Great Public Schools

Creating Access Points to Distance Learning

By Aly Nestler

2nd and 3rd grade teacher, Springfield Public Schools

Since the initial school closure on March 13, the most challenging issue I’ve had to grapple with has been trying to understand and address the inherent inequities involved in distance learning. While the goals of Distance Learning for All are admirable, they are remarkably challenging to achieve. Many students and families are in crisis and simply cannot be reached.

It has been very important for me, personally, to make contact with each of my students’ families. Even if people are not in the position to participate in distance learning, I wanted to make sure everyone is safe and has access to resources that are available to them. When I started reaching out on my own, I was able to reach about 20 of my 25 families. Then, I reached out to my broader team for help. Between the school psychologist, speech pathologist, ELD specialist and translator, and principal who are on my team, we were able to reach every one of my students and their families over the course of a week! This first experience in distance learning clarified how a collaborative approach is an absolute necessity to being able to reach as many students as possible. This approach takes time under normal circumstances, and is very intensive in times of social distancing.

As I reached out to my students and their families and worked with my teammates, it also became clear that students had different levels of access to the distance learning I was providing. I am overcoming this challenge by providing several access points to learning for students and families. I am hoping for a higher level of engagement by using multiple avenues for communication and learning. For example, many educators are being asked to provide learning grids each week that list activities and assignments in core and supplemental subjects to students and families. I am posting this learning grid to my learning management system (Seesaw), emailing it out to parents, and sending a Remind message telling people when it is posted. The lessons my team and I are creating allow for choice and varying levels of engagement with technology.

In addition, I am taking a flexible approach to designing distance learning lessons, giving families the opportunity to complete assignments in a manner that suits their schedule. Instead of having assignments and activities posted each day, I post everything at the same time and let families work through the activities as their time allows.

Finally, I am focusing on a move from the concept of “accountability” to feedback. Each one of my students and their caregivers have a different context. For a family who is experiencing food and housing instability, “feedback” may be weekly check ins to make sure they are able to access district-provided meals. For families who are in a less dire situation, I can focus on academic feedback using the tools in my learning management system (Seesaw), and assist students in participating in a variety of supplemental activities we are creating as an instructional team.

The most important piece of advice I can offer educators is to focus on connecting with students and their families during this incredibly difficult time. Academic instruction is important, but I think we need to remind ourselves to avoid pretending this is regular school. It is not regular school. We are in crisis, and everything is different than it was a month ago. For this very reason, our attempts at distance learning will not be perfect. It does not need to be perfect. We are trying our best, our students and their families are trying their best. Our principals and school leaders are trying their best. Every staff member supporting us is trying their best. That is more than good enough.

As I reached out to my students and their families and worked with my teammates, it also became clear that students had different levels of access to the distance learning I was providing. I am overcoming this challenge by providing several access points to learning for students and families.

Tools to Share

Here is an example of our first team learning grid. These grids are posted to families by the end of the working day on Friday so that everyone has an idea of what is coming the next week. We included links to resources to allow for ease of access as much as possible. We used Google Translate for families who speak languages other than English. I chose this because I think it is an example of collaboration from multiple educators. Not only our grade level team, but the music teacher and the Behavior Support TOSA contributed links and activities.

Here is an example of how I used a screen cast to help families access reading materials step by step. I also use screencast as a way to give directions to students during class meetings. I use screen cast o matic.

Here is an example of a student contact spreadsheet that my team us using.

Interested in sharing your Distance Learning story?

OEA believes in the value of sharing educators' experiences from around the state as a way to promote best practices, innovation, and to make connections across our broader collective. This has never been more true than now, during this unprecedented moment of teaching during a global health pandemic. What is working for you to connect with all your students? What is working for you to provide a sense of care for your students? We want to know.