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  • by Blaine Helwig

Distance Learning – Pandemic Lessons Learned

The pandemic has brought to light many underlying issues in our society. Some incidents were surprising; for instance, I was astounded that 42% of American adults subsist from paycheck to paycheck each month with less than $400 in their bank account. Other phenomenon were expected. I have always been cognizant that human beings are social animals, but I did not know to what degree. The captivity of the shelter-in-place pressed my wife and me to take walks in our neighborhood at varying times of the day. In the first days of the Coronavirus lockdown, it was business as usual on these walks – people passed at a safe distance barely making eye contact. This is common behavior in a large urban area. However, by the fourth week of home incarceration, almost every passer-by waved or uttered a greeting. One fact became abundantly clear. The vast majority of people possess an inherent need to see others, talk and socialize and require human connections after only a short period of semi-isolation.

Distance Learning during the Pandemic is and was Needed

– No Doubt About It!

At the date of this writing, we still have a slew of unanswered questions on the virus. However, when it was apparent a viral pandemic was on the loose, superintendents were forced to close schools for the safety of the students, their families and school faculties. As every educator knows, student safety is always the first priority at a campus. With schools temporarily shuttered, educators adapted to students via ‘distance learning’ – a digital interface to maintain a continuum of student learning for the remainder of the school year. But, what lessons were learned through distance learning with so many students unaccustomed to this type of classroom?

Ad Hoc Elementary School Distance Learning Thoughts

in the Spring of 2020

The decision to continue distance learning in the fall of 2020 will be a difficult one. Apparently, there is a lower risk for children; but, based on the facts we have now, I have a concerns for the medical safety of teachers, custodians and campus administrators. Assuming there are not major developments prior to public schools opening and safety concerns are sufficiently addressed, schools will likely resume in August. However, if public school cannot resume normally, what have been some of the lessons learned about the current (ad hoc) elementary school distance learning in the spring of 2020?

Positive Points:

  1. Many students still had access to content and learning for the remainder of the 2020 school year. Teachers, administrators and school district personnel continue to do their best to educate students and adapt – despite the circumstances.

  2. Several students indicated that they received more one-on-one attention from their teacher than they did in the normal classroom setting.

Adverse Factors:

  1. It was not only the technological issues with digital access for many low-income students. Student accountability and student assistance became a distance challenge. The dependence on low-income parents to assist the children at home despite their own limitations in education and/or native language was apparent. The absolute reliance on parents ensuring that their children are completing the work as well as follow-ups is a real time demand with distance learning. The number of academic interventions students require to master material is omnipresent in regular classroom settings. Educators are well aware of the parent limitations under normal school operations, especially in Title 1 schools, but in ad-hoc distance learning, it adds a slew of moving parts in the learning process.

  2. Consistent distance learning engagement during the day would require a complete standardization of the curriculum. It requires a reputable vendor’s product for all elementary grades. However, the parents would need to be an integral part of the learning equation. This requirement is a Title 1 school challenge from elementary to high school – to state the obvious.

  3. Relationships are key to student success, and they are time dependent to develop. The consistency of interaction promotes a bond of commonality. Generally, by third grade, students implicitly conclude work and effort is part of daily schoolwork. However, students ardently expend effort for a relational teacher and not question, ‘why do I need to know this?’ with regard to curricular content. The relational teacher has developed a strong relationship where the student completes his or her work to please the teacher or out of mutual respect. In a distance learning, if this relationship is not well founded, the teacher-student connection will negatively affect the student learning.

  4. Teachers motivate students readily in a face-to-face setting. As are adults, kids are social beings. We look to each other for a sense of acknowledgement and recognition. Educators motivate students to press forward – place additional effort in the activity or task via an educator’s physical presence or encouraging words. As expected, increasing academic motivation is much more effective in a face-to-face situation than one would expect from a student staring at a computer screen in distance learning.

  5. A vast majority of title 1 elementary students possess academic literacy and numeracy gaps. This situation makes the instruction difficult if not impossible if rectified. The core lessons are grade level and assume that the gaps are not present, despite the contrary. These gaps are the primary reason for the onset of the achievement gap, and these gaps must be directly addressed in the course of a typical day of learning. Distance learning makes this very difficult to accomplish.

  6. Social adaptation and learning are critical skills learned at school settings. Students learn social rules and appropriate behaviors with others in classroom settings and social emotional lessons. Unfortunately, this type of behavioral learning is for all practical purposes lost in distance learning.

Fall 2020 – Pandemic Issues Affecting Public Schools

Barring a new development indicating children are more adversely affected than is currently believed, I believe schools will open in some form or fashion this fall. Parents cannot go back to work if their children are at home, and the days where one parent was a homemaker vanished decades ago. There will be an economic press to reopen the economy, and that objective is only viable if public schools reopen. What a school setting will look like is too early to tell. Most likely, there will be a myriad of safety adaptations, but in elementary schools these precautions are difficult to consistently maintain over time. The level of social distancing between teacher and student is practically non-existent with 4 to 7 year olds.

However, when children return to the classroom this fall, teachers should consider the following areas to begin the school year to ensure their temporary time apart in the spring does not become lost time, permanently.

  1. Diagnostically address the major areas of curriculum content not covered during the spring distance learning time period to determine if any learning gaps persist.

  2. Based on the diagnostics, alter the scope and sequence to include those areas in the fall semester.

  3. Use the literacy stop-gap programs to rectify fluency and non-negotiable word gaps (Free downloads at The New 3Rs Education Consulting). Use Formative Loop to rectify all math skill gaps in a structured and sequential manner (Formative Loop). Use Amara4education Bridge Resources to assist in the scope and sequence to ensure all students have mastered grade level concepts (Amara4Education).

Finally, if there is a spike in infections or deaths, and schools must return to distance learning, the effectiveness and equitable school education remains an issue. The adverse factors listed above will continue to impact the quality of education, especially the Title 1 elementary schools. Many of Title 1 elementary schools chronically struggle producing equitable outcomes with students physically in the classroom. Any long-term distance-learning model must address 5 out of 6 of these adverse factors for the remote possibility of adequacy and success with our most challenging student populations.

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