By February 2020, as reports from around the globe of the novel coronavirus grew steadily alarming, schools began preparing for the worst. Government and health care professionals did their best to keep the public and school leaders informed, but references to a previous pandemic over a century ago provided little practical guidance. By the time statewide school closings were imminent, educators had scrambled to prepare viable emergency plans for remote operations. Many evolved as the shutdown dragged on through the end of the school year. Others kept a singular focus: just survive.

Reflecting on What Just Happened Fast forward to summer, when school districts breathed a collective, if brief, sigh of relief. July and August would be a time to take a hard look at data, see what worked well and what didn’t, help students who fell behind catch up, and, more than any other summer, to make sure schools could hit the ground running in September.

Professional educational organizations worked to provide support for their constituents based on what little information could be gathered, but it was clear at the end of the spring that there were almost as many approaches to remote operations as districts in the Garden State. No one size would fit all.

Enter The College of New Jersey’s Sustainable Jersey Digital Schools team. With assistance from program partners, the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey Department of Education, as well as supporters such as the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey PTA, and JerseyCAN, Larry Cocco, senior program consultant, recruited a cadre of education leaders to analyze two decades of research on virtual classrooms, plans from the 50 states, and four months of virtual school operations to develop the Roadmap for Remote Digital Learning. Released by Sustainable Jersey in time for school reopenings (in their many forms), the Roadmap identified a multitude of issues surrounding virtual learning and offered model practices and approaches proven successful around the country.

Avoiding the myth of “best practices,” the Roadmap neither specifies nor promotes any particular schedules, platforms, or technologies. It focuses instead on practical guidance for effective teaching, allowing districts to adapt recommendations based on available resources and the needs of their particular community. Each page highlights a different theme, provides a summary of findings, and shares resource links. Sample lessons and other documents from the field represent a dozen content and grade areas and scores of digital learning practices.

Challenges for School Leaders Understandably, districts’ top priority has been student and staff safety. PPE, social distancing, and distance learning tech have become new COVID-era considerations. But the pandemic also highlighted and exacerbated existing issues within districts. These include:

  • Equitable access to resources
  • Meaningful applications of technology
  • Cybersafety
  • Digital instruction skills
  • Mental health and social-emotional strategies
  • Supporting families

In addition, ongoing issues specific to boards of education and district leaders that indirectly impact student learning needed to be addressed, like:

  • Funding
  • Providing meals and health care support for families
  • Technology purchasing and infrastructure
  • Staffing needs and labor agreements
  • Facilities modifications and sanitizing
  • Reviewing and approving policy, curriculum, and emergency plan revisions
  • Managing stakeholder communications and expectations
  • Keeping track of and addressing changing state mandates
  • Liability issues

Districts varied widely in their ability to manage the new challenges, and it was impossible to excel in every area. By the end of four months, though, nearly all had developed digital learning plans that helped students complete their year with some degree of confidence.

Can Remote Learning Be as Effective as In-Person? For the last two decades, the main reference points for digital learning were college courses. Whether a positive or negative, predictions that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were going to change the face of education failed to come true. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education took its first serious look at online learning with a meta-analysis of research to that point. They found a lack of convincing evidence to make any recommendations, citing only a need for further rigorous study.

Not much has changed in a decade. In fact, what little research has been done has yet to support the efficacy of most technology-related initiatives, making experience, trial-and-error, and intuition the basis for many decisions. This could and should change post-COVID. Not only are dozens of new studies over the past six months under peer review, but districts have the opportunity to share and assess thousands of additional data points. These include not only student performance, but participation rates, time accessing content, tech support requests, and hours of professional learning.

Great teachers have most of the knowledge they need to make remote learning effective. Maslow’s hierarchy and Bloom’s taxonomy still apply. Making personal connections with students is more critical than ever. Technology need not be a barrier. One researcher noted that effective approaches do not place “too much focus on the technology in isolation, about its capacities and features,” but instead “on looking at how it integrates with… educational practice.” (Santally 2019)

While best practices may be a misnomer, the Roadmap did provide recommendations based on both research and vetted teaching techniques across the state. Table 1 summarizes strategies found to be better adapted to remote settings over the long term.

A New Pedagogy While there may be room in specific or short-term cases for practices listed on both sides of Table 1, it has become increasingly clear that teaching students online requires a new set of instructional approaches. Professional learning that initially focused on technologies has been shifting towards ways of teaching when students and teachers are not in the same physical space. For example, attention, engagement, and accountability are three major challenges teachers face when videoconferencing with students.

In 2013, Patrick et al recommended that schools focus “on redesigning instructional models first, then applying technology, not as the driver, but as the enabler for high-quality learning experiences that allow a teacher to personalize and optimize learning.”

This is especially critical for remote classroom scenarios. MacMahon et al (2020) noted, “The sudden shift to remote and online learning, as a result of isolation during COVID-19, has created a social disconnect. Carefully designed online collaborative learning can be a meaningful way for students…to develop the skills to regulate their own and others’ learning.”

Other shifts in pedagogy needed during remote learning include:

  • purposefully structuring more student interactivity
  • using active/problem-based learning methods
  • increased attention to social-emotional-mental health needs
  • eliciting more and different student feedback
  • providing students with both more structure (consistency) and more flexibility (choice)
  • differentiating approaches based on student age and capacity (e.g. hours online); and
  • redesigning assessments so they evaluate more than a student’s ability to Google information

Let Experience (and Data) Be Our Guide As destructive as the pandemic has been for many families, communities, and businesses, researchers are looking at new data on digital methods that could help schools not only adapt better and more quickly to future crises, but improve education as a whole, even during “normal” times. There is no reason that future school closings couldn’t be managed as well or better than during this pandemic.

Beyond providing continuity of learning during closings, digital education methods can be used to effectively engage students for:

  • Homebound instruction
  • Summer programs
  • Enrichment
  • After school opportunities
  • Alternative education programs
  • Supplemental support for students who most need it.

Change has happened. No matter what their previous expertise, educators are now fluent in the foreign language of digital learning. Flipped, blended, hybrid, synchronous, asynchronous, and breakout rooms have become part of the learning lexicon. We are facing critical issues like equity, special needs, bandwidth, community partnerships, and mental health head on. We understand better how important personalizing learning is, for all children. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours invested in just a few months have increased our ability to help students succeed under the most dire circumstances. Most importantly, we’ve become more nimble and flexible.

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but much good can come from this shared global experience. For the sake of our children, let’s see that it does. 

Marc Natanagara, Ed.D., an educational consultant, retired in June 2020 as assistant superintendent of Toms River School District. He previously service as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, principal/science supervisor for Hazlet Township Public School; and science teacher for Monmouth Regional High School.