Lessons Learned: Assessing the successes and challenges of remote learning and preparing for the uncertain path ahead

It was an almost unthinkable reality. Signs outside of schools read “No school or events until further notice.” Yellow tape encircled deserted school playgrounds. Household routines came to a halt. School was no longer a place, but an abstraction. 

For three months, as the deadliest pandemic in a century engulfed the country, New Hampshire educators undertook an unprecedented experiment, reimagining the entire school experience on the fly and then re-creating it week by week and student by student. 

As this surreal period in educational history concludes — or at least comes to a halt for the summer — its lessons continue. School administrators and teachers say the remote learning experience has highlighted strengths and limitations in education, in their classrooms, and in their districts. It has forced a reckoning with inequities and necessitated creativity and flexibility. It’s also left them with a list of questions that remain unanswered. 

Technology

From day one, the coronavirus closures demonstrated the value of technology and illuminated disparities in technological resources and know-how. Districts that had fully embraced educational technologies were better positioned to migrate to online learning, as were individual teachers. 

Some of the first hurdles districts faced were getting devices into the hands of every student and ensuring that every family had Internet access. Many schools had to invest in Chromebooks and set up technical support services to help families take advantage of free Internet packages offered during the pandemic and troubleshoot specific technical problems. Teachers, students, and parents also had to be trained to use educational tools and platforms effectively.

Though the circumstances were far from ideal, the remote learning period gave some educators the chance to try new technologies and grow comfortable with online tools. 

“I really love and value technology, so I really wanted to convert a lot of my work to digital format,” said Michelle Davis, a teacher at Franklin Middle School and part-time tech integrator for the district. “This is giving me the time and opportunity to do what I always wanted to do.” 

The time invested is likely to reap long-lasting benefits, said David Moore, Equity Coordinator for Concord Regional Technical Center at Concord High School. “Teachers say that this remote learning experience has allowed them to build up a library of online and video learning collateral that can be used to continue with classes when the school is closed due to weather, scheduled teacher workshop days, or if the child is unable to attend classes in person for whatever reason,” he said. “It also will allow for more student choice in how and when they learn.”

But the leap to online learning also created and exacerbated challenges in the realm of technology. 

For starters, the learning curve was steep. “Technology can ultimately make your life easier, but it takes time,” Davis said. 

Additionally, districts with leaner technology budgets had to make do with fewer digital resources, and, perhaps more worrisome, families who lacked reliable Internet service or technical expertise or who experienced glitches were at a disadvantage. Many teachers were overwhelmed by the new demands. And some lessons just couldn’t be delivered effectively through a computer screen. 

“There are just some things that do not lend themselves to remote learning. We’ve had terrible engagement with our welding course, for example,” said Brendan Minnihan, superintendent of the Newport School District. “There are certain things that you really need to have hands on.” 

Flexibility

As the world confronted a historic crisis and the usual norms fell away, success in virtually every sector hinged on the ability to adapt. 

Schools rose to the challenge. Overnight, school bus routes became lunch drop-off routes. Staff set up new systems for tracking attendance and participation and checking in with students who weren’t engaging. Teachers devised all manner of creative ways to deliver lessons and check their students’ knowledge.

A horticulture and animal science teacher in the Newport School District purchased live flowers and delivered them to each student’s home so they could do flower arranging. 

In Concord, theater students got to meet more than a dozen theater and film stars in their Zoom classes. 

And middle schoolers in Weare studied a climate change problem and designed a solution. 

“It’s a project they can do that can make a difference, and it gets them away from the screen,” said Weare Middle School science teacher Clare Delay. 

Along with adapting their classes to meet new needs, educators had to adapt their expectations. Some schools moved to a pass/fail grading system instead of letter grades, or offered a pass/fail option. Most districts scaled back their objectives for the remainder of the school year. 

“At the high school we said, cut in half and then maybe cut a little more,” said Jacqueline Coe, superintendent of SAU 24, which serves Weare, Henniker and Stoddard. “The focus is really different.”


Community

No matter how successful they were in bringing academics online, educators could not hope to replicate the social benefits of school. 

“If you think about high school, it’s the play, the musical, the sports, the hanging out with your friends that makes the rest of it worthwhile,” said Dover High School Principal Peter Driscoll. “That part of it is really hard for kids.” 

The social aspect of school is not discrete from other considerations either. Studies show that learning occurs best in meaningful moments. 

“Relationship is what helps kids learn,” said Kim Carpentino, principal of Gilbert H. Hood Middle School in Derry. “When we go to remote learning, we have to find other ways.”

Just as they exercised creativity in their lessons, teachers and administrators found innovative ways to foster community during the school closures. Many districts took to social media to stay in touch with students, celebrate their accomplishments, and bring a little levity to the long months of separation. 

Still, students have struggled with the loss of connection to teachers and friends. 

“I think coping is difficult for them,” Carpentino said. “Time will tell how they’ll weather this.” 

Uncertainty

Many other questions remain unanswered as summer vacation commences. Chief among them is what school will look like in the fall. 

The state Department of Education has said it will not issue a statewide reopening plan. Rather, it will provide guidance to districts as they create their own reopening plans, which will be subject to any ongoing or new restrictions issued by Gov. Sununu. It’s too early to tell whether schools will be able to reopen their buildings and, if so, how many people will be permitted in the buildings at a time. 

To aid in creating guidelines for schools, the Department of Education has created a School Reopening and Redesign Taskforce (STRRT) made up of teachers, administrators, and representatives from numerous educational organizations, as well as parents and students.  The taskforce invited input from community members through a survey last month, in which more than 54,000 New Hampshire residents took part. The findings indicated that a large majority of parents are ready to send their children back to school and that most school staff are ready to return as well. However, numerous concerns about safety and logistics have been raised at taskforce meetings. The group plans to issue preliminary guidelines by June 30.

Whatever the format of school next year, educators know they have catching up to do. Many are concerned about learning gaps and how they’ll address them without continuing to fall behind. Some superintendents say they’re fielding requests from parents to have their children repeat the school year. 

“They have the ability to do that if they choose to,” said Scott Laliberte, superintendent of the Londonderry School District. “(But) our thought was more to think about remediating in the fall and adjusting our expectations.”

Teachers and administrators are particularly concerned about fulfilling their responsibilities to students with special needs, many of whom were unable to receive the services they need in an online setting. 

“We may also have students who are not currently identified who are going to need extra help (due to the pandemic),” Laliberte said. 

School Budgets

These new challenges will likely affect school budgets especially as tax revenues are expected to plummet amid an economic recession. 

“We’ll have pressure to keep property taxes as low as possible or reduce them,” said Duane Ford, Southwest regional chair for the New Hampshire Association of School Business Officials and business administrator for SAU 67, which serves Bow and Dunbarton. “If we have all these additional unforeseen expenses, I’m not sure where the money comes from.” 

Schools are beginning to receive funding from federal aid programs, but district and state leaders are trying to deal with the financial uncertainty of the pandemic.

New Hampshire received $37 million in coronavirus-related federal relief for the state’s K-12 schools as part of the CARES Act passed by Congress in the spring. The federal government is considering a second round of federal relief, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. It includes about $65 million for the nation’s K-12 schools, including a “state stabilization fund” to support K-12 schools and higher education programs. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May, and will move on to the U.S. Senate. (For N.H. Senator Maggie Hassan’s statement on the HEROES Act, click here.)

This is the final segment on NH’s transition to remote learning. Read the full series: