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Four Strategies for Distance Learning

April 21, 2020

As the statewide school closure began on March 16, many Michigan School districts hit pause and waited in hopes of reopening after Spring Break. Saline Area Schools, however, did not pause. Within hours of the state’s declaration, Saline teachers and administrators began organizing a plan to continue educating all students. Initially, in deference to equity, the method was to focus on supplemental instruction; skill maintenance rather than skill-building seemed to make the most sense. Many districts had valid concerns about fairness, staff capacity, and available resources. The reality is – Saline had similar apprehensions. However, the culture of the Saline district and the community is one of action. Leaping into action and using the last few weeks of March to develop a plan – Saline’s educators were prepared for the April 3, 2020, Executive Order that suspended in-person education and moved all public schools in Michigan to a distance-learning format.

Saline Schools launched its initial plan, minus the supplemental focus, on April 6, 2020. Now in Week #3, teachers, administrators, support staff, and students are learning every day how to make this system work. Four key areas are critical to the success of a distance learning program, especially when launched during an ongoing public health crisis. Those points are delineated below. 

Connections

Relationships are critical. The students need to know that we miss them. Impersonal, neutral “check-in” emails are not sufficient. Often, students need to connect with their classmates, other building staff members, and the community. Zoom calls, Google chats, and hangouts work well in a reciprocal fashion. Students “see” the teacher; the teacher does an eyes-on wellness check with the student. A global pandemic disrupts families in several ways: social, emotional, financial, educational, and health-wise. The disruption within families is genuine. Parents placed into new roles, routines are skewed, and folks are fearful of what lies ahead. The school, its teachers, administrators, and support staff, can provide families with some sense of normalcy amid chaos. Consistent relationship nurturing does just that. 

Flexibility

Indeed, this entire COVID-19 situation is an exercise in being flexible. Educators tend to do better when following the rules, adhering to a published schedule, managing a classroom with a meticulously crafted lesson plans, and controlling whenever possible, the intended outcome. Control gives educators a sense of safety. Leading a class, a school, or a district is often predicated on systems of control. Bell schedules, curricula, standards, grades, and contracts all serve to preserve a sense of order and control. In today’s environment, strict systems of control are no longer possible. Letting go and allowing creativity to blossom might be the advantageous outcome of this new delivery model. Breaking some of the convenient control conventions that have limited creative thinking in the past might lead to further learning outcomes – for both students and educators!  

Predictability

The pandemic and school closure certainly generated a strong sense of unpredictability and even fear. Even so, much remains the same. It has been paramount for our staff to share predictable routines, consistent instructional practices, and develop some “new normals” on which students and families can count. Already, I have come to expect the Sunday emails from teachers to my children as they set up the week for learning. I see each building Principal continue with staff and parent newsletters that establish and reinforce the predictable nature of how we share information and do business.

Empowerment

Much like the issue of control, this dynamic has shifted power in new ways. I have seen our educators allow students to demonstrate their learning in new ways. With rigid expectations gone, staff members are empowering students with opportunities (assignments) that enable them to think critically about the world around them. Empowering our students is a silver lining that is beginning to emerge.

Realizing that we are only a few weeks into this great distance learning experiment of 2020, please know that we continue to learn, shape content, and deliver instruction in new ways each day. This effort is crisis management and not a work of art. In sharing my thoughts to date, please do not infer that we have perfected distance learning and replaced the high-quality educational system that has been the norm. Chromebooks and weekly playlists and Zoom meetings are merely a way to promote relationships, flexibility, and predictability with instruction. I do believe that the four components listed above are aspects that will translate well back to in-person education. We all hope that happens soon. Be well, Saline.

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