Analysis: When It Comes to Remote Learning, Too Many States Are Telling School Districts, ‘You’re on Your Own’


A version of this essay appeared on the Center on Reinventing Public Education blog.

Initial findings from the first month of the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s in-depth reviews of district and charter school organizations’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis have revealed major gaps in learning opportunities available to students.

States play critical roles in ensuring that schools address this challenge. Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, in partnership with the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative, recently released data showing that many states are encouraging districts to offer remote learning.

Our own review of state actions (see “About Our Analysis” below) shows that although states have indeed made efforts to offer guidance and resources to districts, too many have yet to set clear expectations for what remote learning should look like or to begin monitoring district progress.

While the crisis presents unprecedented challenges for states on multiple fronts, it is critical that they do more to clarify their expectations for what comes next. States must also ensure that districts develop remediation plans to address inevitable learning losses.

Nearly a third of states leave remote learning entirely to chance

Roughly a third of states (15) have offered no official directives to require remote learning or offered a plan for instruction, instead leaving decisions up to local leaders.

In Virginia, schools are closed for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. But decisions about whether to offer distance learning are left to local superintendents and school boards, though the state does offer some guidance on how districts might make up the lost learning time.

States such as North Carolina, West Virginia and Maine simply ask districts to attempt continued learning, as much as local conditions will allow.

Others, such as Massachusetts, California and Georgia, encourage districts to implement remote learning and provide extensive guidance to do so but fall short of setting a requirement or publicly imposing consequences.

Based on past experience, including implementation of the school improvement provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, leaving things to district discretion will likely lead to a patchwork of offerings that reflect the constraints and opportunities facing different localities.

29 states direct districts to adopt remote learning, but sometimes the ‘what’ is not well defined

As schools shuttered across the country, 29 states made the leap to direct school districts to offer distance learning. Colorado districts had to move to the cloud or face the prospect of making up missed days of school all summer. Arizona, Montana and North Dakota have threatened to revoke state funding from districts that do not implement remote learning.

We have seen some states provide clear expectations about what districts must offer. The Delaware Department of Education requires districts to provide an overview of their remote learning delivery model, including specifics for different grade levels, and to account for a specific number of instructional minutes and teaching days. By June 30, districts must complete 1,060 hours for grades K-11 and 1,032 hours for grade 12, and teachers are expected to report to work for 188. The department provides clear examples of how teachers and students may spend their time and recommends addressing only critical standards for the remaining weeks of school. The Alabama State Department of Education has provided a checklist of requirements and options for districts to choose from. Sections require districts to outline multiple instructional delivery options, their curriculum content providers, and their communication methods and providers.

But details on what constitutes remote learning remain sparse in some of these states, reflecting what appears to be an “anything goes” approach.

  • Maryland requires districts to offer remote learning but doesn’t publicly define what that is.
  • Iowa offers districts relief from state instructional time requirements as long as they submit a plan outlining “any methodology used to extend learning beyond brick-and-mortar district building.”
  • In Oklahoma, distance learning had to start April 6, but it is defined broadly as “any method of learning that happens outside the traditional school building.”

Half of all states do not require districts to submit a remote learning plan

Our review of districts’ remote learning plans tells us that school systems are taking radically different approaches. Yet half of states do not require districts to submit a remote learning plan, missing a critical opportunity to ensure that districts are pursuing effective approaches.

Wyoming shows that requiring plans can help drive strong district-level practices. Districts there had to describe planned instructional activities for all students and a method for monitoring attendance — features that remain relatively rare in our nationwide review of remote learning efforts in 82 school districts. The Cowboy State has approved all district plans and shared some as exemplars for their peers. Districts that meet the state requirements can receive a waiver for missed instructional time, and those that fall short could lose state funding.

States’ infrastructure for technical assistance is uneven

Some states, such as Kansas, have invested in detailed guidance documents that summarize best practices for remote learning. Other state and territorial governments have launched significant technical assistance efforts to support districts and students through this unprecedented crisis, such as:

  • The U.S. Virgin Islands has repurposed federal and state funds to purchase Chromebooks, ensure that all students have internet access and plan for the implementation of permanent distance-learning infrastructure.
  • Alaska launched an online learning platform in a new partnership with Florida Virtual School.
  • The Texas Education Agency has used funds allocated under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to create a grant program supporting districts’ instructional continuity efforts.

But in others, such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland, publicly available support for distance learning comes primarily from a list of websites, leaving districts largely on their own to figure out how to put remote learning into practice.

States must help drive effective remote learning

Inequities and learning gaps are widening across district lines and will continue to do so until more consistent expectations for student learning are established.

Students across the country are at risk of losing serious academic ground during prolonged school closures. Students whose parents can’t easily afford private tutors or who rely on special education services, as well as other vulnerable groups, are at the greatest risk of academic learning loss.

States must set ambitious expectations for remote learning and provide the assistance districts need to respond to the immediate crisis while preparing for large-scale remediation and continued disruptions in the fall. Inequities and learning gaps could soon widen across district lines and will continue to do so until states establish more consistent expectations and provide meaningful support to schools and districts.

About our analysis

To create this review, we visited each state’s Department of Education website and examined other official directives. We also reviewed other compilations of state actions, such as those provided by Education Week. We present information for 50 states and seven U.S. territories. In order to qualify as directing districts to adopt remote learning, the state had to provide clear language, such as articulating a start date for districts to begin remote learning; articulating consequences for districts that do not implement remote learning (e.g., lost funding) or incentives for districts to implement remote learning (e.g., flexibility in how mandatory instructional time is determined); or using unambiguous language, such as “must” or “require.” In order to qualify as requiring a remote learning plan, the state had to articulate an expectation, deadline or incentive for districts to create and submit a plan. While we reviewed plans for seven U.S. territories and Hawaii, the designations to direct districts to adopt remote learning or to submit a plan in those locales do not apply, as the district is administered by the state education agency.

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. Georgia Heyward is a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, where she leads a study of performance outcomes and system reforms in 18 “high-choice” cities, including Philadelphia. Ashley Jochim is a senior research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. CRPE Editorial Director Travis Pillow also contributed to this essay.

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