In 2009, Mountain Brook Schools superintendent, Dr. Dicky Barlow, called my office a couple of weeks before school started with a daunting question. "With more cases of the H1N1 viruses surfacing, how can we use our technology to continue learning if we have to close schools?"
As the CTO for the district at that time, the superintendent and I worked with all departments to come up with a plan for virtual learning, or eDays as we later came to call them. Although we didn't need to implement our plan until later in the year (when we were forced to close schools due to inclement weather), eDays are now a fundamental tool we use to ensure students continue to learn during school closures. Mountain Brook Schools include two eDays in the district calendar each year. Even if we don't have any school closures in a school year, we use the scheduled days to provide related professional development for staff.
Advice from a superintendent
While I retired as the CTO for MBS in July 2019, I recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Barlow for his advice to other districts developing digital learning day plans as they prepare for potential school closures due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Here's what Dr. Barlow shared, "Learning through eDays needs to be effective and efficient with simple access to the resources. It is imperative that students must use virtual learning technologies at school before they are asked to use them at home." He also stressed that "An eDay shouldn't be a glorified worksheet day."
And for those just starting their eDay planning, he explained, "If you are early in the process, flexibility on when work is completed is key. In the beginning, we gave students two weeks to complete the work, now it is due the day students return to school."
My guide to planning digital learning days
In the years that followed that phone call with Dr. Barlow, I've learned many lessons about what's required to create and then deliver on a successful digital learning day plan.
Here is my best advice for districts considering digital learning days:
- Plan how you'll approach continued learning from home
- Provide equitable access
- Follow these key communication steps
- Collaborate with your community
- Include all district departments and school leaders in your planning
1. Plan how you'll approach continued learning from home
- Communicate the length of a lesson. Students shouldn't be expected to sit in front of a device the full minutes of every period in the day. eDays should reflect regular school days where there are breaks to change classes, lunch, etc. There are also breaks for group work, discussions, and Q & A.
- Consider video conferencing for some classes such as AP classes where teachers are trying to prepare students for AP tests.
- Consider activities such as watching a short video clip and answering questions.
- For younger students, include activities such as drawing, exercising, etc.
- Don't ask students to use specific products unless your district provides access. For example, assignment instructions should say, "Type the response to the questions," not "Use Word to type your answers."
- Limit the amount of work students must turn in. Not everyone has a printer. Using applications that score the work is often more manageable. Remember, not everything needs to be graded, sometimes it can be watched, read, etc.
- Only assign work for classes happening on the day in question. For multiple days, the work may change based on schedules.
- Only use applications students have already used, this includes an LMS, Google Classroom, etc.
2. Provide equitable access
- Survey families to determine home access for both devices and Internet connectivity.
- If you don't have a 1:1 take-home program determine how many devices you have in carts or classrooms. Determine if you have enough to provide access to those that do not have sufficient devices at home. Start with one per family, but note many families have more than one child. If that is the case, increase the number of devices as they become available.
- Look at spare devices, distribute those as well.
- Media centers are great venues for checking out devices.
- Consider expanding school internet access to parking lots. Drive-up access!
- Look into take-home wireless solutions, such as Kajeet's, which districts can turn on and off.
If available, use a single sign-on application like ClassLink. We didn't have ClassLink when we began eDays, but after several years of voiced frustrations about login and access problems, we knew we needed to find a solution. We selected ClassLink for several reasons:
- Single sign-on for hundreds of applications.
- One place to access all applications. This made writing directions easier and helped families with multiple children access applications in the same place.
- Staff or students can use ClassLink MyFiles to access files on local servers
- Google Drive or One Drive can be linked from ClassLink.
- ClassLink Analytics helps with accountability and attendance. We could easily determine if students were logging in and accessing resources.
Before implementing ClassLink, we would get hundreds of emails to our support inbox on eDays concerning access, logins, passwords, where to find apps, etc. On the last eDay before I retired – after we'd implemented ClassLink – we received four emails!
3. Follow these key communication steps
Determine how and where students, staff, and parents will receive information about school closing, re-openings, what procedures are in place, assignments, and access.
- Webpages: We emailed all parents, using our mass communications system, telling them to check the district and school website for updates. We posted the same message on all pages at the same time to avoid confusion and included a date at the beginning of the message. We asked that teachers post an eDay section on their web pages explaining how and where to access their schoolwork.
- Twitter and other Social Media: We tweeted the same message we were putting on our website.
- School and District Phones and after-hours messaging: Most school districts can change when the after-hours message is played. We updated all our messages to indicate schools were closed due to inclement weather, virus, or whatever the reason and gave a hotline number for periodic updates. Before reopening schools, we changed the message to reflect the date and time for the reopening.
- Email/Text/Push Notifications: Our mass communication system allows us to make phone calls and send emails, texts, and push notifications. We tried not to flood inboxes while trying to keep the community informed. (Remember: Using relevant subject lines is extremely important)
- Help Desk: Tell students and/or parents of K-2 children who they should contact (and by what means) if they have trouble with access. Consider implementing a group email address to answer questions.
4. Collaborate with your community
- Include city offices, local daycares, community sports, and after school programs in your communications.
- Partner with local libraries for internet access if students don't have access at home. (Not applicable for Coronavirus or other infectious events.)
5. Include all district departments and school leaders in your planning
- Child Nutrition Programs: Stop deliveries and re-schedule deliveries before reopening.
- Maintenance: Weather and multiple-day closures can cause issues you might not know about since no one was in the buildings.
- Student Services: Create plans for students in alternative learning environments
- Special Services: Determine how services will be delivered to special needs students
Will hourly employees be paid for days missed? If everyone is not using Direct Deposit, how will checks be delivered? If employees are asked to stay home, how can they access the accounting system for transfers, etc.?
- Attendance: Do you have a code for absences that indicates students are having school just not on campus? Incorrect coding can flag students as being truant.
- Technology: Have technology staff monitor resources, an outage during an eDay is not acceptable.
Take the time now to plan for virtual learning days, your entire school community will rest easier knowing they can continue educating students if or when schools must close for weather, viruses or anything else that comes your way.
If you want to know more about how Mountain Brook Schools approaches Digital Learning Days, visit the district's online learning/eDay webpage.