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4 ways to make remote learning better for everyone

The shift to online education is worsening inequality. These schools have lessons that could help.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

It’s 9 am on Tuesday, and at Comp Sci High in the Bronx, that means advisory. Students gather in small groups with their assigned advisers to get academic support as well as a little camaraderie.

Of course, it’s also 2020, so advisory looks a little different than it once did. Instead of sitting at desks in a classroom, the students gather on Zoom, and the first few minutes among this group of 11th graders is spent making sure everyone’s camera is on and everyone’s screen is at the correct angle. There is just enough time for someone to playfully complain that last night’s homework was too long.

Next, it’s time for the groups of eight or nine students to present their “Future Vision” projects. The advisers have asked their students to make presentations to help guide their upcoming parent conferences — complete with pastel backgrounds, inspirational quotes, or Bitmoji-style self-portraits — evaluating their progress so far and laying out their goals for the future.

The kids share their screens so everyone can see their work. One student gives herself high marks for dependability, but says she struggles with procrastination: “I need to learn how to do my work early so I don’t stress about it later.” Another says she’s actually become more responsible during quarantine. A third says his long-term goal is to “go to college and learn more about video game design because that’s my dream job.”

As they present, the other students and advisers listen and give feedback. One teacher, Sherry Mao, tells a student her slideshow could stand to be a little “zhuzhed up.” Another, Eddy Mosley, suggests that one of his advisees include some slides in Spanish, since that’s his mom’s first language.

“I know your story already,” Mosley says. “I’ve been watching you do it for two years. This is for you to explain to Mom.”

Remote learning like what’s happening at Comp Sci got a bad name this spring, with students falling behind in their classes, or in some cases being unable to attend class at all. The problems were especially acute for low-income students and students of color — one analysis of online learning data, for example, found that the move online could put the average student seven months behind academically, while the average Latinx student lost nine months and the average Black student lost 10. And some fear that with many schools at least partially remote this fall, those inequalities will only get worse.

But at Comp Sci High, a charter school and part of the Urban Assembly network in New York, teachers, administrators, and students are doing everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen. The school serves a majority Latinx and Black student body, 84 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and many of the kids have experienced severe hardships this year, from food insecurity to losing family members to Covid-19.

But as was clear from Tuesday morning’s advisory, many students have also made great strides, from learning new skills to taking AP exams to working toward their chosen careers. Even in the midst of a pandemic, 73 percent of students got into paid internships or training programs this summer.

While Comp Sci students are slated to return to the building on a hybrid model later this fall, for now, their teachers and administrators — along with others around the country who have been fighting to make remote education work — have lessons for schools struggling to offer a fair, equitable, and effective education to all students during a pandemic that’s nowhere near over.

Those lessons aren’t necessarily complicated — they range from making sure families have food on the table to using small groups like advisory to foster strong relationships with students. “If there’s no physical building, then the relationships and the community are essentially all that’s left,” Comp Sci principal David Noah told Vox.

But putting such strategies into practice across the country will take direction — and money — from states and the federal government. Without that, it will be on schools, often underfunded to begin with, to meet unprecedented challenges in a time of unprecedented need.

First, make sure students have their basic needs met

At Comp Sci, the transition to remote learning in the spring started with meeting some of students’ most basic needs. With the building closed, many students lost what had once been a reliable source of food, threatening their physical and psychological health as well as their ability to focus on school.

So the school started a GoFundMe, raising about $40,000 for groceries, medical supplies, and, for a few families, funeral costs. In late March and early April, the Bronx was one of the hardest-hit parts of the hardest-hit city by Covid-19 in the country.

“We knew right away that there was going to be this tremendous need,” Noah said.

Other schools serving low-income communities did something similar. When Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, also in the Bronx, shut down in March, it sent students home with bags of food and hygiene supplies, principal Jeff Palladino told Vox. And in the weeks that followed, “we were doing a lot of triaging of our community,” he said, delivering gift cards to families so they could buy groceries, and even helping them find necessities when grocery store shelves were bare.

After core needs like food came the need for internet access so students could participate in remote classes. As of 2019, 17 percent of American students lacked a computer at home, and 18 percent lacked broadband internet, with low-income families and families of color especially likely to be without these services, according to the Associated Press.

At Comp Sci High, each student already had a laptop, but connectivity was an issue. So the school worked with local cable providers and philanthropic organizations to get students access to mobile hot spots, in some cases physically dropping them off at their homes. “I would stop at kids’ houses and buzz their buzzer and leave it in the lobby,” Noah said.

Another issue was physical space. Many students at Comp Sci live in small apartments with siblings also trying to attend remote school, and they had difficulty finding a quiet place to connect to their classes and do schoolwork. “The house is full of distractions and temptation: video games, but also parents needing them to take care of three younger siblings,” Noah said.

This was a more difficult problem than a lack of devices or internet, Noah said, and the only way the school found to help students was to be “almost insane about how much we were in touch with them.”

Keeping in touch during a pandemic, over and above their normal work grading and giving lessons, takes a lot for already overstretched educators. In the spring, teachers at Comp Sci were “even more burnt out than they normally are,” from texting and talking with students at all hours of the day and night to help them do their work remotely, Noah said.

But all that texting and talking was part of a broader effort, not just to make sure students had food and internet access but also to help them stay connected to the school.

Next, build relationships

With the physical building closed and kids spread out across the city, building relationships between students and teachers became especially critical. “If they don’t feel a connection to us, then remote learning isn’t going to work very well,” Noah said.

Throughout the spring, students at Comp Sci had check-ins with their academic advisers by call or text each morning, and a more in-depth, one-on-one advising meeting three times a week. Teachers also tracked students’ work daily, so if they missed an assignment, advisers would know right away and could bring it up at the next meeting.

And this fall, Noah and others at the school designed the schedule with the need for personal connection in mind. Under the school’s planned hybrid schedule, students will alternate between days of live instruction (either remote or in-person) and days of asynchronous learning at home. But every student has advisory every morning at 9, regardless of whether they’re in the building.

Meanwhile, the school is keeping remote class size down to 10 or 11 students, even though it means less live class time. “A remote class of 30 kids is very ineffective because you can’t have one-to-one contact with each kid,” Noah said. But by keeping students in small groups, “the class time can be truly meaningful.”

Kareem Neal, who teaches special education science and social studies at a Phoenix high school serving a primarily low-income community, used a similar strategy of one-on-one check-ins when his school went remote in the spring. He spent the first two weeks after the building closed calling his students and their families, with a translator if necessary, to find out if they needed mobile hot spots or other support. “It was about improving communication as much as possible,” he said.

In the spring, Neal essentially converted his entire class into one-on-one lessons, guiding them through an online curriculum and working with them on the goals in their Individualized Education Programs (a road map that helps make sure students with disabilities receive a fair education). He has more students this fall, so he’s doing more group instruction, but the paraprofessionals he works with are still conducting one-on-one sessions with his students to make sure they get individual attention.

Overall, educators and experts say this kind of connection-building is key to making online learning work.

“One of the most important things that schools and districts can do right now is making sure that there are supportive relationships and one-on-one connections with every student, particularly those who have been historically underserved,” Justina Schlund, director of field learning at the nonprofit Casel: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, told Vox in an email. “We’ve heard from districts that we work with that this has been a key determinant of whether students show up for online learning — if they feel like they have a relationship with their teacher and their peers.”

Adapt, but keep standards high

Mosley is the first to admit he struggled with remote instruction at the beginning. A former aspiring comedian, “I relied heavily on my presence” to entertain and inspire students in the classroom, he said. That approach just didn’t work as well over Zoom. He and many other teachers at Comp Sci “had to change our collective mindset and approach toward what teaching was,” he said.

For Mosley, that meant lecturing less and paying more attention to his students’ interests and experiences. “One of our big shifts is just using the students as a resource,” he said. As part of one class activity, for example, kids had to talk about their favorite superheroes and villains. It turned out that “every kid loves the Joker,” Mosley said. So he used an image of the way the character of the Joker changed over time to teach a later lesson on the computer science concept of abstraction.

“Being able to show them how the anime that they love, the music that they listen to, the culture that they’ve been brought up in, how those things can have academic value and merit, and how they can be transferred into what we’re learning — that’s what computer science is all about,” Mosley said.

Sometimes, adapting to remote instruction means doing less. Instructors at Fannie Lou Hamer learned that in the spring, Palladino said. Now, going into the fall with a hybrid model in which teachers will only see kids face-to-face for a few hours a week, “you’re not going to be able to get to all the things we usually get to,” he said. So the question is, “how do you plan less and try to make it deeper?”

But even with less time for instruction, academic rigor is still important. The students at Fannie Lou Hamer need to know “that the adults in the building care about not just their emotional well-being or their physical well-being, but we also care about their intellectual prowess, and we are going to continue to give them materials and pose questions to them so they can sharpen that intellectualism,” Palladino said.

Schools like Fannie Lou Hamer have been going above and beyond to help kids. But with the pandemic heading into its seventh month, it’s increasingly clear that individual teachers and administrators can’t solve the equity problems caused by remote learning all on their own.

Schools need help, too

To close the gaps that threaten to widen across the country between low-income and higher-income students, and between white students and students of color, schools and districts need leadership from the top, educators say.

“We have an education system that is remarkably and uniquely decentralized, and in the context of this kind of pandemic, I think that that is just a recipe for furthering inequality,” Morgan Polikoff, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, told Vox. To remedy that, “states really need to play a big role.”

When it comes to instruction, that could mean putting out teaching resources that are easy for educators to download and use, Polikoff said. That way, “we at least have a good sense that students who are getting live instruction are using a curriculum that makes sense” — especially important when time for live instruction is so scarce.

States and the federal government should also be helping schools close the digital divide. “The solution is pretty straightforward,” Polikoff said. “Throw money at the problem, and buy the technology that students need.” Beyond getting hot spots and devices to all students, some have advocated for making internet access a public utility so that everyone is online, as Vox’s Emily Stewart reports.

Schools and districts may also need additional staff to make sure students are getting individualized attention if they need it. Some parts of the country have experimented with programs to give kids one-on-one help — for example, Tennessee created a tutoring corps to help students avoid summer learning loss. But so far, there’s been little talk of such programs on a national scale, and some fear that pandemic-related budget cuts will lead many districts to lay off teachers, rather than hiring more.

And nationwide solutions feel out of reach at a time when the Trump administration appears more interested in pressuring schools to open physically regardless of the risks or in punishing them for the way they teach history than in leading the way on remote education. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to approve a second federal relief package that could give school systems much-needed funds. As Polikoff put it, “Republicans don’t want to spend money on public schools.”

That leaves Comp Sci and other schools like it largely on their own when it comes to making sure their kids get the best education possible right now. But despite a lack of guidance from the top and an uncertain national situation, they — and their students — are persevering.

Even through Zoom, with internet connections cutting out and younger siblings making noise in the background, Comp Sci students’ pride in their school, and themselves, is palpable. As one sophomore put it, “through all this negativity in the world, this school’s brought a lot more positivity.”


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