A Year in the Life: Technology during Remote Learning

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, highlighted below.

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 technology. Or check our our posts on relationships and instruction.



Devices and Connectivity

When schools closed last spring, especially as conversations about a two-week closure morphed into conversations about a months-long closure, it became clear that Somerville required a massive device rollout to make virtual classes available to all students (supplanting the paper resources that were then being sent home). The process of getting students online and connected required communication and collaboration between stakeholders at every level of the school system, as well as external partners.

Prior to the pandemic, the district owned sufficient Chromebooks for all students in grades 4 through 8, with approximately 50% coverage within the high school, but these devices were intended to be used in school rather than taken home. By leveraging food distribution sites and vacant school buildings across the city as dissemination points, the district was able to quickly get these and other Chromebooks into the hands of students. By the end of the 2019-20 school year, all students in grades 3-12 had access to Chromebooks, while students in grades preK-2 were using Amazon Fire tablets (which were more affordable, more readily available, and viewed as easier to operate for the youngest students). Then, over the summer, district staff were able to bring in additional resources and devices, allowing them to transition the entire preK-12 system to 1:1 Chromebook access by the start of the new school year.

While device distribution proceeded apace, the process also exposed significant inequities in access to at-home internet service, particularly among immigrant populations, which the district aimed to handle in partnership with internet provider Comcast. Staff first aimed to get every family connected through Comcast’s $10/month subsidized Internet Essentials plan, seeing this as a long-term solution to helping families get online. However, some families did not qualify for this service, while others couldn’t get hooked up because of problems with the wiring at their homes. In these cases, school- and classroom-level data helped the district pinpoint which families might need a mobile hotspot to connect. Ultimately, the district purchased and gave out more than 400 mobile hotspots. 

The distribution of devices and hotspots allowed residents to get connected during this academic year, but staff will need to recalibrate over the summer to prepare for classes next fall. District leaders hope to collect Chromebooks back from students at the end of this school year. Families received their devices from sites scattered all across the city, so getting all of the devices back in one place means the district can assess the condition of the devices and replace any that have reached the end of their useable life. They can then reissue devices so that each homeroom has an available stock. This reset over the summer will ensure that controlled, 1:1 technological access and distribution becomes a staple in the schooling experience moving forward. The district also aims to pursue funding so that it may continue working with Comcast to identify community internet needs and provide ongoing support post-reopening, as the last year clearly illuminated the inequities in connectivity across the district, particularly among immigrant families.

Moving forward:

     -  Maintain 1:1 device availability for all students district-wide, with devices assigned to homerooms and used in targeted ways during the school day.

     -  Assess the costs associated with maintaining internet connectivity in students’ homes. Ensure that students who move into or within the district receive information on (and support with) connecting to affordable home internet options.


Technology Use, Support, and Troubleshooting

Distributing devices and bolstering connectivity was only the beginning of the process—the next challenge for Somerville was to ensure that students were able to use their Chromebooks (and all necessary learning platforms) during remote learning. Staff from the district’s technology department responded to requests and worked through issues remotely, at food distribution sites, or (on rare occasions) by making house calls to address issues. Technology staff collaborated with multilingual liaisons in the Somerville Families Learning Collaborative (SFLC) to support any households that needed tech support to address hardware or connectivity issues.

Many educators also faced obstacles in getting acclimated to teaching and learning online. Between Google Classroom, Classroom Dojo, Zoom, Schoology, and other systems, teachers had access to an abundance of online schooling platform options. To help teachers address challenges with the use of education technology, the district turned to a group of more than 40 tech-savvy educators called the Education Technology (EdTech) Team. Last spring, these educators supported their colleagues by offering workshops on common online tools and platforms and hosting daily office hours, thereby offering continuous support. This group also facilitated a virtual EdTech Conference over the summer to continue spreading effective practices. Furthermore, teachers received substantial professional development on the use of tech platforms before the start of school in the fall (too much, in the view of some teachers, who would have preferred more training on effective remote teaching strategies).

The use of multiple learning platforms last spring proved to be a challenge for families and students as well, producing confusion and leading some students to disconnect rather than attempt to navigate various links and passwords for every class. Part of the issue was that it took some time for the district to officially license the use of the popular Zoom platform to allow for a more secure environment. In the meantime, the use of Zoom was limited due to security concerns, with stories of “Zoombombing” (when unauthorized users disrupt meetings) on the rise. Additionally, once the license went into effect, many parents didn’t know they had to log on with their students’ accounts, leading district officials to backtrack and pursue a more phased-in approach. Though confusion seems to have abated since the start of the school year as educators and families settled into a routine with their chosen platforms, parents have still expressed concerns about some sites (such as Seesaw) being difficult to navigate. They have also taken to social media to share their homegrown suggestions for addressing common issues, such as by standardizing passwords and bringing together Zoom links in one site on the Chromebook.

Considering the ongoing transition back into physical classrooms, some of the technological lessons learned during remote schooling have become less relevant. However, there are some positive aspects that districts can build upon and integrate into the in-person schooling experience, as technology continues to be a great tool for keeping families involved and engaged in the process. In particular, teachers and caregivers have benefited from the flexibility of virtual parent/teacher conferences; with the ability to dial in from anywhere, parents no longer have to choose between missing work or missing a school meeting. Also, sometimes to the chagrin of family members concerned about excessive screen time, many students have gained technological savvy and adaptability in the past year. In particular, students with disabilities and younger students have gained skills through explicit lessons on navigating new technologies and platforms that can help them become more adept computer users in the future.

Moving forward:

     -  Continue to offer assistance through the district’s Help Desk for families experiencing challenges with connectivity and the use of online platforms. Making available videos, reference guides, and other resources on the school or district website can also help parents troubleshoot common issues.

     -  Leverage and grow students’ technological skills by involving them in the distribution and maintenance of devices. Consider forming a “Student EdTech Team” to work with and learn from the teachers in the existing EdTech Team.

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.