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Under the Right Conditions, Can Remote Learning Be an Asset?

During the first week of the new year, parts of Minnesota were deluged by a winter storm, blanketing the Twin Cities and surrounding areas with almost a foot-and-a-half of snow.

Those conditions were enough to prompt school closures, and on Wednesday, Jan. 4, students in Minnetonka School District got a proper snow day. Many students, no doubt, built snowmen, went sledding and delighted in the unique childhood experience of an impromptu day out of school.

“People enjoy a snow day. It’s a rite of passage,” remarks David Law, superintendent of Minnetonka School District.

But the district decided and communicated to families in November that it would likely have just one snow day this year, with subsequent snow-related school closures treated as virtual learning days, at least at the middle and high school levels.

Minnetonka is one of dozens of districts — though possibly many more — that has redefined its relationship to remote learning, which was first introduced as an emergency measure during the throes of the pandemic. Now, district leaders say it offers flexibility, convenience and opportunities to maximize instructional time when forces such as extreme weather or illness threaten schools’ ability to operate in person.

“It can be a useful tool going forward,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), a research organization at Arizona State University. “It makes a lot of sense for districts to build in those contingency plans for remote instruction, to be more flexible and nimble.”

In February 2021, a RAND report that CRPE collaborated on found that one in five districts planned to continue offering some form of virtual learning. Comparable data hasn’t been collected over the past two years, so it’s unclear whether that has held true, but Lake believes that, for the most part, districts have ended their virtual programs and “swung back to what they know.” Yet anecdotally, and with some data on hand, it’s clear that not all districts have abandoned the skills they picked up in 2020.

Last fall, as the seasons began to change and the weather turned cooler, many school districts experienced high numbers of student and staff absences, due to a combination of flu, RSV and COVID-19.

Feeling empowered by their newfound aptitude for virtual schooling, some of the communities most affected — including those in North Carolina, Alabama, New Mexico and Indiana — decided to shift to remote learning for a couple of days, according to data provided by Burbio, a website that tracks school data. This allowed instruction to continue while afflicted students and staff recovered.

Such a move may dredge up complicated feelings among educators and families, concedes Law, the Minnesota superintendent, noting that there is “baggage” associated with remote learning in many communities due to the way it was rolled out and the sheer duration of it in 2020. In fact, in some places, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. In Iowa, for example, remote learning is effectively banned. But under the right circumstances, and when trust has been established and earned, district leaders say it can be an opportune lever to pull.

Heather J. Perry, superintendent of Gorham School District in Maine, says her community is receptive to the idea of short stints of remote learning. That’s because the district has made a commitment to families that remote learning would only be used when deemed necessary for safety.

“If we were to announce a remote learning day, they would know we had exhausted every other alternative before getting to that,” Perry explains. “They realize that’s a last resort for us — an absolute last resort for us.”

Gorham has communicated these intentions to families, even though the district has not had to switch to remote learning for any reason this school year. By setting expectations for when and how remote learning might be deployed, and assuring students, families and staff that any instance of remote learning would only be done on a temporary basis, Perry feels the district is primed to take any disruption in stride.

“The remote learning experience is not the same as a regular classroom experience. Nobody would argue that,” Perry says. “But if we have to use it, it’s a useful tool for public schools to have in a toolbox.”

Law agrees, saying, “It is a very handy option when we can’t have kids in person for some reason.”

In Minnetonka, though, the district was open to using remote learning as more than just a last resort. In October, the middle schools in the district went remote for one day during parent-teacher conferences.

The virtual learning, which was done asynchronously, allowed teachers to open up more slots to meet with families in person throughout the day. This was done at the middle school level only because elementary school teachers have a fraction of the number of students that middle school teachers do, and because high school teachers see diminished interest and participation from families during conferences.

The experiment in October, Law says, was largely viewed as a success.

“The parent response was generally positive,” he says, “and teachers loved it. Most teachers, if you said one day a week they could post an asynchronous lesson and focus on catching up while kids do work, they’d say absolutely.”

There was only occasional resistance, Law recalls: “I heard from one parent who really didn’t like her student being home, and I heard from her several times. Generally speaking [though], people thought, ‘Yeah, this makes sense.’”

His district is considering building in a practice remote learning day each year, ahead of winter, so teachers can “work out bugs” and “build in staff development around technology,” Law says, not unlike the way schools have fire and lockdown drills. This would allow for a less chaotic transition to remote learning when the need arises.

“When you’re in the flow,” Law explains, “it’s a routine teachers and students are used to. When you’re starting cold, it takes a while to start up. That’s certainly true for our youngest learners. … Other students are probably very out of practice.”

The learning curve could be steeper, too, since students would be doing remote learning with all new teachers.

He adds: “It’s a great tool, but also not something I’d say is excellent, intermittently, to just do.”

Few would argue it is a great just-because option, but many leaders, including Lake, of CRPE, still view it as preferable to the alternative, when the alternative is outright closures.

“It matters how much instructional time kids have,” Lake says. “Some instruction is better than no instruction.”

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