Lessons Learned from Remote Instruction


New Jersey Law Journal

July 13, 2020

How was your family’s distance learning experience this spring? The answers no doubt vary depending on who you ask and where they live in New Jersey. Many lessons have been learned throughout the COVID-19 crisis that can serve to strengthen the educational experience for all students in the fall.

According to a Gallup poll taken in March, 42% of parents worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their children’s education. Now that the school year has ended, it appears that parents had a right to be concerned, given the projected learning gaps facing some students. See Dana Goldstein, ”Research Shows Students Falling Months Behind During Virus Disruptions,” New York Times (June 5, 2020). Given the unprecedented situation the pandemic presented, many New Jersey students experienced learning loss resulting from the transition from in-person instruction to distance learning. See New Jersey Dep’t of Educ., “Summer Learning Resource Guide 2020: State Guidance for District and School Leaders” (2020). In the most extreme cases, students did not have access to the required technology. In other cases, there was little to no direct instruction provided. Likewise, special education students were not provided related services and/or were unable to digest the provided content absent the significant intervention usually provided by a certified special education teacher.

Although some parents were satisfied with the distance learning programs and recognized a benefit to their children navigating technology and online platforms, most would agree that the best educational model is in-person instruction provided by a certified teacher. See John Mooney, Roundtable: “What’s Working in Remote Instruction,” N.J. Spotlight (June 15, 2020). Now that we know that schools will open in some fashion in the fall, we have to ask whether the lessons from distance learning can be carried over to in-person instruction, remote instruction, or a mixture of both.

Lesson One: Equitable Access to Technology

First and foremost, students need equitable access to technology, and district reopening plans are required to include the steps taken to address this issue. On May 4, 2020, the day that Governor Murphy announced that schools would remain closed, it was reported by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) that 90,000 students did not have the technology to access distance learning platforms at home. See John Mooney, Decision to Close Schools Brings Issues About Remote Learning to Fore, N.J. Spotlight (May 5, 2020). According to the NJDOE, the situation did not improve much by the end of the school year. See Adam Clark, “90K N.J. Students Can’t Connect for Virtual School. It’s ‘Completely Unacceptable,’ Lawmaker Says,” NJ.com (June 8, 2020). Students who were not able to access remote instruction should be provided with summer learning opportunities in an effort to make up the instruction that was missed. These students may also require additional remedial action once school commences. Moreover, if a hybrid program of remote learning and in-person instruction is instituted in the fall, it is imperative that each student’s needs be identified and solutions put in place despite the cost.

Lesson Two: Quality of Distance Learning

Education advocates are also concerned that the distance learning provided at the outset of the school closures did not meet the statutory minimum required for home instruction. See Letter from New Jersey Special Education Practitioners to Phil Murphy, Governor of New Jersey, et al. (June 1, 2020) (on file with the authors). Unfortunately, in some districts, this situation was not remedied once it became clear that school districts would remain closed, despite the NJDOE’s call for updated school closure preparedness plans. The identified deficits largely relate to the instructional delivery of distance learning. For example, in many school districts, teachers provided recorded directions and online assignments for students to complete independently, along with other material that was self-taught. At no time did these students receive direct instruction from a certified teacher. Many parents and education advocates want to know why more direct instruction, whether live or recorded, was not implemented.

In a recent report, the New Jersey School Board Association acknowledged that, despite best efforts, the quality of online instruction for students varied widely among school districts. See New Jersey School Board Association, “Searching for a ‘New Normal’ in New Jersey’s Public Schools” (May 20, 2020). Inconsistent distance learning programs are due in part to the lack of guidance as to the required content for remote learning. Given the disparities in remote learning, some school districts may choose to offer summer learning opportunities so that students can address any learning loss, which is encouraged by the NJDOE. Such programs take on greater importance now that the NJDOE has stated that it “anticipates that many students likely made less than one full year of academic growth during the 2019-2020 school year.” See New Jersey Dep’t of Educ., “The Road Back, Restart and Recovery Plan for Education – June 2020″ (visited on June 26, 2020). The Summer Resource Guide also offers guiding principles for distance learning that prioritize direct instruction as a best practice, recommending that school districts “[c]onsider how to mix group direct instruction with small group or individual direct instruction.” See New Jersey Dep’t of Educ., Summer Learning Resource Guide 2020: State Guidance for District and School Leaders (2020).

While additional guidance is no doubt needed if remote learning continues, even if only in part, best practices dictate that more direct instruction is needed. Now is the time for school districts to prepare proper instructional protocols that limit future learning loss and address the needs of those who have already fallen behind.

Lesson Three: Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. 1400, et seq. (IDEA) mandates that students with disability be provided free and appropriate public education (FAPE). There are concerns that special education and related services were not provided during school closures in a manner that allowed students to learn and progress. For children with more severe disabilities, distance learning presents unique challenges given the support and assistance required. Even a child with mild learning or attentional issues can have difficulty working independently in front of a computer. In school, students have aides and support teachers present to assist and guide them, or, alternatively, they are taught in self-contained special education classrooms with trained staff.

With a view of providing FAPE, the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education mandated school districts to adhere to each child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Section 504 plan (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) to the greatest extent possible. See U.S. Dep’t of Educ., “Questions and Answers on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak – March 2020″ (visited on March 12, 2020); see U.S. Dep’t of Educ., “Supplemental Fact Sheet Addressing the Risk of Covid-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools While Serving Children with Disabilities – March 2020″ (visited on March 21, 2020).

U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos reported to Congress that the provisions of IDEA should not be waived. See U.S. Dep’t of Educ., “Secretary DeVos Reiterates Learning Must Continue for All Students, Declines to Seek Congressional Waivers to FAPE, LRE Requirements of IDEA” (visited on April 27, 2020). Courts have defined FAPE as being “reasonably calculated to enable [the] child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist. RE–1, 580 U.S. ___ (2017). Once school buildings open for summer ESY, districts will have to assess whether students have regressed and determine what is needed as far as remedial and compensatory education. This will no doubt be the subject of debate.

Lesson Four: Technology Strong

Amidst the problems highlighted during remote learning, many educators and parents have highlighted the positive aspects of distance learning. See John Mooney, Roundtable: What’s Working in Remote Instruction, N.J. Spotlight (June 15, 2020). For New Jersey’s younger students, the pandemic offered the opportunity to learn how to effectively use technology. Through the use of platforms such as Google Classroom, students were able to access assignments, complete and share work with teachers, email and communicate with teachers and students, and keep work and content organized in one place. Teachers also utilized these web-based learning platforms to incorporate into the curriculum other online resources and platforms, such as Flipgrid, Zoom, ScootPad, and Kahn Academy instructional videos, as well as other content to assist the learning process.

School districts now have two months to assess what has worked, identify the shortfalls, and create education plans for the fall that incorporate all the lessons learned. If a distance learning plan is needed again for some form of remote instruction, it is hoped that the lessons we have learned will be incorporated to help create future plans that work for all New Jersey students.

Reprinted with permission from the July 13, 2020 issue of the New Jersey Law Journal. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved. For information, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com or visit www.almreprints.com.