A Year in the Life: Relationships in Remote Learning

We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them.

Because so much of remote learning happens individually—a student working on a computer, a teacher speaking to a screen—capturing common themes on the subject can be a difficult undertaking. There are as many stories of remote learning as there are participants in it. But after listening to students, parents, teachers, and staff who have taken part in remote learning in Somerville Public Schools over the past year, a number of themes have emerged that bring a broader story into focus—and point toward ways forward for the education system, in Somerville and beyond.

Our efforts to dig into Somerville’s experience have two main aims: first, to get a better understanding of what has happened over the past year during the period of remote learning; second, to figure out what can be distilled from this experience to better support student learning in the future. It is important to note that our aim is not to reexamine any decisions made about remote learning, whether to justify, condemn, validate, or criticize those decisions. Certainly, we recognize that remote learning is not an optimal modality for most students—particularly young children, students with disabilities, multilingual learners, and other high-risk populations—and we do not highlight remote learning in order to extol it as a model that should be replicated in the future. Rather, we take the past year as a starting point for our investigation and seek to advance a deeper understanding of where the education system should go from here. In order to do so, however, we must first share some context on Somerville’s transition to remote learning.


Somerville’s Remote Learning Context

As in other schools and districts statewide, the switch to remote learning happened abruptly in Somerville. Schools closed on March 12th, first for two days of deep cleaning, then for two weeks, and then for the remainder of the school year. The district’s focus during this period was to meet the basic needs of students and families, expand access to tools and services that could support at-home learning, and check in on how students (and teachers) were coping with the transition. For many students and families, this was a period of limited contact with teachers, especially teachers who were themselves challenged in working with the necessary technology. Even for students who had access to devices and understood their use, shifting schedules, new learning platforms, and a profusion of meeting links often led to confusion and disconnection. The results from a parent survey administered in June and July 2020 highlighted some of the challenges: for instance, 70% of families said helping their child during remote learning was stressful, and 29% said the most difficult thing was keeping track of their student’s meetings, assignments, and passwords (only slightly lower than the 31% who pointed to the challenge of balancing work responsibilities with remote learning).

The district’s reopening plan, approved by the School Committee on August 17, laid out two options for parents to choose for the start of the school year. In the Full Remote Learning Model, families could opt to participate in fully asynchronous learning through a district-licensed learning management system. In the Phased Hybrid Learning Model, students would start the year fully remote in classes led by Somerville educators and gradually transition to in-person learning as health and safety conditions allowed (and subject to union agreements).

The first students in the Phased Hybrid model were brought back into school buildings on February 1, 2021, as part of a voluntary pilot for selected high-need special education populations. Additional populations of students in high-need programs were brought back on March 18, pre-K/Kindergarten students followed the next week, and older students (up to grade 8) gradually returned with hybrid schedules during the rest of March and April (for more, see the district’s schedule of phases). As students returned to school buildings in increasingly large numbers, district-implemented safety measures (such as required weekly COVID-19 testing for all students and staff) have focused on ensuring that schools can remain open for the foreseeable future. Beginning on Monday, April 26, all students in grades preK-8 who opted for in-person instruction have returned to fully in-person learning, although most high school students continue to learn remotely for the time being.

Somerville’s approach, particularly in contrast with surrounding districts that transitioned students to hybrid or in-person learning earlier in the year, has provoked substantial backlash from some local parents, many of whom cite a lack of trust in district decision-making as a factor driving them away from Somerville Public Schools in the future. At the same time, approximately 15% of families (with a total of 488 preK-8 students) have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the remainder of the school year rather than return to school buildings this month. District leaders responsible for planning remote learning services for these students note that this seems to be especially prevalent among immigrant families, particularly those sharing living spaces with multiple generations and concerned about the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to elderly relatives.

Nevertheless, as remote learning comes to an end this week for most preK-8 students, this dispatch will highlight our findings from conversations with a range of stakeholders connected to Somerville Public Schools. To gather information, we reviewed a variety of relevant documents (e.g., remote learning plans, professional development schedules, student reflections), developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders, and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These included interviews with seven district leaders, three focus groups that brought together a total of ten teachers, and a focus group with five students. We spoke with two out-of-school-time partners and three parents to gather additional context, and we collected 44 responses to a parent survey available in English and Spanish (which was conducted in lieu of a focus group in order to collect a broader range of responses). After completing our data collection, we analyzed the responses to identify common themes.

We zeroed in on three topics highlighted in the Rennie Center’s Back-to-School Blueprint Supporting Remote Learning action guide and grounded in research on the core elements of remote learning: relationships, instruction, and technology. Each section examines a set of core themes and notes a few areas that schools and districts may want to explore as they look to a future beyond remote learning. Read on below to learn more about relationships. Or check out our posts on instruction and technology.



Student-Teacher Connections

In our conversations, as in the research literature, strong relationships between teachers and students were viewed as essential components of learning. However, there is equal agreement that building relationships remotely has been incredibly difficult. Students pointed to a few bright spots, particularly when it came to maintaining preexisting relationships with trusted teachers and counselors, or participating in small classes where they can get to know each other and the teacher. Educators, recognizing the central importance of addressing students’ social-emotional wellbeing, incorporated strategies like morning meetings (especially in the early grades) and beginning-of-class check-ins (across all grade levels). Somerville High School also piloted a new mentorship program that matched staff with small groups of students they were responsible for checking in with regularly, aiming to deepen relationships and proactively address any challenges.

But the process of relationship-building has been significantly constrained during remote learning. One of the major challenges (cited by teachers and students alike) relates to students’ camera use—or lack thereof. Schools had different requirements regarding camera use (for instance, some required cameras to stay on unless parents opted out), but teachers from across schools reported that getting students to stay on screen was “fighting a losing battle.” While educators acknowledged that students could have justifiable reasons for keeping cameras off (such as not wanting their image to be captured on screen and shared on social media), students’ limited on-screen presence impeded the creation of real connections—even student photos would have been better than blank, black boxes, one teacher noted.

Beyond this challenge, expectations for how teachers should reach out to and engage with students have been unclear or inconsistently applied from teacher to teacher—including among those participating in the high school’s pilot mentorship program. Some students also expressed hesitation to seek out their mentors, with the most successful mentor-mentee relationships coming in situations where students and staff had preexisting connections. Beyond mentors, students struggled to feel comfortable with teachers they barely knew—as one said, “When I needed help last year I would go after school and I could get help. Technically, you can still go to office hours and you can email your teachers, but I feel like it’s not the same.”

As they had done previously, schools continued to rely on student support teams to identify students in need of additional assistance. Some high school students reported being contacted by teachers or counselors when their grades began going down, and district leaders described how they created data trackers to monitor student attendance and engagement (for instance, whether students were completing assignments and participating in courses). All teachers also received training at the beginning of the year on trauma-sensitive practices, including how to recognize and respond to the symptoms of trauma exposure among students. Yet despite these efforts, teachers were still hard-pressed to support all students’ social-emotional and mental health needs. This was particularly true of students who appeared to be doing “fine,” but were actually struggling. As parents reported, teachers couldn’t see their student’s off-camera meltdowns.

Moving forward:

     -  Recognize the urgency of connecting with students on an interpersonal level as students return to school—student wellbeing must take priority over other critical needs, including academics. Use one-on-one or small-group discussions to address the disconnection many students have felt over the past year. Small groups also have the benefit of allowing students to forge stronger bonds with peers.

     -  Connect teachers with out-of-school-time providers (including staff from community-based programs who have been monitoring remote learning), as these individuals often have a different sense of students’ strengths and capabilities and innovative models for building relationships. For instance, in its extended learning time programming for students in grades 5-8, Citizen Schools has been offering a student-led club called “Express Yourself.”

     -  Continue to refine mentorship models like the program at Somerville High in order to build on preexisting relationships and the lessons learned from this year. Include students in planning efforts, and offer multiple ways for mentors and mentees to connect (e.g., advisory periods, clubs to explore shared interests). Use methods like relationship mapping to ensure that every student is connected with at least one trusted adult within the school.

     -  Expand mental health services and supports within schools, through the use of universal mental health screening and tiered systems of interventions. Offer additional training and planning opportunities to ensure teachers are familiar with and can implement trauma-sensitive practices for all students.


Student-Student Connections

Unsurprisingly, students missed peer interactions more than anything else during remote learning, and seeing their friends again is the biggest benefit to being back in person. Peers serve as a critical motivating factor for students, and many fell behind or disengaged without positive peer pressure to keep them on track. As with bonds between students and teachers, cultivating bonds among students is a significant challenge when learning remotely: students craved interaction with their peers but they didn’t want to be the only one with a camera on.

Some families took it upon themselves to build bonds between learners, such as by forming learning pods or involving students in extracurricular programming. Meanwhile, some educators attempted to foster positive peer relationships (for instance, by grouping together students from the same pod or offering virtual tutoring sessions between younger and older students). Additionally, in their reflections on learning amid COVID, a number of fourth grade students discussed how they liked having short learning breaks interspersed throughout the day rather than waiting until recess to talk informally with peers. But in general, limited opportunities for social interaction presented significant challenges for many students.

Moving forward:

     -  Plan opportunities for students to work and play together in a safe way during socially distanced in-person learning, as through whole-class check-ins/discussions and outdoor activities.

     -  Support students to engage in meaningful, collaborative reflection, including on their experiences from the past year and other topics. For instance, one third grade teacher described how she and her team have been doing a social justice-focused read aloud every Wednesday and engaging their classes on issues related to race, culture, and justice.

     -  Build in shorter and more frequent breaks that allow students to move around (in a safe manner) and interact with peers.

     -  Welcome students into the process of co-creating support services that also offer opportunities for building relationships (e.g., peer mentorship, virtual or in-person tutoring). Consider how these might leverage technology to bring together students from different schools and geographic areas, such as through cross-district affinity groups.


Teacher-Family Connections

More than any other topic, school and district staff described family engagement as an area where lessons learned during the pandemic should be continued and expanded in the future. Similar phrasing came up repeatedly in conversations with educators: remote learning brought teachers into students’ homes as never before, offering new opportunities for connecting and highlighting the need for two-way communication. Teachers described a range of effective tools and practices that they hadn’t used before, but which they plan to maintain. For instance, the district registered all educators with Talking Points, an app that allows for simultaneous translation of messages—i.e., if teachers send a text in English, families will receive it in their native language (and vice versa). The teachers who used this tool found it to be an effective way to reach multilingual families. Other teachers mentioned that families appreciated receiving weekly updates on student schedules, condensed bullet points on essential information (rather than longer weekly newsletters), and positive feedback about students’ accomplishments by text message.

One particular success was the enhanced flexibility and accessibility of virtual meetings for parent conferences and IEP meetings. Though subject to certain limitations (such as spotty internet connections), meeting through Zoom or other online platforms allowed parents to participate who might otherwise have struggled to make it to a meeting. Teachers described meetings where parents participated during their lunch hour, or while commuting to work on the bus. Remote learning also added to the imperative of hosting more frequent parent meetings, especially for students with disabilities. Special education teachers who started off the year by meeting with all students on their caseload found this to be a powerful way to engage parents (and discuss their aspirations for their students) outside of the annual IEP meeting.

While forging stronger relationships with families is an ongoing process, remote learning brought a new appreciation for the need to partner closely with parents to set and enforce expectations for learning. Teachers relied on parents or caregivers to help younger students access their learning platforms—and to encourage disconnected students at all grade levels to log on. Particularly for students with significant disabilities, parents relied on teachers to interpret and address student behaviors, given the difference between students’ behavior at home and in school settings. Though certainly not universal—not all parents reported increased or effective teacher communication and outreach—there were notable bright spots in building teacher-family connections that schools can seek to build on in the future.

Moving forward:

     -  Continue to utilize effective tools (e.g., Talking Points) and strategies (e.g., positive affirmations, regular communications, more frequent meetings) to promote two-way communication and keep families engaged as partners in student learning.

     -  Offer families the option to participate virtually in parent conferences, IEP meetings, etc.

     -  Support teachers to build out exemplars/models of how they communicated with families during remote learning and to adapt these for use in future years (alongside opportunities for in-person connection). For example, this could involve an online repository of schedules/templates that educators use when communicating with families in person or virtually.

     -  Welcome families into the process of co-creating efforts to address unfinished learning and rebuild relationships post-remote learning. Ensure that these opportunities are accessible to all, including multilingual families.


Other Connections: School-Teacher and Teacher-Teacher

In the early days of the pandemic-related closures, teachers appreciated the support and flexibility they felt from their schools, including checks on their (as well as their students’) wellbeing. A focus on self-care and collective care continues to be critically important, especially in light of the secondary trauma teachers have experienced throughout the pandemic. Educators can also benefit from opportunities to collaborate with and learn from each other in new ways. For instance, asynchronous, teacher-led professional development sessions offered before the start of the school year allowed educators to participate in meaningful professional learning on their own time and gain important insights from their colleagues.

Looking back over the past year, how can we use all that this remote learning experience offered to better support students in the future? While many readers may relate to one parent who commented, “It is a memory that I hope fades into the back of my mind,” for teachers, school leaders, and district officials charged with bringing students back to school after a disrupted year, it is critical to figure out what can be learned from the past year to build a stronger education system long-term. The ideas described above can serve as starting points for conversations on how to build/rebuild relationships, offer relevant and engaging instruction, and leverage the power of technology in new ways, in Somerville and beyond.

Stay tuned next month for the next edition of our “Year in the Life” series, when we will dig into community-school connections.