What Teachers Need to Make Remote Schooling Work

The coronavirus pandemic is increasing academic gaps, and educators are scrambling to reduce them.

Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

San Francisco’s Mission High School is one of the most diverse in the nation. Its roughly 1,100 students hold at least 47 different passports; more than 60 percent of students are considered low income. Even before the coronavirus threw the nation into an economic crisis, most of Mission High’s students already struggled with access to basic needs—health care, housing, food, or access to the internet or computers—in a city among the nation’s wealthiest. Pirette McKamey, an English teacher of 27 years and Mission’s first-year principal, estimates—based on two weeks of calls and emails to Mission High families after San Francisco’s public schools shut down on March 16—that close to 30 percent of students don’t have a computer at home or access to high-quality internet.

San Francisco’s public schools didn’t begin formal remote instruction until today, but many teachers at Mission High kicked into high gear in the very first week of closures, providing voluntary assignments and attempting to connect with every student—including those with disconnected phone lines, those in homeless families, and recent immigrants speaking only Arabic, Spanish, or Mandarin. McKamey and other teachers have lent out laptops, and the district swiftly raised funds for additional computers, internet access, and free meals—the demand for which has doubled each week since the district began giving out food on March 17. Meanwhile, teachers are collaborating to adapt their curriculum to learning online, a big challenge in a school that is intentionally designed to maximize individual interactions. (DeLara Armijo, a freshman, told me she’s looking forward to working on a short-story assignment—“Coronavirus Quarantine Love Story”—math assignments, and daily exercises sent by her PE teacher).

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced the vast majority of schools across the country to close, educators are scrambling to find ways to keep reaching students during a crisis that is exacerbating existing inequities and increasing academic gaps. The twelve teachers interviewed for this story—from the Mississippi Delta to San Francisco, Texas, Arizona, subarctic Alaska, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—identified the four most urgent needs that must be addressed in order to help reduce rapidly increasing disparities in access to learning.

Free, High-Speed Internet for Students

An estimated 12 million students—or nearly a fifth of all students in the U.S.—don’t have internet at home. A 2016 report on the digital divide found that a quarter of families below the median-income level rely on cellphones for internet access, and that 20 percent of the respondents with a home computer said their internet had been disconnected at least once in the year they were surveyed because they couldn’t afford to pay for it. Even if schools can provide their students with computers, the lack of good-quality internet is disrupting classroom interactions for all students.

Some cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, are creating partnerships with private companies and foundations to bring Wi-Fi-enabled devices to students’ homes. Across the country, universities and public libraries are offering free Wi-Fi hotspots; one district in Tucson, Arizona, is creating Wi-Fi hotspots in school buses parked near low-income neighborhoods for families who are farther away from schools and libraries. And a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing congressional leaders to include funding for small broadband providers—who are already providing internet for students in low-income families—in future coronavirus-relief bills.

Peer-to-Peer Professional Development

Many teachers are already being trained to use virtual-teaching tools, but different disciplines require different digital approaches. Teachers need specific instruction in how to effectively translate their subject to online platforms. “Learning how to teach online is hard,” Renee Moore, who teaches high-school and college students at the Mississippi Delta Community College, said. She suggested that educators more familiar with teaching online be paired up with those who are newer to it.

Teacher-to-teacher collaboration can help educators figure out how to tailor assignments to the specific needs of different students. “Effective teaching is not just about good assignments,” Robert Roth, a recently retired history and ethnic-studies teacher and a current teacher-mentor at Mission High, told me. “Teaching is also about engaging students: talking to them about their work with a piece of paper in hand every day, encouraging them, helping them develop their skills in the moment.” Roth spent much of last week collaborating with his colleagues to make lists of students who will need extra support, and developing strategies for reaching students who don’t have internet access.

The Ability to Bend the Rules

Teachers say they need to be trusted to prioritize their students’ well-being, even if it requires unusual approaches. Chuck Yarborough, a U.S.- and African-American-history teacher at a public boarding school in Columbus, Mississippi, is shortening the amount of some of the content he’ll cover, and plans to be more flexible with deadlines and assessments. In challenging moments like this, he told me, there are more important things than covering all of the presidents and battles. “School is so much more than academic content,” he said. “Education is also about a sense of community, collaboration, empathy, confidence.”

In Philadelphia, where many students live in racially isolated areas of concentrated poverty and already have a lot to deal with—including gun violence, foster care, and homelessness—educators are prioritizing access to meals, counselors, and a sense of stability and safety. Educators are waiting until April 20 to launch formal instruction, but optional learning materials are available online while district officials are giving out laptops and securing broadband for all students. Angela Crawford teaches English at a school in Philadelphia where 37 percent of students have learning disabilities. “I’m gravely concerned with all of my students and their parents without health care during coronavirus,” Crawford told me. “We have to prioritize basic needs during this unprecedented crisis. It’s hard to focus on schoolwork if your family members are getting sick and you don’t know where your family will sleep tomorrow.”

Some researchers have argued that districts that are under-resourced and have large numbers of students living in poverty might serve their students better by forgoing remote lessons altogether, and instead focusing on providing face-to-face instruction when schools reopen—possibly during the summer. “A growing body of evidence suggests that online learning works least well for our most vulnerable learners,” Justin Reich, an assistant professor at MIT and the director of the Teaching Systems Lab there, argued in EdSurge. “If you are going online, the number one question is not: ‘What tech to use to teach online?’ It should be: ‘How will you support your most struggling students?’”

Emergency Aid to Low-Income Families

Back in San Francisco, DeLara Armijo told me that her mother and stepfather, who work as hairdressers, have been without work for close to a month. When the Mission High School history teacher Nancy Rodriguez called close to 100 students in the first week of school closures to see how they and their families were doing, many were already reporting that their parents had lost their jobs.

Some economists now forecast that unemployment may reach as high as 41 percent, and GDP may contract by nearly a quarter. Such large losses would mean lower revenues for state and local governments, and could eventually result in budget cuts to schools that struggling families rely on for food, counselors, and teachers’ individualized care and attention. While the federal government sent $13.5 billion to public schools as part of its emergency coronavirus funding package—providing crucial relief for emergency costs, such as extra meals, technology needs, and professional development—some state officials are concerned that this won’t help districts deal with the looming budget holes.

Some cash-strapped districts in cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia have already been channeling emergency resources to finance distance-learning plans, but teachers see this as only one part of the much bigger task schools—and the country, more broadly—will be facing in the coming months. “Our district has been working tirelessly to help schools provide food, access to devices, and learning,” McKamey, the Mission High principal, told me. “But the government needs to find ways to provide sustained financial assistance and housing for low-income families. From our conversations with students and their families, these are their most urgent needs right now.”

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.