Ensure each student has equitable access to quality online, blended or hybrid instruction


As schools and districts prepare to reopen, some districts plan to follow hybrid schedules in which all or a subset of students attend in person for part of the week or during alternating weeks and receive online instruction at home on other days. Other districts will offer families a choice of face-to-face or online learning. All districts may need to shift to online instruction if recurring waves of COVID-19 or flu infections compel schools to close.

All of these scenarios will require teachers to identify the key standards in their curriculum, determine which can be taught face-to-face versus online and adapt their instruction to fit.

SREB offers five recommendations for ensuring each student has equitable access to quality online, blended or hybrid instruction. Task force members encourage state, district and school leaders to read this play in tandem with the closely related Technology play in this playbook.

1. Shift attitudes to embrace intentional planning for online and blended instruction.

Attitudes will be the key to success when schools reopen. Most teachers and students spent the spring in “remote emergency review” mode. To ease the pressure on teachers, students and parents, many districts established a “no new learning” policy. Further, due to real concerns about equitable access to 1:1 devices and broadband internet, some districts limited their expectations for participation. Grades were based on the last day of regular attendance. Some students interpreted this as, “I don’t have to participate.”

  • Reconnect quickly with “lost students.” Most districts found that some students never participated in online learning this spring. Although some students and families had no or limited access to technology, others experienced physical or mental health challenges or economic hardships that kept them from learning. Reconnecting and assessing students’ unique needs will be essential when schools reopen.
  • Make teaching and learning new content the norm when schools reopen. Districts, schools and teachers need to be extremely clear about expectations for participation, behavior and mastery — and to share those expectations in emails, calls, text messages, letters, social media posts, media announcements, newsletters, websites and more. Expectations should address issues that arose during the spring, such as standards for appropriate behavior, dress and backgrounds during video conferences.
  • Develop and share clear schedules for teaching and learning, whether this occurs in a hybrid setting or only online. Teachers need to know when and how they will be expected to shift to online instruction. Task force members note that teachers whose contracts do not include summer work or professional development may face an abrupt transition to online instruction and will need appropriate supports.

    Using time effectively in online, blended or hybrid learning settings will be essential. Research on student attention spans suggests that direct instructional time must be adapted by grade level.
Grade Level Recommended Direct Instruction Time
K-2 5-8 minutes
3-5 8-12 minutes
6-8 12-15 minutes
9-12 12-15 minutes
Adults 15-18 minutes

Source: Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. As cited on p. 10 in Rollins, S. P. (2017). Teaching in the Fast Lane. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Reproduced with the kind permission of ASCD.

  • Consider asking questions like these during the planning process:
    • How long should teachers plan for synchronous (real-time) direct instruction?
    • How will teachers communicate these times with students and parents?
    • When will synchronous learning take place? How long will it last? Will it include asynchronous (anytime) instructional elements?
    • How will teachers communicate with students and parents about the completion or non-completion of assignments?
  • Develop a structured communications plan that prioritizes when and how instructional information and support for online, blended and hybrid learning will be sent home. This spring, many parents reported struggling to keep up with the volume of emails and messages sent by their children’s teachers, especially if they have more than one child. Consider asking grade-level teacher teams to create and send a single weekly learning plan to parents via email, the school’s website or other means for parents with limited access to email. This plan should review scheduled learning, identify major assignments and activities, and link to supplemental learning resources, video lesson overviews and other teacher-made videos.

    Involve district and school leaders, teachers, community and business partners, and parents in developing this communications plan. Task force members believe that engaging all key shareholders in creating and sharing information will help ease concerns about the shift to online, blended and hybrid instruction.

    Ensure that messages to parents whose children are receiving online, blended or hybrid instruction include links to more information about:

2. Intentionally teach the technology.

This spring, many students and parents expressed frustrations with juggling multiple passwords, programs, platforms and websites. SREB’s task force recommends teaching the technology first to ensure students and parents understand and can use available tech resources.

  • Identify a learning management system for districtwide use. Task force members report that schools and districts that had an LMS already in place made easier transitions to online learning. If a districtwide LMS is not feasible, task force members recommend that each grade level adopt the same platform.
  • Charge a teacher-led committee with reviewing and selecting tech tools, applications and resources that suit the needs of diverse student populations and can be integrated into the school’s LMS or platform. Create YouTube or TikTok-style videos that offer students and parents quick how-to guides for accessing learning systems, platforms and tools. Showcase how each tool, app or resource will be used to support teaching and learning and involve students in demonstrating tech tips and tricks whenever possible. Share videos on school websites and social media channels. Consider hosting socially distanced, small-group in-person technology trainings for students and parents at churches or community centers.
  • Support teachers in planning lessons that focus on using technology successfully, both before schools reopen and throughout the year. School leaders should bring teacher teams together by grade level, academy or department to develop and present instruction. This ensures all teachers can pivot to using the same processes and tools in the same way.

3. Make quality instructional practices the norm by providing time for teacher teams to engage in professional learning.

Quality instruction looks the same in any setting, and instructional practices that work well in person can be used with equal success online — if teachers and leaders receive the right ongoing professional learning support.

  • Engage district and school leaders and teachers in co-developing a professional learning plan that includes monthly objectives for just-in-time learning. Ensure that monthly professional learning targets align with curriculum pacing guides and unit plans. Focus on the effective use of technology first, then shift to high-quality instructional practices and assignments that work in any setting. Encourage teacher teams to share common communication and digital learning tools.
  • Review current expectations for teacher teams and professional learning communities to work together face-to-face and online. Use teacher surveys to collect data on their professional learning needs. Consider revising norms and expectations for faculty meetings. Designate a school leader or instructional coach who can attend and co-facilitate professional learning sessions. Many districts that are adopting hybrid schedules for the fall are planning for weekly or bi-weekly professional learning.
  • Support teachers in identifying essential standards and creating student-centered unit and lesson plans that include detailed agendas, link to supplemental resources and can be loaded into district or school learning management systems or platforms. Professional learning should include a specific focus on supporting students with special needs and planning regularly scheduled formative assessments to check for misunderstandings and provide feedback.
  • Focus instruction on quality assignments and authentic, real-world projects that require students working individually and in teams to conduct research, develop and test a plan, analyze their work and create in-person or virtual presentations. District and school leaders can support this focus by providing professional learning that models the process of breaking down, planning and delivering units, lessons and projects informed by SREB’s Powerful Practices for Literacy, Math, Science and Project-Based Learning.
  • Help teachers take advantage of the many features of online learning tools and resources. Breakout rooms in platforms like Zoom can facilitate student collaboration, tiered interventions or co-teaching. Padlet can host virtual resource lists. Polling and annotation features permit quick formative assessments. Videos can be accessed during real-time and asynchronous instruction. Tools like immersive readers and Google Translate can support students in special education and English language learners, as described in the task force’s play on access and equity. Consider EducationFirst’s suggestions for supporting literacy and math learning for English language learners in online settings.
  • Create a process to load curricular materials, resources and tools to school or district learning management systems or platforms before schools reopen. Ensure that all materials can be accessed on district-provided 1:1 devices or students’ own devices. If classes can meet in person, provide time for students to download or upload materials while taking advantage of in-school broadband internet and Wi-Fi networks. Work with business and community partners to ensure that students and families can access free public Wi-Fi if schools are not open for face-to-face instruction.
  • Help teachers and leaders make informed decisions about instruction by using virtual assessment tools that measure progress and provide opportunities to give students feedback. For example, teachers can use online tools like Respondus to administer assessments. Consider using tools like Classkick, FlipGrid and Google Jamboard to allow students to show evidence of their learning in ways that play to their learning styles and strengths and allow teachers to provide quality feedback. Students at any grade level can make videos, use a microphone to record their answers, and draw pictures or insert graphics in text.

Task force members encourage schools and districts with more limited capacity for online teaching and learning to partner with other schools and districts in the region to pool their resources and expertise. State and federal funding sources could potentially support this collaborative work.

4. Embrace innovation, especially with lab-based, CTE, arts and physical education classes.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to let go of business-as-usual instruction. Beyond the academic core, lab-based science, career and technical education, arts and physical education courses can use innovative resources that facilitate online learning.

  • Take advantage of the kinds of open educational resources that have become a mainstay for online postsecondary programs. OERs offer freely available materials for teachers and students to use, adapt and share, including lab simulations and recorded lectures and presentations. SREB maintains a list of online teaching and learning resources that lab-based science teachers can use in their anatomy, biology, chemistry, environmental science, geography and physics courses.

    Provide lab-based science, CTE, arts and physical education teachers with time to align OERs with course standards. Work with teachers to develop curriculum pacing guides, course syllabi, unit and lesson plans, and assignments that link to OERs. Consider developing packets of supplies or materials that can supplemental these resources in at-home settings.
  • Encourage fine and visual arts, music, drama and dance teachers to exercise their creativity — and that of their students — when planning hands-on and digital learning experiences. Arts courses may present special challenges for students and teachers who are learning at home without access to typical classroom supplies or instruments. A recent article from Edutopia includes suggestions for creating synchronous and asynchronous lessons and projects, taking advantage of unconventional materials, and looking to the entertainment world, teacher blogs and social media for inspiration.
  • Research options for physical education lessons and activities that students learning from home can enjoy, including adapted PE options for students with disabilities or special needs. For example, SHAPE America, the Society for Health and Physical Educators, publishes a broad range of resources on their website to help K-12 teachers design high-quality lessons based on National Standards for K-12 Physical Education for all students.
  • Provide time for teachers to upload and organize technical manuals, class resources and assignments into the school’s learning management system or platform. Find ways for teachers with expertise using the LMS to share “pro tips” with colleagues with more limited experience. Consider interviewing students or recent graduates about strengths and challenges of the system and encourage master teachers to work with students to find solutions. Determine how home-based learning can best be incorporated into the system. How, when and where can students explore CTE content?
  • Encourage CTE teacher teams to identify how common household items can be used for simulations, such as using cake icing tools to practice making smooth joints in welding or creating a scaled model bridge using only recyclable materials found at home. Ask teachers to investigate programs and tools that provide realistic CTE experiences, such as those described in Louisiana’s Strong Start 2020 plan or SREB’s COVID-19 CTE resource page. Ensure that the devices students use have the capacity to use these programs and tools. Investigate virtual work-based learning and simulation experiences. Create a library of online career exploration videos in diverse career fields for middle and high school students.
  • Capitalize on opportunities to disrupt “business as usual” instruction by integrating skills and content across disciplines. Encourage teachers to work in cross-disciplinary teams to review academic and technical standards and develop mini-projects that can be used in any setting. Consider having teachers team-teach content that helps students make authentic connections across disciplines.

5. Plan for a potential return to districtwide online learning.

The unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic means that schools and districts need to prepare for a possible return to full-time online instruction during the 2020-21 school year.

  • Identify and communicate clear triggers for when schools will need to pivot to full-time online instruction, and use the actions above to prepare teachers and leaders to make the shift. Provide teachers with messages and tools they can use to communicate expectations for participation in and mastery of new learning with students and parents.
  • Engage district and school leaders and teachers in an ongoing process of curriculum adaptation, as described here in SREB’s K-12 Education Recovery Playbook. Similar to curriculum alignment, curriculum adaptation engages teachers and leaders in identifying what content needs to be taught face-to-face, online (in real-time or asynchronously), or using either format. Teachers should be empowered to reorganize the curriculum, whenever possible, around the content that can most easily be taught virtually if schools must close.
  • Seek strategies for ensuring that students and parents have equitable access to the edtech tools, 1:1 devices and broadband internet they need, should school closures force a return to online learning. Task force members report that their states and districts are taking bold steps to close technology gaps, but many challenges remain. Consider moving from a broad-based approach to closing these gaps to more of an individualized approach that seeks unique solutions to localized issues.