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Distance learning will be with us. Let's commit to doing it better.

One of the critical factors determining how much schools and districts improve their distance learning efforts will be whether they carefully listen to the parents and guardians of their students.

Distance learning is returning. Gov. Tim Walz’s “Safe Learning Plan” set up a formula with thresholds based on local public health data that schools and districts must meet before deciding to reopen. We know many districts, including Minneapolis Public Schools, plan to begin the year with distance learning based on the rising COVID-19 case count.

Whether you greet the announcement with relief, dread or (most likely) a mix of the two, this issue is settled at least for now. Since we know many students will participate in distance learning, let’s shift our focus to this essential question: How can we do distance learning better?

It’s not helpful or fair to throw shade on schools and districts for distance learning “Version 1.0.” Minnesota school administrators and teachers had to shift long-established systems of in-person instruction to an online format in a matter of days. Educators skilled in the interpersonal arts of instruction, facilitation, motivation, and compassion were suddenly constrained to the impersonal tactics of video conferences and emails while their own children also learned at home. Families and students struggled to adjust from the predictability of scheduled school days to the stressful shapelessness of remote learning.

It was tough all around. Minnesota must collectively commit to doing distance learning better this fall.

To get it right, involve students’ families

One of the critical factors determining how much schools and districts improve their distance learning efforts will be whether they carefully listen to the parents and guardians of their students. Parents are now closer to the experience of school than teachers, and their role in facilitating education has been greatly expanded. From tech support to discipline to motivation, it all falls primarily on parents. Only parents know the full context of what’s happening in a household, and how this impacts the success of individual learners.

To be sure, many schools and districts have collected feedback from families in surveys and listening sessions. This is a great start, but not good enough. Unless families are involved in the planning and implementation work for the 2020-2021 academic year, educational leaders are probably not going to get it right. We need to include Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and those with the most challenging circumstances in these decisions: families with special education learners, large families, homeless families, families of color, and families whose first language is not English.

In anticipation of continued distance learning this fall, The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota commissioned a survey to elicit in-depth feedback from BIPOC families and families with lower incomes. The survey was designed by ACT Research and implemented by The School Transformation Collaborative, a local parent leadership organization that is working to build parent councils and elevate parents’ voices and power within the education system. Survey findings were reviewed by parents in focus groups to identify key recommendations for distance learning “Version 2.0” this fall.

Key recommendations for ‘Version 2.0’

Patrice Relerford

Here are their recommendations:

  • Provide some live, teacher-led interaction with students every day. Overreliance on asynchronous learning exacerbated social isolation and demotivated students.

  • Adopt and implement streamlined and standardized learning and communications platforms. The hodge-podge of tools rolled out this spring was confusing for students and parents and resulted in overwhelming amounts of communication to parents.

  • Offer parents an orientation about the distance learning strategy of their child’s school. Schools can use this as an opportunity to help familiarize parents with their online platforms and provide clear expectations about how teachers and administrators will communicate with them.

  • Create opportunities for students to socialize with peers in real time. Some students were completely isolated this spring – about 15% of those in the Phillips survey had no social interaction with peers.

Review survey findings

It’s not too late to set the bar high for the new school year. Now that we have the guidelines for re-opening, we urge educational leaders to invite parents into their planning processes. Have them critique your current ideas. Have them share what they experienced last spring and what they hope to experience this fall. You can jump into parents’ ideas by reviewing the survey findings and watching the video of our recent virtual town hall conversation.

Joel Luedtke is the program director of The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota. Tierney Carroll is the founder of the School Transformation Collaborative. Patrice Relerford is the director of impact strategy for education at The Minneapolis Foundation.

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