When the pandemic forced schools to shut down this spring, ensuring that our nearly 250 students remained fully engaged in learning from home was a significant challenge.

A researcher from the American Enterprise Institute estimates that only one in five schools across the United States offered what he describes as “rigorous” instruction online. Other scholars warn of the effects of the “COVID slide,” or the disruption in learning that hit the most vulnerable student populations the hardest when schools closed.

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While the COVID slide is real, we were able to keep the vast majority of students at San Diego’s Juarez Elementary School learning from home during the pandemic. In fact, despite a 40-percent rate of students who come from underprivileged households, we had as many as 73 percent of our fourth and fifth graders logging in every day for online math instruction even after we closed our doors.

How were we able to accomplish this? There were three important factors in our success:
• A commitment by our school district to ensure that all students had the technology infrastructure they needed to learn from home.
• The use of a personalized, adaptive hybrid curriculum solution that students were already familiar with from working with the program in school.
• In-depth insight into student performance that allowed teachers to continue differentiating instruction even as students were learning from home.

Equity of access

We were very fortunate that our school system made it a top priority to provide access to digital devices and home broadband service for every student. Once we decided as a district to shift to remote learning, our technology department took those first few weeks to distribute devices to every student who needed them and WiFi hotspots to every family in need. This action helped prepare our students for success.

Adaptive, hybrid curriculum

Earlier in the school year, we had begun using an adaptive hybrid curriculum program for teaching math in grades 3-5. The program, called Levered, has students work online at their own pace — and the material adapts to each student’s level of proficiency to create personalized pathways through the curriculum.

The program builds students’ conceptual understanding of math through the use of virtual manipulatives, which helps all types of learners succeed. When students get a question wrong as they’re working through the material, a video pops up to help reinforce that concept — and students can also request this additional help whenever they want. Students really like having this just-in-time support as they need it.

Because our students were already accustomed to using the program in school every day, their transition to logging in and working on the program from home was simple. They could hit the ground running, because they were already comfortable learning in an online environment.

In-depth insight

Levered also gives teachers real-time insight into students’ progress, including not just what concepts they’ve mastered and what standards they still need to learn but even how long they spend on individual questions. Our teachers have been using this insight to drive small-group instruction and give students the extra support they need — and they were able to continue this practice remotely this spring.

When teachers saw that students were falling behind, they held virtual small-group or even one-one-one sessions via Zoom, working through problems together with students.

A seamless transition

With Levered, even though students were learning from home, class still functioned much like it did before. This made for a seamless transition.

Many educators have struggled to engage students in remote learning. Our teachers largely avoided this problem, and one reason is that the adaptive nature of the curriculum challenged students at an appropriate level. Because students were working at their own pace, they were seldom bored and could even progress ahead of grade level if they were ready to be challenged further.

We didn’t see a significant drop in usage while students were learning from home. Students used the program for 30 to 40 minutes a day in school, and teachers had them continue this practice from home. During the two-week period from May 25 to June 5, one class of fourths graders used the program for an average of 144 minutes per student — while another used it for 262 minutes per student, or nearly 30 minutes a day.

Though we can’t say for sure whether students have avoided the COVID slide altogether, since we didn’t do benchmark testing in the spring, we can say with confidence that students were continuing to learn new concepts and made progress while working from home, even though we had adopted a “no harm” grading policy in which they weren’t penalized for failing to complete their work.

We don’t yet know what the next school year will hold and whether students will be learning in classrooms, online, or some combination of the two. But with a hybrid curriculum program that’s flexible enough to be used in any type of learning environment, our students are well positioned for any eventuality.

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About the Author:

Laura Lemos, Ed.D., is the principal at Benito Juarez Elementary School in San Diego.

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