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Lessons Learned From School-at-Home

Melinda Macht-Greenberg, PhD


Although it seems like an eternity, we are only finishing the first weeks of students being educated from home. I have been hearing feedback and suggestions from many parents in recent days. Most parents are reporting that kids from elementary school through college have been exhibiting increased worry and sadness this week. Reality is setting in that kids are not likely returning to school this year. Most are sad about not seeing their friends and teachers and are overwhelmed by what it all means. 


As I have said so many times before, schools are not just buildings where academic education is provided. If so, people could rely on remote, digital learning for content and instruction. We are in a situation now where everyone is engaged in remote learning. And most parents and kids agree that even if the content is fine, the experience of learning is not sustainable. Our current situation is shedding light on the fact that the benefits of school are as much from the social relationships as for the academics. 


Here is a helpful tip for parents: hire an online, virtual babysitter or school work helper. There are many high school and college students who would be great as tutors or homework helpers and could provide virtual support to help your child with doing schoolwork. In turn, this could free up parents for other work or activities.

This is a good time for schools to ask for feedback from parents.  Schools and parents are forming a new kind of partnership in educating the nation's children.  We should make sure there are opportunities for reflection to ensure that we are on the right track. 


In terms of remote learning and school-at-home, here are a few suggestions based on my conversations with numerous parents, colleagues, and my own teaching over the last two weeks.


Asynchronous teaching is not enough


Asynchronous teaching occurs when students are engaged in learning and educational activities on their own, without live interaction with teachers or peers. The materials are provided by teachers and some lessons may be  pre-recorded videos. Students may be asked to email or upload assignments and the teacher may review the responses and provide written feedback. There may also be discussion boards where students can respond to each other in writing or with their own video recorded responses. 


No matter what the age of the student, every student requires synchronous (live, in the moment) education. Synchronous teaching not only provides important delivery of instruction, but also improves mental health and motivation for students. All students need to engage in social learning. Social learning improves engagement in academic content and reduces depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. I often say, “connection is the cure”. That statement has never been more true than during these days of social distancing. While we are apart physically, we need to support students to connect visually whenever possible. 


Synchronous teaching can take different forms depending on the age and developmental level of the kids. For preschool and elementary school, I suggest that teachers have Morning Meeting live (through video platforms). Most of these platforms can be accessed on a smart phone even if a family does not have a computer or at least a student can participate auditorily by phone if they do not have access to a smartphone with a visual component. 


Morning meetings are helpful for a variety of reasons. The whole class can come together for a familiar routine to start the day. In and of itself, this would provide comfort to so many children. It would also give structure to the day as children would need to wake up at a certain time, join the class for morning meetings, and then would likely be motivated to continue with more academic work after the morning meeting. The familiar routine will provide a sense of reassurance that everything will be ok. It will also provide a much needed social opportunity for kids who spend so much of their time missing their friends.


For older students, there should be a daily homeroom. Teachers can use this time to take attendance and visually connect with all students while allowing students to connect with one another. The social connection is critical for the mental health and well being of middle and high schoolers who are feeling increasingly anxious and isolated. Teens are at risk for developing maladaptive coping strategies unless we provide them with constructive coping tasks. Daily visual check-ins give an opportunity to see how students are doing and help them initiate academic tasks.


It is important to recognize the value of the daily touchpoints for students. So many parents have said that having the daily live touchpoints would be a game changer for their families.


Assign projects that can be done in groups


No matter the age of the student, there are many benefits to assigning group projects rather than asking students to complete work in isolation. Social learning is much more fun and engaging than learning in isolation. Since we are going to be socially distanced for a while, it will help to increase the engagement of students through social learning opportunities. The key word here is SOCIAL. Students are very isolated right now and are experiencing high levels of sadness and anxiety related to the isolation. Group or partner assignments allow for collaboration with peers in getting work done and provides a structure for connecting with others.


An added benefit of group collaboration for younger students is that parents can take turns supervising the group (by phone or video conferencing). Given the struggles of parents who are working from home while taking care of and educating children, taking turns with parents would allow the community effect of parents helping other parents. The kids are engaged in structured tasks set out by teachers, and it would allow the parents to take turns focusing on other work.


Individual check in with students by phone or video at least three times a week


For elementary and middle school students, teachers should arrange brief 1:1 or small group check-ins at least three times per week in addition to morning meeting class time. These individual times give an opportunity to connect with students and to provide them with guidance and direct instruction in academic activities. 


High school teachers should meet at least once a week with students if not more. At a minimum it would mean that high school students would have 4-5 individual times with teachers from different departments per week to make sure that they are on track and to provide specific instruction in addition to asynchronous learning.


Individual parent meetings


Parents have become de facto teachers in the last few weeks. However, most parents are overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for children, educating kids, working, and putting food on the table. Parents should have the opportunity to connect with teachers by phone, email, or video chat at least weekly in order to make sure that parents have a plan to oversee the educational well being of their children. These meetings would also provide a supportive touchpoint for parents to help ease some of their anxiety about how their children are doing with school work.


Special education services are a necessity


Special education services must be provided for the same amount of time as on the service delivery grid of the IEP. However, what is provided might look different since class not in session. Parents and teachers should work closely together to determine how best to meet the needs of special education learners. This will differ greatly depending on the student’s age and skills. Parent consultation services on Part A of the Service Delivery Grid should increase since parents will be providing the bulk of the day-to-day support. 


It is essential that all accommodations needed to complete the online general education work are provided so that students with special needs can access the curriculum effectively.


In addition, schools need to get accessibility formats. For example, schools need to provide audio/digital formats for written text so that material is accessible for students with reading or visual impairments.


In sum, there are many suggestions that have emerged from conversations with parents, colleagues, and teachers after only a few weeks of “school-at-home”. More ideas will become apparent as we progress through these difficult times. In providing a substantive level of structure and social interaction, along with academic content, we will be able to help students emotionally, socially, and academically during this public health crisis. 


As educators and providers, we know what has to be done to help students during these challenging times. If we do not act quickly to provide the necessary programs and services now, we will be picking up the pieces for years to come. 

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