Op-Ed: Is Remote Learning Failing Students? Or Is District Leadership?

The author in his virtual classroom.
The author in his virtual classroom. Chris Christoff
It’s a common refrain: Remote learning is failing. It comes in many different variations, from “Remote learning is boring and unengaging” to “Remote learning is just homeschooling” to “Good teaching can’t be done remotely for small children.” I’m sure you’ve heard it. As a teacher, I have heard it. Everywhere. I have heard it from some parents. I hear it from other teachers. I even hear it from our own superintendent in every employee town hall. “Remote cannot work for our youngest learners.” “We must prioritize getting students into school buildings.” “We must let parents get back to work.”

This is the refrain that has been going on since March, when Denver Public Schools went remote. It’s been repeated so often it's become easy to believe. Maybe you’ve even experienced it: as a parent, a friend, a teacher.

The purpose of DPS central administration is to support teachers and students in order to successfully educate children citywide. During this pandemic, DPS has failed to carry out this mission successfully for all students and teachers in the district. DPS has neglected to provide support to and consistent plans for the significant number of families and teachers participating in remote learning as the pandemic rages out of control in metro Denver. DPS has failed to plan for and support the 44 percent of DPS families that have elected remote learning and the substantial number of families who cannot send their children in person as the pandemic rages out-of-control.

If you look at the remote learning that took place in March and April, there is no question: Remote learning was awful. In March, we kept expecting to go back to school. No one had any real time to prepare. No one had ever taught or experienced teaching virtually, especially at an elementary school level. The end of the last school year was crisis teaching, not remote education. At best, it was a crisis experiment. We were locked out of buildings with about one day's notice and were not able to provide materials to students.

So this school year should be better, right? By many accounts it is. Teachers have gotten better. But we are not yet good enough. The answer why is simple: Crisis learning never ended. DPS failed in the spring to provide teachers with adequate support and education so that they could make learning remotely a success. Today, teachers still have not received adequate training and support on how to teach virtually.

This May, as the 2019-2020 school year ended, we knew what the situation was likely to look like come August. DPS even put out a survey asking families whether they would opt for “in-person” learning (whatever that might look like) or if they would opt for 100 percent virtual learning; 44 percent of families chose virtual learning. That’s nearly half the district. That is a massive number of students — like 36,000 kids massive. That is 1,700 kindergarteners and over 2,000 kids in every other grade, many more in some cases. (Early Childhood Education, or ECE, was never given a remote option, so many families just chose not to enroll their children.) These numbers emphasize how many students DPS leadership failed to plan for over the summer and continue to fail four months into the school year.

Even though DPS administrators knew these numbers last spring, they did not put together a comprehensive and consistent plan for teachers or parents. DPS pushed ahead with the expectation of in-person learning in the fall and neglected to develop resources for remote learning, effectively ignoring the needs of half of the district. The results are sobering: Throughout the fall semester, schools toggled between remote and in-person at the drop of a hat, teachers were unsupported, and parents claimed remote learning was a failure.

What is the district’s hesitation to invest in its teachers so that students can learn successfully? We’ve seen that DPS has made investments during this pandemic. DPS invested in the digital infrastructure to make remote learning possible. We provided all students with laptops. We made sure that all students had access to the Internet. The district leadership stepped up to get students access to online learning. But then they dropped the ball, and continue to do so, when it comes to supporting teachers and the instruction and the learning they are trying to provide.

There were no trainings provided to teachers about how to teach remotely. There were few resources for teachers and even fewer materials to support students and families at home.

Instead, teachers were given mandates: Three hours of instruction must be live online meetings; you must use this online learning platform. Endless emails, documents and expectations have flowed from the DPS central administration, instructing teachers on all the things they must do, but with no support or training on how to do it. The only message teachers have heard over and over, from the highest leadership in the district, was that it couldn’t be done and that our focus should turn to in-person instruction — even as thousands of families have elected to stay remote all year. Given the district messaging and lack of support, teachers have resorted to doing “what they can” and hoping they make it through to when in-person learning resumes.

“Remote learning won’t work.” “Remote learning is failing.”

click to enlarge The author in his classroom in spring 2019. - CHRIS CHRISTOFF
The author in his classroom in spring 2019.
Chris Christoff
It’s become dogma. And it’s wrong. As a kindergarten and first-grade teacher, I have found that it absolutely can be done well. In my classroom, we are live for five hours every day. We play games and have conversations in breakout rooms. Children choose which stations and activities they would like to do for the day, just like when we were in person in the classroom. The children work in front of their computers all day, whether that is participating with the class or reading and writing independently; they move their computer and camera to show what they are doing. (Just like in the classroom, I can look around and see what the kids are doing.) The only times they go to their parents are during their lunch break or when something occurs that I cannot help with. We use minimal technology aside from the video chat platform, and experience relatively few technological issues. Successful remote learning reduces the load on parents or caregivers, and minimizes the need for technology support.

And the children are learning successfully! I have seen similar academic growth to what I would expect in the classroom. Kindergarteners learning letters and numbers, drawing and writing responses to text-based questions, learning to control their frustrations and using coping strategies. First-graders are learning how to read and write words with blends and silent “e,” having discussions about topics drawn from books we read, taking leadership in the classroom and helping others understand what they are supposed to be doing or facilitating sharing in small groups.

To ensure that every kid has everything they need to participate, the children in my class have their own bucket of supplies sent from my classroom supplies, everything from books from the classroom library to whiteboards and markers to Play-Doh and math tools. Every day we organize them as a class at the end of the day so that we can find everything again the next day.

Is remote learning all rainbows and sunshine? No, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Small groups are more productive and experience fewer interruptions. But whole group instruction is harder (in my opinion), as it is more difficult for kids to interact with one another. Discussion between kids can be stifled if you aren’t using breakout rooms. Some kids are less distracted over the course of the day; some are more distracted. But the lesson is that remote learning can be done successfully, and in a way that kids enjoy and look forward to — even our youngest kids in the district.

And the method described above is only one way to do remote learning; there are many other teachers out there who have figured out completely different ways of teaching virtually that work just as well. There is no one right way. But teachers haven’t had the exposure to the myriad of ways they can teach successfully via remote. If we are going to break out of this cycle of crisis learning, DPS must provide resources and training to teachers so that they can learn how to teach remotely and be successful — for even our youngest scholars. Because it can be done well.

The narrative perpetuated by upper-level leadership is damaging not only because of its effect on teachers and how it fails students, but because the narrative disproportionately affects students of color. As mentioned above, 44 percent of the district’s students opted for remote learning and will never set foot in a school building this year. And a significant number of that 44 percent are students of color and students who receive free/reduced lunch. DPS’s failure to support teachers in remote learning means that DPS fails to support some of its most vulnerable students.

What can we do about it? We can push the district to identify teachers and classrooms that are thriving virtually, and use them as examples. Those teachers can run trainings on how they are teaching and what is working well for them. Teachers who are struggling can be put in touch with people who are thriving, to help them identify something else that might work for them. Teachers can be given days to go and observe other classrooms to see how other teachers are doing it.

Why hasn’t DPS done this already? It remains unclear. Both teachers and principals have brought this plea for support to town halls, to meetings with school-board members, and included it in emails to district leadership. While teachers have attempted to share resources and information, teachers often have networks limited to their own school. It has been difficult to break out of this bubble and set up inter-school networks without district support, especially during a pandemic.

DPS must change course to offer support to teachers so that kids can learn successfully during this pandemic. We have seen the result of a failure to plan this past fall, and we owe it to teachers, kids and parents to break out of crisis learning and do remote learning well.

Chris Christoff holds a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Critical Pedagogy. He is a kindergarten and first-grade multi-age teacher in Denver Public Schools, where he has been teaching for seven years; he has been teaching 100 percent remote since March. Reach him at [email protected]

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