In an unprecedented show of flexibility, many schools across the nation launched virtual learning programs for their entire school populations in the middle of the spring semester in a matter of only weeks.

That is a remarkable accomplishment.

Now, as schools plan for the coming school year, it is the perfect time to pause, reflect, and determine how to solidify the newly created virtual learning programs as part of their program offerings.

Even when social distancing restrictions eventually ease, and our school buildings reopen, we will never be able to put the online schooling “cat” back in the bag.

Families now know that online schooling is possible in their very own neighborhood schools, and some of them will demand continued access to this option.

Some families and students will feel relief when we reopen school buildings, and they can return to the familiar rhythm of traditional schooling. However, an increasing number of families and students have now discovered that they like the flexibility of virtual school in the comfort of their homes. And they also do not miss the archaic one-size-fits-all approach of the regular school program.

Challenges exist when educating students virtually, but for some, the positives of virtual learning will outweigh the difficulties. Just as for some, the benefits of traditional schooling outweigh the detractors.

As consumers of public education, we are accustomed to imperfect systems that don’t necessarily meet the individual needs of our children. Still, we have been conditioned to accept what is provided in a world of limited options.

That narrative changed when we witnessed our schools implement drastically different distance learning models, with only weeks or even days to adapt and respond to a crisis. We now know our schools can provide creative schooling options to serve students if they so choose.

At a minimum, we know that many schools are highly capable of providing a virtual learning program or even a blended option.

The Pivot to Virtual Learning 

We all saw the pivot take place, the moment when public schools suddenly opened up their minds and focused their resources, operational know-how, and instructional expertise on creating a new way of schooling.

Schools pushed through the boundaries of limitations and with little time, little resources, and massive creativity they created distance learning programs, fed students outside the walls of their cafeterias, provided wifi hotspots and tech devices, and amped up their teachers’ use of tech for instructional purposes.

Not only did our schools pivot quickly, but our state governments also quickly modified or waived laws and guidelines in order to allow schools to do what needed to be done for kids. They dismissed the “that’ll never work, it’s never been done” mantra and instead focused on figuring out what needed to happen to serve students.

Now families know that schools can create new ways of educating, despite insistence from those same schools that they do not have the resources, the expertise, or a reason to redesign their programs.

Those families who have found newfound freedom in virtual learning in the midst of a national #stayathome movement may not be willing to give it up when this passes.

Schools may wish they could go back to the way things were, but is that really what is best for our students and our communities?

Is it a “student-centered” approach to just shutter the newly created virtual learning programs as soon as the state allows?

Is it best to push all of our students and teachers back into a classroom that operates on a regimented bell schedule where:

  • every content area demands equal time,
  • every student must master grade-level content in the same way and at the same time,
  • every student must sit in their desk for 7 hours a day, and
  • family time and school time are distinct, separate compartments of students’ lives?

Perhaps a more chilling question to ask schools is, “are you willing to lose even more student enrollment to other, more flexible schooling options?”

Schools now have a choice in how they respond.

Schools can try to pretend this never happened and lose all the possibilities of how to better personalize how they serve students.

OR

Schools can seize upon the opportunity, the learning moments of this crisis-created pilot, and create a virtual learning program that provides families with a viable choice for online public education with their very own neighborhood school.

Moving from Virtual Learning 1.0 to Virtual Learning 2.0

Schools currently have a skeleton plan on how to get through this school year and the emergency in which we have found ourselves. They have made quick choices to map out the basics of their new Virtual Learning 1.0 (VL 1.0) programs, including what tech programs to use, what content teachers will teach, and how, or even if, grades will be assigned.

Now, it’s time to figure out how to move forward with those virtual programs in the coming school year and beyond.

If schools want to be competitive in this now radically-changed education landscape, then they will need to seize upon the opportunity they have been given by the pandemic-stimulated learning shift and begin designing their Virtual Learning 2.0 (VL 2.0) programs.

Schools can serve families who are interested in continuing online learning by creating long-term virtual programs or blended learning programs (partially online and partially on-campus) within their districts. The shift from Virtual Learning 1.0 to Virtual Learning 2.0 should include:

  1. A needs assessment to determine the level of community interest,
  2. Feedback solicited from all stakeholders on the strengths and weaknesses of VL 1.0,
  3. Development of a clear vision for VL 2.0,
  4. A review and update of all key decision points for VL 1.0 (tech, curriculum, instructional methodology, norms for remote learning, etc.) to pilot in the 2020-2021 school year.

Most schools acknowledge that the program they provided in their Virtual Learning 1.0 launch is filled with gaps simply because they had to move at the speed of light. Thankfully, there is time to make improvements as schools look at providing a smaller internal program.

Conduct a Virtual Learning Needs Assessment 

A school’s first step will be to survey parents and students to determine the level of interest in continuing virtual learning. The needs assessment should allow parents to indicate their interest using a scale instead of a stark yes or no. Some items to consider including in the needs assessment:

  • Include questions asking for demographic information, special programs, school lunch program status, access to wifi in the home, and role (parent/student) so that you can better analyze the results. Allow an opportunity to provide information for multiple students in the same survey.
  • How interested would you be in enrolling your student in a fully-online virtual learning program? This program would be 100% online, meaning the students would not attend in-person classes at any of our physical campuses.
  • How interested would you be in enrolling your student in a blended learning program, with some days of schooling at home online and some days schooling on campus? This program would require the student to attend some days each week on campus, with the rest of the instruction occurring online.

While determining interest in VL 2.0, schools should also gather feedback from all stakeholder groups on the quality of VL 1.0 provided this spring. Schools can combine the feedback request with the needs assessment for the sake of time.

Stakeholder Input on Virtual Learning 1.0

Use surveys, town halls, and faculty meetings to gather feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of VL 1.0. Be sure to ask for input from teachers, non-teaching staff, students, parents, administrators, board members, and community members.

It may be painful to hear because VL 1.0 was developed in such a rush and under such dire circumstances, but the feedback is valuable and an essential resource for planning future virtual learning iterations.

Schools should ask for effectiveness ratings (such as how well did [component] meet your child’s needs) for the specific elements of the fully online or remote learning program, such as

  • Instructional quality of online class meetings, required schedule of online class meetings (did kids need more or less support),
  • Communication method and timeliness of assignments, deadlines for assignments and support for late assignments, the response time of teachers for requested assistance, quality of assignments,
  • Tech platforms and devices provided by the school

Ask questions that get to the heart of how supported they felt at home, how successfully they felt their students had adapted to remote learning, what specific challenges they experienced during remote learning. Ask for their wish list items for an improved VL 2.0.

We must gather feedback on the program that has been provided, understanding that the feedback may be critical but preparing ourselves to be okay with the criticism.

Schools and educators did the best that they could under the circumstances. What we cannot do is ignore this opportunity to listen to our communities and to acknowledge how they have experienced schooling amid the pandemic.

Identify the Vision for Virtual Learning 2.0 

Schools will use the needs assessment and the specific, targeted feedback data to draft a long-term vision for virtual learning. This vision will identify the school’s purpose in providing the program and will include students served, services provided, and planned outcomes.

The vision for VL 1.0 was to try to maintain continuity of learning in a crisis. The vision for VL 2.0 and beyond will be less stress-driven and built on the lessons learned from VL 1.0.

The clock cannot be turned back, so schools must move forward, creating a sharper vision for a virtual learning option within the school’s regular programs, improving upon and designing an even better distance learning option for families.

Once the vision is created, it will drive the school’s decisions for each component of the newly designed VL 2.0.

Develop the Virtual Learning 2.0 Plan 

After holding feedback meetings or launching a survey, schools will have access to key data points, both quantitative and qualitative, to analyze as they reflect on the Virtual Learning 1.0 program. Additionally, decision-makers should keep the newly drafted crystal clear vision for VL 2.0 in mind as they reflect upon the following:

  • What worked fabulously well in this overnight school design?
  • What challenges did you face?
  • What would you do differently if you had more time to plan?
  • What additional support do your teachers need? Do they have tech, training, and access to expert support?
  • What are the bright spots of quality learning that have arisen?
  • How can you replicate those bright spots across your district?
  • What instructional problems have come up, and how can you avoid them in the future?
  • Have you taken too much of a hands-off approach, leaving too much teaching in the hands of families?
  • Have you taken too regimented of an approach, demanding kids be in online classes all day, as though they still sit in seats in your building?
  • How are students with more complex needs served remotely, and how can the services be improved?
  • What operational processes do you need to update or modify?
  • What expectations do you need to set for teachers and students to balance flexibility with accountability?
  • What percentage of your students are actively participating in instruction?
  • Is communication with families and students adequate to ensure everyone is informed?
  • Will you share staff between your on-campus programs and your virtual or blended program, or do you have enough virtual/blended enrollment for dedicated staff?

Revisit and update each decision point in VL 1.0 in light of the data gathered, reflection, and analysis. Scrutinize every VL 1.0 decision with the lenses of “how well did this help students learn?" and "how can we do this better?”

The VL 2.0 plan based on feedback and lessons learned prepares schools to launch an updated pilot for the coming school year. Schools can now share their VL 2.0 program with all stakeholders so that parents can begin signing their students up for the pilot while schools begin operationalizing.

School Choice or a School’s Choice

The “new normal” includes a revelation that online schooling IS possible, and it should be an option for families. Our schools have long clung to an out-dated "the way we've always done it" schooling model, and now that we know it can be different, it should be different.

Families deserve choices in how they educate their children.

Schools can choose to take advantage of this tremendous opportunity to enter the competitive world of school choice. They can embrace the learning curve of VL 1.0, redesign based on data, and launch a robust VL 2.0 explicitly designed for their communities.

Providing a virtual and blended option is well within the capabilities of many school districts and it is time for our schools to rise up to the challenge of creating a post-pandemic Virtual Learning 2.0.

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