How Louisiana Districts Did a Quick Pandemic Pivot in the Spring — and Are Fine-Tuning Distance Learning for the New School Year

When the coronavirus roared into Louisiana, it came with a vengeance. Just four days passed between the first confirmed case of COVID-19 and Gov. John Bel Edwards’s decision, announced the afternoon of Friday, March 13, to close schools.

Compressed as that timeline was, Serena White, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Monroe City Schools, in the northern part of the state, already had two contracts for remote learning systems on her desk. The contracts were for digital versions of the in-classroom curriculum already in use in her schools.

White spent the weekend contacting other vendors who supply the 8,400-student district. And she got what she needed — fast: “That next Tuesday, our IT department started running four workshops a day until we had trained all 700 of our teachers.”

Even before the end of the last school year, as districts around the country were struggling to figure out the basics of distance learning, White and her colleagues were having conversations with their curriculum providers about what worked well and what needed to be done differently for the start of school in late August. With student engagement a key concern, they asked for shorter lessons and more opportunities built into digital platforms for teachers to check students’ understanding and push them to go further.

Students who choose distance learning for at least the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year will be able to watch lessons online whenever it works into their family’s schedule, talk about the lessons with classmates and interact with teachers daily in live small groups and to get personalized support.

The secret sauce: Several years ago, frustrated by the patchwork of abysmal academic materials being used in classrooms where student academic performance lagged, top brass at the Louisiana Department of Education assembled a panel of teacher-leaders and asked them to screen dozens of curricula. Only a few earned a top rating on a newly created list intended to signal quality to schools.

Education officials then extended statewide contracts to the providers that earned the state’s Tier One designation. To create an incentive for schools to adopt the materials, the state volunteered to help pay for them. As schools opted in, the state was able to use its leverage as a large customer to ask curriculum providers and others to create accompanying diagnostic assessments and teacher professional development materials.

After five years of state funding for the switch, the majority of Louisiana schools have adopted Tier One curriculum, and the number of teachers learning to use it has mushroomed. Research, including tracking by the RAND Corp., is in its infancy, but the strategy shows promise.

Monroe City Schools was one of the first to make the shift. So when the pandemic struck, White was able to simply contact curriculum providers who, anticipating the pandemic, were already making remote resources, and ask for the tweaks her district needed.

By contrast, reviews of state and district reopening plans show a focus on the physical requirements of opening schools for full- or part-time in-person classes, but not much in the way of guidance and support for teaching students online in a sustainable fashion.

As closures first loomed, doubling down on something that was showing initial success was an easy decision for Louisiana officials, said Hannah Dietsch, who until mid-July was the state Education Department’s assistant superintendent and chief strategy officer. “When the pandemic hit, we said, let’s not do a one-time crisis plan,” she says. “Let’s look at how we can build on the priorities we’ve already got.”

By May 1, Louisiana officials had released their first guidance on reopening schools for the 2020-21 academic year. They have since refined the plan, dubbed Strong Start 2020, to ensure that federal CARES Act funding grants underwrite as much of the cost of the switch as possible.

Cynthia Costello, director of instruction for New Orleans’s Crescent City Schools, says the plan came as a welcome relief. Without it, the district would have had to figure out how to modify dozens of curricula from preschool to 12th grade in a full range of subjects, including a dizzying array of high school electives.

“When the state stepped in, it solved myriad problems,” she says. “They had a really good sense of the stress point that schools had needing to decide really quickly what to buy to engage in distance learning.”

Freed from trying to find a digital version of every classroom material, Costello and other administrators could turn their attention to what was and wasn’t going well in the spring shutdown, with an eye toward improving distance learning for the long term.

For example, Crescent City leaders quickly realized that virtual real-time lessons are a logistical nightmare. “It’s hard to get all 30 kids in your class online at one time,” says Costello. “Some are sharing devices. There are family schedules.”

Instead, she asked the providers for more high-quality video lessons that students could watch on their own. This also enables teachers to spend their energy grading and responding to student work and engaging in small-group Zoom sessions with students who have similar needs.

As the state’s reopening plan evolved, many of the curriculum providers refined their materials accordingly, says Dietsch, making sure they are accessible to teachers and students both in person and in online and hybrid settings. Many also created or linked to material for students who will come back to school with learning losses.

Louisiana schools have also given feedback about how well the materials are meeting students’ and teachers’ needs. White had an “aha” moment about student engagement in the spring, when she walked into a room to find her fifth-grade son playing a video science lesson at twice normal speed and still taking the material in.

She told the story to the curriculum provider in question. “They said, ‘OK, that’s a clear sign it’s too long,’” says White. “We have to engage [students]. If you just have to watch a video or sit in a Zoom, that’s not going to happen.”

The developers trimmed the video lessons from 45 minutes to 15, a length that can better hold students’ attention. Like Crescent City’s Costello, White says the shorter lessons will enable teachers to capitalize on their live sessions with students, whether in person or online.

One of Louisiana’s Tier One providers, the nonprofit Zearn Math, was one of the providers whose contract was on White’s desk when it became clear schools were closing. Zearn staff spent the early part of March reaching out to districts to gather feedback about its digital resources.

“There were two distinct reactions,” says Shalinee Sharma, Zearn CEO and co-founder. “One was, ‘Oh my God, you’re right, this is totally going to happen,’ and ‘No way this will ever happen.’”

Because Zearn includes an app, Sharma says it was able to analyze information on who accessed remote lessons, when, how students engaged and whether they were making academic progress. Between March 16 and April 30, for example, more than 1 million new free Zearn student accounts were opened nationwide.

Zearn’s engineers added features like an automatic welcome letter sent to parents in a number of languages and compatibility with outdated Android devices that many families were resorting to using. Each time a student or a parent opened a child’s portal, the updates were there; the teachers didn’t have to do a thing.

White hopes other education leaders will see the availability of good remote resources as something to build on.

“Once we got through March to May, then there’s the realization that at least for this year, school will not be the same,” she says. “Then you’ve got to look at the opportunities.”

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation provide financial support to Zearn Math and The 74.

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