In March of 2020, Minnesota schools were mandated to transition to distance learning to slow the spread of COVID-19. The charge of providing equitable and appropriate remote learning to all students gave administrators, educators and non-academic staff a few weeks to completely redesign education. This paper aims to describe one district’s experience in planning and offering distance education and build precedent other educational leaders may use in future designs.
This case study documents how one rural K12 district leveraged their strong foundation of technology integration and created crisis remote learning solutions for its most marginalized student populations including special education students, English learners and financially disadvantaged students.
This study shares examples of how this district prioritized relationships and the well-being of students and staff and outlines practical strategies for equitable distance learning that should be considered during and beyond emergency remote teaching.
This paper provides just-in-time practical advice for K12 administrators and educators on navigating crisis distance learning.
Peterson, L., Scharber, C., Thuesen, A. and Baskin, K. (2020), "A rapid response to COVID-19: one district’s pivot from technology integration to distance learning", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 5/6, pp. 461-469. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0131Download as .RIS
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited
On March 15, 2020 Minnesota’s governor announced that all schools across the state would be closed from March 18 to 27 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Walz, 2020a). This closure would allow districts to plan how they would strategize instruction. The subsequent mandate and guidelines from Minnesota’s Department of Education stated that all students would continue to receive appropriate, equitable educational materials and daily interaction with their licensed teacher(s) (Minnesota Department of Education [MDE], 2020; Walz, 2020b). To date, this statewide school closure lasts indefinitely and enacts a first time “distance learning” mandate in our state. This announcement sent Minnesota districts scrambling to design emergency remote learning plans from the ground up with most leaning on previous technology integration initiatives as a foundation.
Districts struggled with a myriad of questions related to the distance-learning mandate. A statewide Google Group was the medium for conversations about how to handle equity and access, special education individual education plan modifications, district device protocols, appropriate length of instruction for age levels and policies on video conferencing with students. The rush of individual districts to find answers to these questions created a surge of collaboration among administrators, coaches and educators across the state to share technology support documents, communication plans with parents and strategies for keeping students fed, cared for and educated from a distance.
This article shares a design case (Boling, 2010) of one district’s shift from traditional face-to-face education to crisis distance learning designed intentionally with equity as a priority. It would be premature to categorize this design case as a success or a failure, as the pandemic circumstances that led to its existence are not normal and still in motion. The details of this design case continue to evolve as the school year was still in session as this article was being written. What can be gleaned from this case are intentional design ideas that can inform future K12 school planning during crises.
Literature connection and methodology
There are specific terms and definitions used by researchers to describe different conceptualizations of learning modalities including face-to-face, blended and completely online environments. Scholars in these areas have offered a new term for use during pandemic and other crisis situations – emergency remote teaching (ERT) (Hodges et al., 2020):
ERT is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances. It involves the use of fully remote teaching solutions for instruction or education that would otherwise be delivered face-to-face or as blended or hybrid courses and that will return to that format once the crisis or emergency has abated. The primary objective in these circumstances is not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis.
ERT also highlights the considerations of accessibility, equity, digital divides, privacy and security (Trust, 2020). This term, ERT, helps to distinguish current crisis pedagogy from research-informed, high-quality online practices. For the foreseeable future, learning formats/situations will continue to resemble ERT; although, in many schools there is parallel planning for being able to provide more thoughtfully designed distance courses as part of longer-term, sustainable offerings for those that prefer or need to learn from home.
This article shares a design case of a Minnesota rural school district engaged in ERT during Spring 2020. A design case is a description of a real experience that was and continues to be intentionally designed and builds a body of precedent in the form of descriptions and experiences of a situated design process that may benefit others (Boling, 2010). We used critical case sampling for this design case (Smith, 2010) to highlight the equity components of Austin Public Schools’ (APS) pandemic planning that could inform other K12 districts who serve marginalized populations. Situated in an interpretive research paradigm, this rigorous design case used methods of prolonged engagement, persistent observation, triangulation of data, peer debriefing, member checks and thick description (Smith, 2010).
APS is located in a rural community with a small city 100 miles outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area in southern Minnesota. The community is anchored by a large meat processing company, Hormel Foods, that provides employment for large populations of immigrants and refugees. This district has almost 5,300 students: 2,968 of students (56%) qualify for free/reduced priced meals and 980 students (18.5%) receive special education services. The district is linguistically diverse with 48 different first languages spoken and 1,060 students (20%) are English learners (ELs) (MDE report card). In the past 30 years, Austin has transformed racially from almost 100% white to being more diverse than most Minnesota districts (Scoggins, 2020). APS students identify as 48% white, 28% Hispanic or Latinx, 10% Black or African American, 9% Asian, 3% two or more races, 2% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and 0.2% American Indian or Alaska Native (Minnesota Report Card, 2019). APS comprises four elementary schools, one intermediate (Grades 5–6) school, one middle school, one high school, one kindergarten center and one community-learning center that houses early childhood and adult basic education.
In 2013, the district began a large-scale investment in technology integration including devices, professional development (PD) capacity, cloud computing software and community partnerships. In Grades 5–12, the district provides Lenovo laptops for every student and teacher. These grades also have the enterprise version of Schoology, a popular K12 learning management system. In kindergarten through Grade 4, each classroom has a small set of laptops and a varying amount of iPads. These elementary grades have the enterprise version of Seesaw, a student portfolio and parent communication tool. All students and teachers have a Microsoft 365 account with a cloud suite of applications for communicating and collaborating. Although the district has a history of providing technologies, the (real-life) use of these tools over the past several years has largely depended on individual building principals and teachers themselves. Some classrooms are fully blended, whereas some classes never use technology. Prior to the pandemic, there was not a directive from APS’ principals on how often teachers should use devices, Schoology or Seesaw.
Alongside the investment of technological tools, in the Fall of 2014, APS created technology integration coach positions at every school in the district. These coaches, who are all former teachers, support teachers on blending pedagogy with technological tools through group PD workshops and individual coaching, offer input on district and school decisions and provide troubleshooting support to teachers and students.
For six years, APS and the Learning Technologies Media Lab at the University of Minnesota (UMN) have been in a research-practice partnership (RPP) (Coburn et al., 2013; Penuel and Gallagher, 2017), to support technology integration. RPPs tackle mutual problems of practice; in this circumstance, the UMN team shared research-based resources and participated in planning meetings in support roles to inform APS’ distance learning design. Lana Peterson and Cassie Scharber comprise the UMN team and work directly with APS’ technology integration coaches, principals and district leadership. Amy Thuesen is the technology integration coach at APS’ high school. Katie Baskin is the principal at one of APS’ elementary schools. These co-authors collaborated on this design case as well as consulted with APS’ district administrators, coaches and educators for peer debriefing, member checks and manuscript review.
Crisis distance learning and teaching during COVID-19
Early decisions and strategies
Per the state mandate, APS closed on Wednesday, March 18. Its spring break was scheduled the following week from Monday, March 23rd to Friday, the 27th. So, APS had three days to make decisions and plans for ERT and communicate with families by Friday, March 20th. Technology, instruction, communication, attendance, food distribution and meaningful feedback were all critical components of daily in-school experiences that needed to be addressed quickly, as students and families entered unknown daily routines. APS’ district administration, building principals and teacher leaders worked around the clock to strategize practices and protocols to support planning throughout the district. APS decided to use the term, “distance learning” to describe its teaching and learning strategies with its students and families during the pandemic, so this is the term used in this article.
While the goal was to support the continued academic growth for all students, the reality of students’ home-life situations guided leaders to be mindful of expectations. Students in Grades 5–12 had devices assigned to them prior to distance learning; Grades K-4 did not and there was not enough time to identify which students needed devices and distribute them. So, the most equitable and realistic plan at the elementary level was a blended distance learning approach with paper packet resources that were distributed outside schools every 3–4 weeks and opportunities (not required) to engage online in the Seesaw application. One APS elementary school used a weekly choice table for each grade to guide student work (Table 1). Table 1 includes “must do” columns for reading and math as well as “may do” columns. Each choice table was accompanied by worksheets and materials needed to complete the activities that the families turned in during the next packet pickup. Teachers also made weekly phone calls to students to ensure social-emotional health.
In the Grades 5–12, teachers leaned into using Schoology, Microsoft 365 and applications such as EdPuzzle and Zoom. Teachers who had embraced technology integration prior to the pandemic were predictably in less stressful positions than those who had not. Teachers have shared with principals and coaches that the previous years of PD and access to 1:1 technologies made them feel prepared for distance learning.
The initial hurdle was ensuring that APS’ distance learning plan was equitable and accessible to all students. Leaders recommended that new learning and assessments be put on hold. Instead, the first week was intentionally focused on assessing student and community internet access, (re)building staff and student/family relationships, reviewing past learning and completing make-up work. Many teachers who spent that first week focusing on these tasks found that subsequent weeks of distance learning evolved into more student engagement and higher student attendance than in classes where teachers tried to rush back into content instruction. This approach is supported by extensive research on the importance of social and emotional development and connection in physical and virtual classrooms (Rice and Kipp, 2020).
Austin’s instructional and technology coaches immediately developed a variety of PD offerings for the spectrum of teacher needs to prepare for distance learning. With two days of preparation time, these coaches used recorded video tutorials, instructional PDFs and open office hours to provide staff with training they needed. Key elements of this PD included choice, just-in-time/accessible formats, coach accessibility, a wide range of support (tech how-tos to informed online practices) and a “no question is a bad question” approach. Coaches continue to maintain this PD support through videoconference sign-ups and topic-specific training sessions and recordings. District leaders and technology coaches also lean heavily on its long-time partner for support. The UMN team helps consolidate various state- and nation-wide resources to assist principals in developing cohesive plans for individual buildings.
Strategies for humanizing distance learning
Distance learning can result in students and teachers feeling isolated and disconnected, which can impact engagement, achievement and attrition (Allen and Seaman, 2008; Kennedy and Ferdig, 2018). Perhaps the greatest challenge teachers and schools face in this pandemic is how to maintain relationships that have been nurtured for the first three-quarters of the school year. At the secondary level, Schoology provides an asynchronous platform for continuing personal connections between staff and students. At the start of distance learning, many teachers turned to discussion boards and media sharing, asking students to answer light-hearted questions and share pictures of favorite past-times or foods. These methods proved to be engaging for students and teachers continue to use this strategy. Online office hour videoconferences, which were initially intended to be used for synchronous content delivery, quickly became spaces for teachers and students to visit and banter, replicating the more personal staff/student interactions that comprise a typical face-to-face class. The relaxed atmosphere of these online conversations encourage students to feel comfortable asking questions, not just about course content, but about what the future might look like in terms of school and school events.
Principals and coaches are also prioritizing teachers’ social and emotional needs during this time. Before the pandemic, most teachers were on their feet, interacting with students all day and making just-in-time instructional shifts based on “reading the room.” Such a sharp pivot for teachers’ instructional practices was jarring and forced many to operate from a space of discomfort. Teachers are currently finding comfort in clear expectations and communication from administration, including encouraging them to take time away from their computer, acknowledging and normalizing that many teachers are also taking care of their own children at home and setting up admin-to individual-educator mental health check-ins.
Prioritizing equity for special education students, students without access and English learners
District leaders are aware of the geographical and socioeconomic barriers Austin students face including access to school-provided meals and the internet to engage in distance learning. So, 14 different sites across the city were established for lunch and breakfast pick-ups staffed by paraprofessionals and non-instructional staff with financial support from Hormel Foods. For those students without internet access, 5–12 building principals worked with families to identify free local internet services both in town and in farming neighborhoods. The Hormel Foundation also collaborated with the Austin Public Library and APS’ district tech services department to issue 200 Wi-Fi hotspots to students in Austin’s public and private schools at the end of April.
APS’ first priorities were equity and accessibility for students that need additional learning support. Technology coaches continually work with learning support specialists on identifying and making sure teachers use accessibility tools (closed captioning, text-to-speech and speech-to-text). Special education staff use individual and small group environments in synchronous video calls to assess students’ academics and continue social skills development. For elementary students, principals put devices in the hands of special education and EL students first. Technology coaches worked quickly to onboard families who had not previously connected digitally to communication apps and distributed classroom iPads and laptops to families who indicated they did not have access to a device at home.
In Austin, the EL students are at risk for great loss in terms of personal connection with teachers because of the added barrier of language. To counter this risk, APS’ bevy of success coaches (school/family liaisons who are fluent in Austin’s major home languages) and EL teachers spent the first two weeks making phone calls and conducting home visits to make sure that families with potential language barriers had the tools they needed to succeed. Additionally, local agencies such as the Parenting Resource Center and the Austin Welcome Center have been integral to fostering engagement between school staff and families. At the high school, EL teachers divided all limited English proficiency students in the building and made plans to connect personally with each student on a weekly basis focusing conversations around social and emotional topics.
Opportunities for growth
Based on anecdotal feedback from parents, students and teachers, distance learning communication, attendance and grading policies made by administrators are all opportunities for improvement. The biggest loss during distance learning were annual rituals and traditions that the community holds sacred including but not limited to graduation, sporting events, concerts and retirement banquets. Administrators and educators struggled to design replacement virtual events. The loss of these events were evident through grief expressed by students and families combined with a greater recognition of how central schools are to the Austin community.
Design cases offer a “preparation for action” (Stolterman, 2008; as cited in Boling, 2010) and this case offers solutions for K12 administrators, teachers, school board members, local agencies and collaborative partners to consider for future crises planning. Though this district benefited from the resource of a long-term research-practice partner, K12 school/districts without this relationship can call upon their own situated precedent and design knowledge to lead this type of systems-level equity-oriented thinking, decision-making and practice. This design case detailing APS’s experience of designing distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis offers design suggestions for creating equitable distance learning approaches for all students:
Let content instruction take a back seat, at least early on – just like you spend the first few weeks of the school year building relationships and expectations with students, you do the same thing during distance learning.
Lead with empathy. This is NOT just a simple transition from in-person learning to distance learning. This is learning during a crisis and is not normal. All stakeholders are more successful if they lead with empathy – toward parents who are working and managing their own children/students at home, toward students who are lonely and facing new responsibilities, toward families who may be facing additional difficulties because of increased/decreased work hours, toward all who have lost family members and toward themselves and other school staff who are feeling directionless and unmoored.
Keep technology integration visions “learning-first.” Transitioning to distance learning cannot be managed by just throwing technology tools, especially new ones, at students and teachers. Limit the use of new tech tools as much as possible and focus on what you have and what has worked well in the past.
Take care of your staff. Their mental, emotional and academic lift is like nothing they have endured before. They need grace to try, fail and succeed. They need administrators to understand their loss, support their need for contact and give them permission to give a family space when the need arises.
Collaborate with community partners. Local resources including non-profit, for-profit and higher education are trying to serve the same populations as you. Strategize how you can use shared capacity toward common goals and be open about your greatest needs.
Prioritize equity. Crisis remote learning has shined a spotlight on long-standing inequities, our most marginalized student population face within education. We must not forget or stop attending to these issues when we enter our post-pandemic educational modalities.
Limitations of this specific case include time constraints because of school being in session when this article was written, so there are additional case details that could inform its design knowledge. In addition, there were university-level data access limitations because of the ongoing pandemic that prohibited conducting research activities. This design case’s limitations may also be its lack of immediate utility for readers and/or its effectiveness in articulating the full scope of precedent K12 administrators and educators used when making design decisions (Boling, 2010). The usefulness of a design case is judged by its readers — it is not the case itself which is of value but rather its design knowledge, including rationales, processes, explanations and reflections that can be used across different fields (Boling, 2010). Therefore, we hope that by presenting this case and a discerning set of recommendations that can be made based on its in-progress status, other K12 schools/districts can proactively design for support and care of teachers, staff members, students and families during this current pandemic and into the future (Kelly, 2020).
Sample weekly choice table
|MUST DOs||MAY DOs|
|Reading and writing *Read 20 min daily*||Math||Science and Social Studies||Social and Emotional Skills||Art and Music||Physical Movement|
|Read a book and retell the story||Write numbers 1–120 in your notebook. Say them out loud as you write. Write and count aloud: by 1s, 2s, 5s, 10s to 120 count backwards 30–1||Draw a map of your house and color it in your notebook||Make a list of five things you can do to show kindness to others||Find some calming music to listen to while you work on other school work||25 wall push ups|
|Draw a picture for or write a letter to a friend or relative||Ask a grown up for a pile of coins-pennies, nickels and dimes. Sort and count piles||Look out your window or go outside and write or draw the signs of spring you see in your notebook||Make a list of five things you are good at||Collect objects from around your house in a variety of colors and arrange them in a rainbow order. You can use as many objects as you like||Do arm circles for 20× each direction|
|Hunt for words around your house and write them down in your notebook||Practice writing addition and subtraction facts for at least 15 min in your notebook||Create a “Good Gator” poster. Draw and write about how you can help people at home and in the community in your notebook||Tell someone in your house what you like about them||Turn on a song and keep the steady beat||Bounce a ball 25 times|
|Read a book and draw a picture of your favorite part in your notebook||Complete a puzzle or play a card game||Create a robot using stuff around your house||Choose a health video from https://jr.brainpop.com/health/ and complete the quiz||Gather 3–5 objects and arrange them. Draw the objects as you see them. This is a still life drawing||Do Gator Jumping Jacks ×3|
|Write three things you did this week in your notebook||Pick a number between 1–120. Show that number as many ways as you can in your notebook||Pick an animal and make a circle map about it. Draw a picture of the animal (map in bag)||Create a drawing of a you and a friend playing at school together||Watch a musical movie and sing along with your favorite song||15 over and back pushups|
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Kelly, L. (2020), “REECHing, not distance teaching”, Medium, available at: https://medium.com/@mslisamkelly/rejecting-distance-teaching-9b096cd6e4d9 (accessed 5 May 2020).
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Walz, T. (2020a), “Emergency executive order 20-02: authorizing and directing the commissioner of education to temporarily close schools to plan for a safe educational environment”, available at: https://mn.gov/governor/assets/EO%2020-02%20Final_tcm1055-423084%20%281%29_tcm1055-423779.pdf (accessed 5 May 2020).
Walz, T. (2020b), “Emergency executive order 20-19: authorizing and directing the commissioner of education to implement a distance learning period and continue to provide a safe learning environment for Minnesota’s students”, available at: https://mn.gov/governor/assets/2a.%20EO%2020-19%20FINAL%20SIGNED%20Filed_tcm1055-425019.pdf (accessed 5 May 2020).
This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education,” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 toward pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.