Distance Learning for All: Ensuring Care, Connection and Continuity of Learning

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Date:     March 30, 2020 
To:         Superintendents and Principals
From:    Colt Gill, Director of the Oregon Department of Education and
              Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction
RE:        Distance Learning for All Guidance

Thank you for your committed leadership during these challenging times. We are partnering with you on an historic transformation of our education system to maintain care, connection, and continuity of learning for our students.

How We Got To This Moment

Let’s consider the shifts over the course of just the last two weeks (one of them spring break) for our children, families, and educators:

  • On March 12th we learned that our children would lose seven school days.
  • On March 17th we learned that our children would miss over a month of school.
  • Today we know there is a very real potential that our students, like in many other states, may not return to school this academic year.

We started with the idea that our children would miss a few days of school and that some days might be made up in the summer – something that is normal in Oregon which regularly encounters snow days and forest fires that close schools for a few days each year.

Then, to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect our students and educators, Governor Brown issued executive order 20-08 that closed schools through April 28. This order also called on schools to deliver, “supplemental education and learning supports to students to the extent practical through independent study and other appropriate options.” This was intended to be a reasonable and essential solution to ensure there was continued learning through a short-term closure.

How We Are Evolving

Our state’s response to COVID-19 has responsibly and necessarily evolved with the use of data and knowledge of effective suppression measures. We now have a moral imperative to meet the changing nature of the pandemic and evolve our approach to serving our children.

As we continue the effective measures of Governor Brown’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order, we also foresee the strong possibility that our students may not come back through our school house doors this  academic year. This calls for a shift from providing supplementary education to a formidable effort to provide Distance Learning for All.

Of course, education without face-to-face interaction between students and teachers will look and feel different and cannot be fully replicated across a distance. It will not and cannot happen overnight. We need the grace and patience of our state’s leaders, our communities, our families, and our educators as we learn together to move powerfully to ensure care, connection, and continuity of learning happen in entirely new ways for our students.

I was recently reminded of the power of student and teacher relationships in a classroom setting. Over two decades ago I was a 4th grade teacher at Creslane Elementary School in Creswell, Oregon. I worked with an amazing Educational Assistant, to cook some noodles in an unusual way to help bring a book to life for my students. Here is the story from Colin Lyons, one of my former students, who is now a candidate for Oregon Teacher of the Year,

“Mr. Colt Gill, was my 4th grade reading teacher in Creswell (and my first superintendent when I worked in Bethel SD). I attribute my career path to him and a random day when he cooked us worms to try and eat with ketchup and mustard after reading Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms. It was a silly event, but memorable and my tiny 9 year old brain gravitated to wanting to emulate him and his passion.”

I share this story for two reasons. First, it underscores how our relationships and interactions with students can have a lasting impact and more than we might realize at the time.  We must be caring, intentional and reaffirm a sense of community and continuity in all our actions. We need to be clear-headed regarding the experiences our children will lose over the next two and half months – proms, field trips, graduation and award ceremonies, and simple classroom activities that shape lives.

The loss of these experiences should not mean students lose the opportunity for connection, belonging and optimism in the future.  Every caring adult has a role and responsibility to play in guiding our students through this moment of challenge and uncertainty. It is a time to highlight the assets and resilience we see in our children and let them know how much we value them. 

Second, the passion that Colin referred to runs deep in educators. Educators are the most caring, flexible, and determined people I know. They are true professionals. Educators, as they partner with families in new and deep ways, can make this work for Oregon’s children.

We must move into this shift with honesty regarding known and unknown challenges:

  • The vast majority of Oregon educators have not taught online and some districts have varying levels of experience, capacity, and technology tools. Let’s take this head on utilizing our resourcefulness and creativity understanding not all distance education will be online. Meaningful education can be provided through educational materials distributed in packets, via individual and group calls, and other efforts that may be employed to ensure continuity of learning.
  • Imagine a family with a 7th grader and a 10th grader, each with 6 or 7 different teachers and classes with one computer to share between the students. We must find ways for their classes to be scheduled in ways they can access all the content.
  • For our younger students, the success of distance education overwhelmingly relies on parents and adult family members to be active partners with teachers.  It will be important for parents to know their role to support, including making time outside interactions with their child’s teacher to serve as tutors, helping to ensure attentiveness to the instructional time with teachers, providing structure to the daily schedule and helping support connectivity and continuity of technology at home, and more. Primary students going through the rigors of learning to read requires the support of a teacher “scaffolding the lesson” minute-by-minute to meet the needs and strengths of the student. This will look different within distance learning and we have to find ways to partner teachers and parents to nurture learning within this context. 
  • In Oregon last year 22,215 students lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”. The number of children experiencing houselessness is likely to grow this year. We will need to think of creative strategies to provide access to learning for students in these situations where a tablet or laptop and hotspot connection to the internet may not be the most practical way to provide access to learning for some students.
  • ODE will work with relevant state agencies and ESDs to address data from the Oregon Broadband Commission regarding potential connectivity issues communicated by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). We also recognize that there are parts of the state yet to be served by broadband or cell connectivity.  This will require flexibility for these schools to serve students during the school closure in ways consistent with the specific needs of their communities and families.
  • And, family needs, strengths, make-up and values play a significant role. Some families work hard to limit screen time and will have to navigate new patterns in the home. In some homes older siblings must care for younger siblings and family members because parents and other caregivers must work.  We all have to work together to communicate expectations for learning while making allowances for the specific customs and routines of families within their home environment.   

These are a few of the issues our state and our schools will be working to meet head-on at the same time they are beginning to deliver Distance Learning for All. The effort carries its challenges, through them we will center on equity. Our school house doors were open to every single student in our state, and as we shift to Distance Learning for All we must ensure our education services are accessible to every student in our state. We will do all we can to meet the needs and strengths of students with disabilities, emerging bilingual students, talented and gifted students, and students navigating poverty and houselessness.

Our children and educators deserve more than we can provide right now; we must let this thought drive our innovation and help us strive to overcome disparities and build resilience in our students and educators. This effort will call on all our creativity and talents as well as deep partnership with families to reach all students to provide care, connection, and continuity of learning.

Click here for the Distance Learning for All Guidance