From the Desk of Robin Steans – Under Impossible Circumstances, Let’s Do Remote Right…

Posted on August 20, 2020

From the Desk: Under Impossible Circumstances, Let’s Do Remote Right…

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

…But first, thank you. As we write, schools across the state are beginning to open. They do so amidst the most challenging set of circumstances we are ever likely to face and with only imperfect options. We want to begin by thanking administrators and educators and parents who are working tirelessly to make the best of an impossible situation with ever-changing information, insufficient resources and in the midst of serious health and safety concerns. We salute and admire your dedication. Please know that our effort to understand and share best practices comes from a shared sense of purpose – to help mitigate the negative impact of this crisis on the next generation. 

After listening to health and safety concerns of students, families and educators, Chicago Public Schools and many of the 851 other districts across Illinois plan for full or partial remote learning this fall. For many districts, this has been a gut-wrenching decision made amidst strong feelings and shifting information. Under normal circumstances, in-person instruction is best for most students, and most educators, students and families crave a return to normalcy. With that said, it is clear that remote and blended learning are here to stay for the immediate future. Accordingly, we must unite behind our schools and find creative ways to ensure that remote learning does not prevent students and families from getting the social, emotional, mental-health and academic supports they need to be successful.

Sadly, we don’t have much insight or data into how remote learning went across the state this past spring, though survey data of the nation at large show vast inequities. The percentage of students logging in to remote learning differed significantly by race/ethnicity. Students at majority-White schools received graded assignments at a higher rate than those in majority Black and Latinx schools. Similar disparities appear in surveys on the hours teachers spent instructing and on other metrics of student engagement. Left undressed, these inequities may have lasting impacts for our students’ academic and long-term financial success.

To better understand the Illinois context for this fall, Advance Illinois reviewed a sampling of districts’ spring remote plans against known best practices. While only a proxy for what actually happened, these plans highlight areas of strength, attention and need as we dive into fall semester.

What can we learn from remote learning plans posted this past spring?

As COVID-19 hit Illinois, districts were forced to adapt to remote learning with little time to prepare. While the Illinois State Board of Education released remote learning recommendations by March 27, 2020 – just ten days after remote learning was announced – it is unclear to what extent districts were able to incorporate best practices into remote learning this past spring. To explore this question, we identified commonly-recommended best practices in remote learning, then compared remote learning plans from a sample of 100 of Illinois’ 852 school districts. [1] [For an actionable summary of national best practices, click here.]  Our examination found that:

  • The vast majority (89/100) of sampled districts published easily accessible remote learning plans, demonstrating admirably clear and transparent communication with families. At the same time, many plans reflected the pressures under which they were created. Specifically, most plans would have benefitted from greater specificity. While most districts noted that remote curricula should be aligned with state learning standards, fewer provided additional curricular support. And while the vast majority of districts noted that all students that receive EL, ILP, IEP or 504 plans would continue to receive accommodations​, very few districts were able to provide specific details on remote learning tactics and assistive technologies. Looking ahead, districts will want to provide as detailed guidance as possible for accessing and using the digital infrastructure needed to participate in remote learning; have effective, standards-aligned instruction and the ability to track student engagement; and social-emotional and mental health supports for students and educators.
  • The level of need in a district did not determine the quality of remote learning plans. While significant variation in district learning plans existed across the state (as one might expect), it is heartening to see that amongst our sample, the level of need in a district was not correlated with the detail or thoroughness of remote learning plans.
  • Larger districts located in cities and suburbs tended to have more thorough and detailed remote learning plans. This finding likely reflects the particular challenges of rural districts in the face of COVID-19, including fewer staff to respond to rapidly-changing circumstances and disproportionately poorer internet access.

Districts deserve acclaim for their quick pivots to and transparent communication of remote learning plans – a considerable lift under difficult circumstances. Now, as remote and blended instruction continues, we have the opportunity to learn and improve. Parents are playing an increasingly significant role in their students’ day-to-day learning, and they need support and information. While remote and blended learning plans are only a proxy for actual practice, they prompt and reflect district planning and care, and they provide an important roadmap to help parents, educators and school leaders provide the best supports possible in challenging times.

SIDE-BAR [District Spotlights]

Bloom Township 206: Prioritized standards and course content developed by PLCs

Bloom Township’s remote learning plan prioritized learning standards that had been determined by teachers in PLCs; teachers were expected to teach course content in alignment with these prioritized standards.  
Champaign Unit 4 SD: Bilingual Parent Liaisons

Champaign schools’ plan noted several supports for bilingual students and families, including: Requiring that weekly messages to families from principals be translated into French and SpanishDesignating Bilingual Parent Liaison roles to ensure continued communication with bilingual students and families.  

Looking to the year ahead

As the continued threat of COVID-19 forces many parts of our state to continue remote or blended learning this fall, high-quality remote learning plans and implementation will be key to effective instruction. We know that, regardless of best efforts in the face of unprecedented challenges, student academic learning has suffered. While remote and blended instruction is certainly an immensely difficult transition for our teachers and schools, there is a real danger that this period will deepen disparities across income, race, language and learning style. As we look ahead, we have a shared goal of ensuring all students have access to high-quality instruction and support in these difficult times. For our state, this means providing:

  • Supports for educators. Across the state, educators need resources, training and feedback to effectively serve students in this new context. This is especially true for new teachers, who will need particular coaching and support due to disruptions in their own preparation.
  • Resources to close the digital divide. In order to access and deliver effective remote and blended instruction, students and educators need devices, internet connectivity, technical support and high-quality platforms and curricula designed for digital delivery. While Illinois has invested over $80M in new funds for devices, connectivity and professional development, this covers less than 15 percent of Illinois students, and a huge digital access gap remains.
  • Rigorous and quality content expectations. Remote and blended learning environments mean entirely new methods of instruction. As 852 districts sift through an array of curricula, digital platforms and other resources, the state should work to ensure that every student is in a classroom with high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials that are aligned to grade-level learning standards.
  • Focus on the social-emotional and mental-health needs of our students and staff. Educators need training and support to identify and address trauma, including their own. 
  • Intentional and meaningful family engagement. As remote and blended learning continues, family engagement is more crucial than ever. Collaboration between schools, communities and families is necessary to improve our students’ learning experiences over the next year.
  • Data. We need to know the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and engagement in order to effectively address challenges. As remote and blended learning environments continue into the fall, the state and districts need new ways to understand student learning and engagement. We then must use this information to make real-time, mid-course corrections to our plans. We are in a fluid environment and must equip ourselves to adapt and improve.

We know that COVID-19 is impacting all students and families, but it is disproportionately hurting our communities of color and families of lower income background. This fall and beyond, we need to take an equity lens to our work and provide additional supports to highly-impacted student groups.

We are all in this together

It will take us years to recover and rebuild from the impact of COVID-19. Sadly, there is no vaccine for disrupted learning and missed opportunities. While it is essential to double down and focus on making the best of our current situation, we must also continue to plan true and meaningful recovery in order to continue to close gaps in opportunity across Illinois’ educational system. It will take all of us working together to make that happen. If we bring half the energy, dedication and spirit to longer-term recovery work that educators and families are bringing to this moment, then we are already on our way.

[1] Our sample consisted of a weighted sample of IL’s large, medium, and small school districts, while still including the 24 largest school districts. The final sample of 100 school district does closely reflect Illinois’ percentage of White students and percentage of low-income students, although we did oversample both large districts and those classified as cities.

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans