Analysis: What Can We Learn From Districts That Responded Early to the Coronavirus Pandemics? Here Are 5 Takeaways

Updated May 9

The past six weeks of COVID-19 school closures have exposed remarkable variability in student experience across district and state lines. Students and families are exposed to a patchwork of vastly different approaches, expectations and opportunities.

As we step back to assess progress made thus far, we see that some districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) were able to launch comprehensive remote learning plans within a few weeks, while others are just beginning to provide basic curricular resources.

It’s impossible to point to a precise reason why one system moves quicker than another, and our research is limited to publicly available information. After systematically reviewing information on size, geography, communications and state guidance, some commonalities surface among districts that responded quickly to the crisis. These are not definitive truths but rather trends that should be studied more closely to inform efforts to learn lessons from the current crisis and build a more resilient school system.

Big systems can move fast

Large districts are sometimes portrayed as slow-moving bureaucracies, but size did not appear to slow the fast adoption of remote learning. Eight of the 10 largest districts in the country provide all students with access to formal curriculum, instruction and feedback on work/monitoring of their progress, as do five of the six largest CMOs we reviewed (each serving more than 25 schools).

Strong leadership sets the tone

During this unprecedented crisis, for which there is no guidebook to follow, states and districts must chart their own course. Leaders’ framing, messaging and delicate balancing of empathy with expectations proved critical to schools and systems taking decisive action in response.

Some leaders seem more comfortable exercising “cage-busting leadership” — challenging the laws, rules and regulations that prevent them from implementing true transformational changes — and rallying families and educators to do the same. In early April, Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner congratulated teachers for converting their traditional classrooms into at-home learning experiences. At the time, the district was one of 22 of the 82 we examined where teachers were delivering instruction and monitoring their students’ academic progress. “You can do this,” Scribner said in a video message to educators. “Maybe not perfectly at first, but well enough to continue educating your students and return some structure and normalcy to their lives.”

Contrast that with the tone of the Parent Guide School Closure FAQ from the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which says that “for most districts, it will make more sense to cancel school altogether than to organize a learning model that cannot be accessed equitably by all students, such as online learning, on short notice.” (The office changed its guidance after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the state’s schools closed.)

Preparation and centralized systems set some districts up for success

Other factors that appear to drive how quickly a district can mobilize have to do with its structure and preparation.

  • A clear, and often centralized, approach to curriculum, communications and decision-making

Districts that quickly moved to provide curriculum, instruction and progress monitoring had to quickly set clear expectations and provide consistent support — which is possible only if those things are already in place. CMOs like Achievement First, Uncommon Schools and Success Academies were able to establish cohesive learning programs and even share their resources online, in part because they have a centralized approach to curriculum and instruction across their schools. Districts with clear decision-making protocols and strong internal communication plans could roll out decisions to staff and families faster than those that needed to put these structures in place first.

  • Advance preparations taken

Even before Florida announced statewide school closures, Miami-Dade County Public Schools had already signed an agreement with its teachers union allowing remote learning plans to proceed. The district had already published an Instructional Continuity Plan that set clear expectations on curriculum to be used, teacher roles and supports, help for families and resources for special needs students and English learners. The plan was translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole, and the district has continued to add depth and sophistication to it.

Miami-Dade had also prepared for closures by surveying students to identify their technology needs and preferred communication methods. Similarly, KIPP regions in our review reached out to families prior to school closures to identify who needed technology or Wi-Fi hotspots.

  • Technology infrastructure already in place

Orange County Public Schools was one of several large districts in Florida that moved quickly and decisively into a remote learning plan with teachers leading instruction and monitoring student progress. The district already had a one-device-per-student policy in place in its middle and high schools, partnerships to help establish broadband connections and a pilot blended-learning initiative in some of its elementary schools. Students and teachers had also been using the Canvas learning management system for years. Districts that already had devices in students’ hands and systems to support student and teacher collaboration were well positioned to make a quick shift to remote instruction.

  • Student and family communication platforms already in use

Many districts were already using apps with students and families. Guilford County, North Carolina, already had the Canvas learning platform in place and used it to roll out a remote learning plan within a week of closure, while providing basic training to teachers and technical guidance to families who were already familiar with the technology.

State leadership and local flexibility matter

The three most populous states in the country — California, Florida and Texas — encompass about a quarter of the 82 districts we reviewed. Just three weeks into school closures, we saw disproportionate clusters of comprehensive remote learning plans in Florida and Texas but none in the districts reviewed in California. The Florida Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency had both communicated clear expectations to districts that learning needed to continue amid school closures, but the California Department of Education has not set such a requirement.

In fact, 18 of the 19 districts and CMOs in our review that rolled out comprehensive learning plans within the first three weeks are located in five states — Colorado, Florida, Maryland, New York and Texas. All those states have requirements or incentives for districts to submit remote learning plans. State organizations that insisted out of the gate that remote instruction would proceed, such as in Florida, seem to contribute to their students’ consistency of experience.

Local factors can also determine a district’s approach. A local collective bargaining agreement, for example, may constrain emergency measures or require districts to negotiate before proceeding with remote learning.

Across the country, some districts that started slowly and did not receive explicit pushes from states are now proceeding with remote learning plans. California, where no districts provided a comprehensive learning plan three weeks ago, now boasts four districts (or 50 percent of California districts reviewed) with such plans.

Decisive action now could pay dividends in the fall 

When school closure orders came in March, leaders across the country had to act quickly, with limited information. They didn’t necessarily know how long schools would stay closed. They had to quickly figure out how they would support families who lacked computers or broadband connections, how to deliver appropriate special education services remotely and how to solve countless other logistical challenges to shift instruction from the classroom to the cloud.

Now, leaders must prepare for summer and fall — and still without perfect information. It’s clear that most schools across the country will not be back in session this year and that when students return in the fall, school will look nothing like normal. Districts that quickly launched remote learning in the face of ambiguity in March will have a better sense of what problems are left to solve, which families they’re struggling to reach and what additional training their teachers will need to support students remotely in the fall.

Other school districts, like Detroit and San Diego, that have only recently begun to put ambitious remote learning plans into action, are now on similar learning curves.

School systems across the country that have not begun to test the possibilities of remote instruction are now at risk of getting caught unprepared a second time.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. You can find her on Twitter @RbnLake. Bree Dusseault is practitioner-in-residence at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, supporting its analysis of district and charter responses to COVID-19. She previously served as executive director of Green Dot Public Schools Washington, executive director of pK-12 schools for Seattle Public Schools, a researcher at CRPE, and as a principal and teacher. Travis Pillow is a senior fellow at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and former editor of redefinED, a website chronicling the new definition of public education in Florida and elsewhere.

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