead to the third point:

3. A step towards a solution for instruction in the coming school year may be to treat elementary schools and high schools differently, perhaps very differently.

recent study from the National Academies of Sciences makes this point:

“Given the importance of in-person interaction for learning and development, districts should prioritize reopening with an emphasis on providing full-time, in-person instruction in grades K-5 and for students with special needs who would be best served by in-person instruction.”

That’s a short quote from a report that runs to 125 pages, and raises all sorts of questions about health risks, uncertainties, etc. In fact, other experts are concerned about long-term impacts to young children who get the disease. These are not easy decisions and I don’t want to sound like they are. But it is instructive that the report focuses on elementary students (along with students with special needs) for prioritizing onsite instruction.

A slightly more nuanced approach to this issue might also acknowledge that hybrid schooling can be defined as anything other than 100% onsite or 100% online. Within that framework, a district might adopt a hybrid approach to instruction, but have very different levels of onsite vs online instructional time, varying by the age of the students. Perhaps high school students would come to school once per week, and elementary students three times per week.

In the first months of the pandemic essentially all schools were closed, and much of the discussion was about when schools would reopen—meaning all schools. This emerging evidence suggests that a better way to think about reopening may be based on student ages as well as other characteristics, such as special needs. California provides some examples of moving in this direction. As the state has pushed to keep many schools closed, it is also offering waivers for elementary schools to reopen. We are hopeful that other states and schools are starting to develop plans with similar nuance as well.

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July 24, 2020

School Re-Opening Update: Politics Impedes Progress

This is an interesting, important, and – in my opinion – accurate assessment of what’s happening for the Fall.

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School re-opening update: Politics
impedes progress

BY JOHN WATSON
With less than a month before many schools are scheduled to start for the fall, the pace of activity has become fast and furious. Every day brings news of another set of districts that have decided to open onsite, remotely, or with some combination of the two. But this activity is occurring against a backdrop of political sound and fury that is obscuring nuanced discussion, and making progress towards solutions even more difficult than it should be.

In the past couple of weeks, the Trump Administration has turned school re-openings into a political issue. Trump did this by taking a very simplified position in the debate over when and under what conditions schools should re-open. Based on the transcript of his statement on July 7 provided by the White House (which may vary slightly from his spoken remarks), he presented a rosy, one-sided appraisal of the pandemic, leading to the statement that
“So what we want to do is we want to get our schools open.  We want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall.” 

This was followed by Mike Pence adding
“we convene all of these great leaders from around the country today, Mr. President, because you know that to open up America again, we need to open up our schools again.”

In case anyone didn’t get the message, more recently, the Washington Post has reported that
“The White House and Senate Republicans are developing plans to prod schools to reopen by attaching incentives or conditions to tens of billions of dollars of new aid as part of the next coronavirus relief bill, people involved in the talks said…”

How and when schools should re-open is a complex issue that calls for thoughtful analysis about how to balance concerns related to health and safety, vulnerable populations, best instructional practices, and learning loss—as well as economic impacts. The Trump Administration has not demonstrated the nuanced thinking that these issues call for.

Luckily for them, some of their political opponents have responded more or less in kind, by taking a similarly over-simplified approach from the other side. This CNN interview of Betsy DeVos is a good example. In response to DeVos saying “we have to open schools” with little acknowledgement of the challenges, the interviewer asks, “Yes or no: can you assure that students won’t get coronavirus because they’re going back to school?” The obvious answer is “of course not.” Any activity other than sitting alone in a remote location with no human contact carries some risk. Every one of us is making decisions, every day, that balance our various needs against the level of risk we perceive to be associated with an activity. Re-opening a school building is no different.

In a similar vein, statements from several teachers unions (here’s one example) have pushed districts to go fully remote, out of concern for teachers’ and students’ health and safety. These are of course legitimate concerns—but too often they are presented as merely the opposite of the Trump Administration argument. Where DeVos and others argue for school openings while ignoring the challenges of health and safety, the unions make a nod, at most, to the idea that remote learning is highly disruptive to many students and families.

This isn’t just about competing sound bites and press releases. In California, the legislature passed, and the Governor signed, SB 98. The law is meant to help protect the finances of school districts, but it does so in part by limiting the ability of parents to choose a new school—including online charter schools. The governor’s signing letter acknowledges that the situation is not ideal and requests that the legislature seek “targeted solutions” to this problem, but currently online charter schools in California are not able to receive funding for newly enrolled students, so in at least some cases they are not accepting new students.

While these political operatives and entities push their views, school districts are moving ahead with drawing up plans for the fall. Although some have indicated a preference for onsite re-openings, more appear to be moving ahead with hybrid or fully-remote plans, at least for the fall semester. These districts may be responding to public opinion, as at least one poll suggests that public opinion is on the side of caution. Most of these are individual district decisions, although California is pushing remote learning for most students across the state.

In addition to school district decisions, some observers are creating thoughtful frameworks for balancing competing priorities. As one source states, “there is no question that, under pandemic-free circumstances, students are best served by in-person instruction. But the barriers that school districts face under current circumstances are substantial.” I don’t entirely agree with that sentiment and would change it slightly to say that under normal circumstances, most students are served best by in-person instruction. Leaving that quibble aside, the balancing of priorities is apparent in that statement and is discussed in the entire blog post. This balancing is exactly what responsible leaders are debating.

Even as these discussions are occurring, new information continues to emerge. In particular, three related ideas may point to a new direction that I’ve not yet seen explored in detail. These ideas are:

  1. Remote learning has been, and will likely continue to be, much harder for the youngest students than for older students.
  2. Young children seem to be showing less propensity to spread COVID-19 than older children and teenagers.
  3. For comprehensive K-12 districts (leaving aside districts which are just elementary or just high school), a step towards a solution for instruction in the coming school year may be to treat elementary schools and high schools differently, perhaps very differently.

The next post will look more closely at evidence for these ideas and what they may mean for schools in the coming year.

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July 17, 2020

Challenges Of SEL In Online And Blended Classrooms

An item from a US-based K-12 digital learning organization.

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SEL in Online and Blended Classrooms:
Biggest Challenges According to Teachers

This post was written by Yovhane Metcalfe, Ph.D., StrongMind’s Vice President of Education Innovation overseeing the research and development of StrongMind’s digital learning solution.With an on-going global pandemic and civil unrest, social-emotional learning is a necessity in today’s classrooms – whether online or brick and mortar. Undoubtedly, students’ social-emotional wellbeing goes hand in hand with their academic success, but in practice, it’s rarely that simple. To better understand SEL in online and blended settings, we asked teachers from across the country what challenges they faced supporting their students’ social and emotional development online. Here’s what we learned from the 100 teachers who responded:

Not Enough Time (59%)
Meeting the “standard” of academic standards takes considerable time and effort so it’s not surprising that a lack of time was the biggest challenge teachers faced in being able to address SEL. Perhaps that’s why an overwhelming majority of teachers (72%) indicated they used only “informal lessons” on SEL in their regular teaching practice. Although most teachers (79%) indicated they “understand the perspectives of (their) students and can pay attention to their emotional cues in an online environment,” they still lack time or structure to address the various SEL needs that arise daily.
Most teachers (80%) want to improve their ability to teach SEL, but there are simply not enough hours in the school day let alone the PD calendar.

Not enough social-emotional learning curriculum or programs (55%)
Without enough time to adapt traditional “stand and deliver” SEL curricula and programs to the online environment, the second biggest challenge online teachers identified was a lack of SEL curriculum or programs. So, it makes sense that less than a third of online teachers (31%) included formal SEL curricula in their normal teaching practice.

Similar to how we leverage technology to teach traditional academic standards, we should expect technology to magnify a teacher’s impact and personalize student learning of SEL. An effective SEL strategy must also ensure continuity of learning across different environments, particularly as schools address safety concerns brought on by COVID-19.

Lack of support from families of students (51%)
Although 63% of online teachers affirmed their school culture supports the social-emotional development of students, the majority of respondents perceived lackluster support from parents as a challenge. This differs greatly from other research (not specifically of online teachers or parents) that shows strong parental support for SEL in schools.

A lack of support from families could be based on a variety of factors: general unfamiliarity with SEL, fear of unwanted indoctrination, or perhaps the inability to reinforce SEL at home. Regardless of the possible reasons, parents always deserve to know what their students are learning and why. When talking to weary families, teachers and administrators can point to the countless studies demonstrating the practical and academic benefits in addition to the practicality of SEL standards adopted by their state (if applicable).

Need more professional development or training (47%)
The unique skillset needed for effective teaching in an online environment doesn’t just apply to the traditional academic subjects. In fact, almost half of teachers we surveyed identified a need for more SEL professional development or training. Even more telling, 84% of respondents agreed that all online teachers should receive specialized training to support the social and emotional wellbeing of their students online.

Of course, some concepts are just easier to teach face-to-face versus online. When asked, the majority of online teachers identified these specific social and emotional skills as the most difficult to cultivate online:

  • Read social cues and respond constructively
  • Develop an awareness of personal emotions
  • Regulate emotions and behaviors by using thinking strategies that are consistent with brain development

Now more than ever, teachers will need professional development and support that reimagines how to model these skills for students without relying on dated sage-on-the-stage or one-size-fits-all methods.

Need more support from administrators (12%)
Compared to the majority of teachers who identified the lack of support from families as a challenge in supporting online students’ social and emotional development, only 12% of teachers identified a need for more support from administrators. Most teachers evidently feel that administrators are doing all they can to promote a meaningful and robust SEL culture. In fact, almost two-thirds (63%) of online teachers agreed their school culture supports SEL, indicating a significant disconnect between administrative support and school leaders’ ability to impact school culture.

Undoubtedly, administrators have a responsibility to address each one of the larger systemic challenges that teachers are experiencing with SEL in their classrooms. Administrators must help teachers find time in their busy day, provide formal yet flexible SEL curriculum and programs, engage support and buy-in from families, and prioritize the professional development teachers need to successfully deliver SEL in online or blended environments.

For any SEL strategy to truly prepare students for life, it must purposefully mitigate the real challenges teachers experience in the classroom or risk becoming just another competing priority. Regardless of whether we’re teacher, administrator, or family, we can each contribute to building an environment where students can develop the vital social and emotional skills needed to navigate the world and its craziness.

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DLC virtual happy hour reminder
We are continuing our virtual happy hours, this week on Thursday at 7ET/6CT/5MT/4PT. These are informal, free-form, small group discussions. If you’re interested please RSVP at www.digitallearningcollab.com/dlc-happy-hour-registration.

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July 10, 2020

DLAC Super Early Bird Savings Ending Soon!

Note this up-coming deadline.

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DLAC 2021 super early bird registration ending soon
Yes, DLAC 2021 is still almost a year away. And yes, there are a few other things going on in the world that you may find more important than registering for DLAC (we agree). But if you’re employed by a school or district central office, if you register now you qualify for the lowest rates. The Super Early Bird registration period ends on July 15–and you have an additional 45 days to pay.

Super Early Bird Registration for Schools and Districts
Our Super Early Bird registration rate of $499 is the lowest rate we offer to individuals and is ONLY available through July 15. Only attendees who are employed by a school (including charter and private) or school district are eligible for the Super Early Bird rate. These registrations are non-refundable, but transferable at any time. Payment must be made within 45 days of registration, unless other arrangements have been made with DLAC.

Group Registration
Our DLAC Group Registration discount is available to a school or district that is registering five or more conference attendees. The Group discount can be combined with the Super Early Bird rate to create the lowest possible DLAC registration rate of $449.

COVID-19
COVID-19 is a major concern, particularly as cases have increased lately, but we remain optimistic that either a vaccine or much improved treatments will be available well ahead of June 2021. See more about DLAC and COVID-19 at www.deelac.com/covid-19.

Call for proposals
We have received quite a few emails from folks interested in presenting. We plan to open the call for proposals in October. Watch the website and our emails for more information!

Location
DLAC 2021 will again be held at the Hyatt Regency Austin–for just one more year before we move to bigger digs in Atlanta.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Austin next summer! Follow us on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn and feel free to email us at DLAC@evergreenedgroup.com with any questions!

If you weren’t able to join us in February, you can see the DLAC 2020 highlights video below and on the DLAC homepage!

DLAC 2020 Highlight Video
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July 8, 2020

State Virtual Schools Vs Course Choice In Pandemic Response

An interesting item from John Watson.  One of the things that John doesn’t get into below is that most of the state virtual schools are non-profit, almost service ventures (i.e., their role is to provide opportunity and access to students in their state), whereas many of the course choice operators are either for profit or operated by for profit.

Now I know that in the US, there is a large segment that has just accepted the idea that for profit corporations should have the ability to directly operate (and profit from) public education – and not that I’m saying John is one of those folks.  But I do think that this reality is something that should be included in the discussion of these topics.

Essentially, in addition to John’s question about “relative merits of using state virtual schools, versus course choice programs, among states that wish to promote supplemental online learning course availability for students in mainstream districts,” we should also consider what impact that has on who actually receives the money that we have allocated to public education.

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State virtual schools vs course choice during the pandemic 

BY JOHN WATSON

Over the last ten years or so there has been a quiet debate about the relative merits of using state virtual schools, versus course choice programs, among states that wish to promote supplemental online learning course availability for students in mainstream districts. The pandemic may be providing an additional data point in this debate—although it’s still early.

State virtual schools are entities that are subsidized by the state government to provide online learning opportunities to students across the state. Examples include state virtual schools in South Carolina, Georgia, Montana, Idaho, and about two dozen states in total. In some states (e.g. Michigan) the state virtual school also plays a leading role in research and reporting. In other states (e.g. Florida) the state virtual school also provides a full-time school option for students. Still, the core of all such entities is providing supplemental online learning courses.

Course choice (also commonly referred to as “course access”) describes a set of state-level policies and programs that allow students to choose an online course from one or more providers, and have their public education funds flow to the online course provider. The key element of the policy, as the term suggests, is that students and parents have the right to choose a course, with relatively few restrictions on their options imposed by the state or the student’s district of enrollment.

I say “quiet debate” because I’m not aware of any conference presentations, op-eds, or other avenues in which the merits of the two approaches have been openly debated. Also, in three states (Georgia, Florida, and Michigan), the two policy strategies work in tandem.

But those three states are the exception. The other dozen states that have course choice policies do not have state virtual schools, and the other states that have state virtual schools don’t have course choice. In Louisiana and Utah, the course choice policy seems to have been part of an explicit shift away from supporting the state virtual school.

What are we seeing during the pandemic? What follows are some observations based mostly on media reports. To be clear, this is not the subject of a serious study. But it appears that early data points suggest that state virtual schools are better positioned to respond to the growth in remote learning needs than the course choice programs.

One main reason for this difference is that state virtual schools are actual entities—with leaders, staff, offices, etc—that can receive additional government money and scale up relatively quickly. Course choice is mostly based on a policy shift that allows students to select an online course, with a limited entity overseeing the policy. In addition, most state virtual schools have a longer history than most course choice programs, and in many cases are better known.

Examples of increased support for state virtual schools during the pandemic include:

Most, if not all, of this funding increase is from federal funds via the CARES Act and other funding flowing to states. Therefore, it is likely that this will be a one-time increase, pending additional federal funding.

In contrast, we’re not seeing examples of course choice being pushed in response to school closures and the need for remote learning. In fact, in discussing the new course choice program in Illinois, Chalkbeat asks this question: Illinois debuted a virtual learning system months before the pandemic. Why is no one talking about it?

Are we missing activity that is happening on the ground? Perhaps. But a quick search of websites and news related to the main course choice programs doesn’t show much increased activity. One exception may be the Launch program in Missouri, which is run by the Springfield school district under the state’s course choice regulations.

Course choice policies and state virtual school programs represent two different types of state governments’ responses to the state’s desire to increase online learning course opportunities for K-12 students. We know of successful examples of both approaches, and this post is not meant to suggest that we favor one over the other. But the early returns appear to suggest that, so far at least, states with state virtual schools are a bit better situated to respond to school closures and remote learning, compared to states that have created course choice policies.

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