6 steps for building (and evolving) a distance learning program

This Los Angeles district will continue to solicit feedback for program improvements as it plans an Extended School Year program for special education students this summer.
Jeff Pelzel is the superintendent of schools for Newhall School District in Los Angeles County, California.
Jeff Pelzel is the superintendent of schools for Newhall School District in Los Angeles County, California.

How many school districts had a workable plan for distance learning before the coronavirus pandemic?

Our pre-K through grade 6 district didn’t. Like many others, we have been challenged with a rapid and disconcerting set of changes that have forced us to shift to distance learning more quickly than we ever imagined.

Here are six steps we have taken, and continue to evolve, to support teachers, students and families as we collectively adjust to delivering instructional services remotely.

Read: 292 free K-12 resources during coronavirus pandemic

1. Create and share a plan

In the Newhall School District in Los Angeles County, California, we created a three-phase Distance Learning Plan to ensure the continuity of learning for students:

  • Phase 1: Transition period (March 13-20): We made the decision to close our schools on March 13. That afternoon, teachers worked in their regularly scheduled professional learning communities to create student activities in English language arts, math, science and social studies. The activities were made available on each school’s website and in paper packets. Students’ work was not collected or graded. We relied on our existing systems, which included Blackboard Connect, email and websites, to communicate with families.
  • Phase 2: Preparation for online learning (March 23-April 3): Teachers attended three mandatory virtual trainings on Google Classroom, Google Meet and YouTube Studio. They were supported via additional online trainings, and, if needed, individual or team coaching. Working remotely within site-based grade level teams, teachers identified essential standards, planned and created online learning experiences, and uploaded activities and resources in a shared Google Drive. Working collectively not only eased the workload, but also promoted equity in instructional experiences.

    Working collectively not only eased the workload, but also promoted equity in instructional experiences.

  • Phase 3: Continuous online learning (April 13-present): Teachers are delivering instruction via the Google Suite for Education. This includes regular interaction with students and families, assessment, feedback, and personalized support. Every Friday, teachers collaborate in their PLCs on Google Meet or Zoom.

2. Support tech equity

Our district already had a 1-to-1 initiative in grades 3-6, and one device for every two students in kindergarten through grade 2. We also had 200 Chromebooks and internet service hot spots that students could check out and use at home. However, this didn’t provide the tools for every student to engage in distance learning, so we ordered more. To date, we have distributed 650 hot spots and 2,800 computers to students who are without these resources at home.

3. Continue to provide high-quality instruction

Our teachers are providing instruction using a variety of platforms and methods, including direct instruction, videos and written assignments. They continue to use many of the same online instructional resources they used in the classroom, such as Raz-Plus in reading and DreamBox in math. With programs such as Raz-Plus, teachers can provide students with standards-aligned instruction, personalized practice and online assessments, and they can access activity, progress and skill reports for individuals or the class.

More than 30% of our students are English learners, so all the online curriculum programs we use include materials in Spanish. In addition, our staff are providing supports for the services in each student’s IEP or 504 plan, and a special education support line is available to families.

Read: How one state is planning for in-person summer school

4. Communicate regularly with parents

We encourage parents to regularly check email, phone messages, and school and district websites for information regarding instruction and services. We created a page on the district website dedicated to parent support for distance learning. We also drafted letters in English and Spanish to address topics such as technology access, attendance, student work expectations and grading.

5. Provide tech support for families

One thing we underestimated: the number of parents who do not have email or a basic knowledge of technology. So we developed tutorial videos in English and Spanish on topics such as how to create a password, create an email, and navigate Google Classroom and other resources. We also created a call center to offer families live technical support for online learning resources, student software and school-provided devices.

Read: How superintendents can respond to early state reopening orders

6. Empower staff now—and moving forward

As district leaders, we must be willing to meet people where they are and give them the resources and the opportunities to grow. Throughout the move to distance learning, our teachers, instructional coaches, school leaders and staff have risen to the challenge and offered their support in a variety of ways—from conducting online trainings to translating tutorial videos.

While our schools will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, our goal is to ensure that students’ learning progresses so they are ready for the next grade level. With the statewide stay-at-home order currently in place, we have not yet decided how we will move forward with the new school year. We are committed to working with other local districts and state and county officials to make informed decisions about how we will move forward.

For now, we are beginning to plan for a distance learning format for an Extended School Year program in the summer to meet the needs of our special education students. In the meantime, we continue to reflect on how our schools can improve the flow of our distance learning program. Each week, we ask our site administrators to share their successes, challenges and needs, so we can initiate changes in our processes as needed. We will also continue to gather feedback from families and keep them informed.

Despite all the uncertainties heading into the 2020-21 school year, it is heartwarming to see our community rally together (virtually) to collaborate, innovate, persevere and excel.

Jeff Pelzel is the superintendent of schools for Newhall School District in California. Located in Los Angeles County, the district enrolls approximately 6,000 students in 10 pre-K through grade 6 schools.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.

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