Slow responses in shift to remote learning hurting students

A report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education shows the domino effect of delays in embracing virtual learning from the spring to now.
By: | October 28, 2020
Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Despite “the great effort” districts have made to embrace remote learning this fall, schools are still struggling to deliver high-quality instruction online and make up academic losses, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE).

With many districts still operating in fully remote or hybrid models  –and the expectation that more will return to virtual environments because of COVID-19 case increases nationwide – the CRPE said schools have provided “insufficient” learning for students, especially to those in underserved or vulnerable populations.

The analysis provided in “The Evidence Project” – which gleaned information from hundreds of districts and charter schools and more than 9 million students – showed a poor reaction by districts to meet challenges presented in the spring that then became heightened in the summer months. It noted that many schools opted to focus on traditional in-person or hybrid models instead of emphasizing efforts on remote learning. The CRPE said student losses were exacerbated by interference and “ill-advised” decisions from political leaders and by a lack of assistance from federal and state leaders throughout the pandemic.

“I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that spring didn’t go well,” said Robin Lake, director of the CRPE. “While a few districts really moved quickly, and took the pandemic as a challenge that they had to start solving immediately, the vast majority stayed in the mode of … we can ride this out for a couple of weeks, we can ignore the fact that we don’t have the technology in place, we don’t have the plans for special ed in place, and just hope it all goes away. But of course, it didn’t.”

Lake said that delay and the subsequent reaction during the summer period left many districts and their students in poor positions to deal with opening in the fall.

“We hoped to see a lot of districts really get their act together on remote instruction and move quickly to prepare for the fall,” she said. “Instead, what we generally saw were districts spending most of their time preparing for a return to in-person learning and hybrid instruction. Then at the 11th hour, realizing that wasn’t going to be possible and having to jump to the situation that they had prepared the least for: going back to remote learning.”

One month into the fall, the CRPE said that although there are positive signs from districts whose leaders have been swift to implement creative virtual learning frameworks – clearer grading and attendance policies, an embrace of live instruction, getting devices to students – “most can’t rise to meet the challenge”.

That has left students at least a half a year behind in reading and a year behind in math and led to further concerns that enrollments will further decline and that younger learners will continue to get less instruction. There is also concern from the CRPE that equity gaps will increase.

By the numbers

Back in the spring, the CRPE showed through its analysis that only 1 in 3 districts was actually able to pull off remote learning, and there were huge gaps in delivering adequate technology solutions. Only 43% of rural districts offered devices to students and 67% of districts nationwide didn’t even provide instruction. Less than half provided grades.

The difference in access between upper and lower-income families was massive. More than 40% of lower-income students, for example, were using cell phones to do schoolwork and 40% were using public wi-fi, while only 10% of upper-income students used cell phones and 6% needed public wi-fi. Teachers also received a lack of support, especially for vulnerable groups such as those who have disabilities, English Language Learners and those who experience homelessness.

Fast forward to spring, and the majority of districts (56%) were forced to delay their start because they didn’t have proper plans in place for virtual learning, according to the CRPE. Though schools are doing their level best to make up ground, many are still fighting to catch up.

“The fall story seems to be some improvements in remote learning, and some interesting examples of hybrid instruction going across the country,” Lake said. “But for the most part, districts really have tried to recreate what they’ve known. There’s this denial that’s been distracting from the focus on excellent teaching and quick remediation for learning loss, regardless of where students are at any given time. All the districts we’re talking to are feeling like that’s really insufficient for what’s needed going forward.”

And with remote instruction likely to be a go-to form of learning in the coming months, what are the expectations?

“This is likely to be a turbulent year with waves of closures,” Lake said. “We think we’re about to see a big move of announcements that districts will plan to stay closed throughout the winter.”

Added Bree Dusseault, Practitioner-In-Residence at CRPE: “I would anticipate districts having to really settle into the reality that at best, [schools] might be flexing between learning models, but probably worse, they’re going to be remote for up to a full year.”

Next steps

The CRPE highlighted several school districts and charter schools that excelled through the tumultuous previous six months, including Roaring Fork in Colorado, which has enjoyed higher attendance than before pandemic; Green Dot Public Schools in California, a charter school network that was able to go fully remote by mid-April with scores of technology offerings; and LEARN, another charter school organization in Illinois that not only offered personal technology  assistance but also financial and social-emotional support to students and parents.

The CPRE also shared in its report that the most promising district plans focused on these eight strategies:

  1. Clear, inclusive and regular communication
  2. A structured and meaningful 2020-21 learning plan
  3. A clear fall reopening plan
  4. Effective resource allocation
  5. Educational services for vulnerable populations
  6. Support to staff
  7. Health and safety measures in place
  8. Equitable access to education for all

Still, the CRPE noted that any strategies moving forward – likely remote – will need the backing of, and more succinct leadership from, federal agencies and states. In just a few days, there will be an election that could change the course of the country, and with it the future of education in America.

“Whatever the election brings, it’s really time for national and state leadership to help districts figure this out and insist that we get serious about understanding what kind of learning loss really has occurred, and what we’re going to do about it in ways that probably will push districts to do things pretty differently than they’ve done in the past,” Dusseault said. “[They must] get serious about closing the connectivity gap and get serious about transparency so that parents can know what to do for their kids if the district is not doing that for them.

Lake said: “States and the federal government have abdicated their responsibilities here. And so when we’ve tracked state guidance, there was very little in the hands-on approach to really tackling the challenge of remote learning and insisting that districts plan for multiple scenarios to avoid the reality that happened … having to shift back and forth and all over the place.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com


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