Jan 05 2021

How K–12 Schools Map Paths to Effective Hybrid Learning

Some K–12 school districts have hit their stride in the effort to provide rigorous and engaging remote instruction to students.

It’s a question every K–12 school district leader in the country had to ask last spring and fall, and each came up with a slightly different answer: How could they support remote and hybrid instruction in a way that engages families, inspires students and keeps everybody as sane as possible?

For most, the answer has included a thoughtful mix of training and technology.

“Devices and connectivity are absolutely key,” says Liz Miller Lee, director of online learning at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). “But we can’t just expect teachers to be experts without training on how to use those tools and without providing meaningful pedagogical strategies.”

“Districts were thrown into the thick of this last spring, and there wasn’t a lot of time for strategy or teacher preparation,” Miller Lee adds. “The main difference now is that districts learned lessons from the spring, and then they had time to engage in professional development for teachers.”

EdTech spoke with IT and curriculum leaders at three school districts to uncover best practices for remote and hybrid learning.

READ MORE: How K–12 schools are expanding tech support along with remote learning.

Virtual Learning Academy Smooths the Transition for Teachers

After a spring marked by emergency-mode remote teaching and a severely truncated curriculum, leaders at Leander Independent School District in Texas moved to create a virtual-learning summer academy to help teachers optimize their instruction for a remote model.

The academy mirrored the learning opportunities teachers would offer to students in the fall, featuring both synchronous sessions (during which teachers learned together in real time) and asynchronous opportunities (where teachers worked through prepared course materials). Five required modules provided a foundation for virtual teaching, planning and assessment, but teachers also had their choice of hundreds of other sessions, including many that were prepared by curriculum leaders at individual school sites.

“We can create documents, resources and exemplary lessons, but unless our teachers understand how virtual teaching is different from teaching in person, it’s really going to be a barrier for them,” says Jennifer Collins, assistant superintendent for curriculum at Leander ISD.


credit: Photography by Robert Seale

The district leaned on its existing fleet of devices to support remote and hybrid instruction, with elementary students using Dell Chromebooks and secondary students learning on Lenovo ThinkPad 2-in-1 Windows devices. But the district also purchased mobile hotspots to provide internet access to students who lacked connectivity, and the IT shop is in the process of upgrading its data center infrastructure. The increase in remote traffic coming through ContentKeeper, the district’s content filtering application, ate up so much bandwidth that it prompted an upgrade from a 10-gigabit-per-second internet pipe to a 20Gbps connection. To avoid overwhelming its data center infrastructure, the district has temporarily diverted some traffic to ContentKeeper’s data centers and will soon upgrade its firewalls and core switches.

“One of the other bigger issues we had was our IT help desk,” notes Jason Miller, CTO for Leander ISD. “We answer questions from parents, teachers and administrators. Those calls quadrupled, and we didn’t have the staff to cover that. We brought in some of our IT technicians to handle those calls, but we could have used another five or six staffers.”

With more than half a year of experience behind them, both Collins and Miller say they could see remote learning continuing, even after the pandemic ends. “I do think we’ll have some students who figure out that virtual learning works for them,” Collins says.


The average number of instructional days lost in high-poverty school districts during spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Source: American Enterprise Institute, “Too Little, Too Late: A Hard Look at Spring 2020 Remote Learning,” October 2020

Streamlining Tech to Help Every Student Succeed

When Atlantis Charter School, a public K–12 charter in Fall River, Mass., closed down in March, teachers handed out almost a month’s worth of pen-and-paper activities to students — giving school officials three weeks to stand up a remote learning environment.

“Teachers were on board, and they converted their lessons to teaching online,” says Melissa Biello, a technology integration specialist at Atlantis. At first, she says, many teachers offered asynchronous work and set up virtual office hours for students. But “we knew if we had to come back remotely in the fall, we could not do it that way anymore,” she says. “That was a Band-Aid on the problem.”

In fact, the school largely had to stick with expanded remote instruction in the fall, but some kindergarten and high-need students returned to school buildings for in-person learning. In the spring, students used the charter school’s existing Chromebooks, which were five or six years old. But in the fall, Atlantis distributed new Dell Chromebook 3100 devices, with students in kindergarten and first grade receiving ASUS Chromebook Tablet CT100 machines. The school also upgraded to G Suite Enterprise for Education, which allowed teachers to automatically take attendance and divide students into small groups.

“We needed to streamline our technology to make sure every student was equipped to complete their work and attend video lessons,” Biello says.

She adds that teachers are still catching up and helping students to make up for instructional time they lost in the spring. Many are eager to return to the school’s physical campus, she says, but for now Atlantis has found ways to minimize tech frustrations and allow teachers and students to focus on learning.

“Our community, our families and our students feel that they’re supported,” Biello says. “Teachers are always trying to help, and if they can’t help, they send things over to me. I do think we’re moving in a very positive direction, where every week gets better and better.”

Jennifer Collins, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Leander ISD
We can create documents, resources and exemplary lessons, but unless our teachers understand how virtual teaching is different from teaching in person, it’s really going to be a barrier for them.

Jennifer Collins Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Leander ISD

A Tech-Based Doorway to Hybrid Learning

Before the pandemic, teachers in New London Public Schools in Connecticut were using a hodgepodge of tech tools, says Timothy Enos, assistant director of magnet pathway development, district programming and operations for the district. Sixty percent of teachers were using Google Classroom, he says. About half of the New London’s teachers were using Microsoft Teams, and many were also using their own stand-alone solutions.

“We said, there’s just too much,” Enos recalls.

The district ended up consolidating on Teams, syncing the solution with educational software that handles administrative tasks such as attendance and grades.

The district had nearly a one-to-one device environment before the crisis — a situation that improved when state funding paid for new Dell Latitude 3190 2-in-1 devices for high school students. Students in grades three through eight are using Dell Chromebook 3100 machines, and pre-K–2 students are using 7th generation iPads.

The district regained some sense of normalcy this fall, when it was classified as “yellow” on the state’s green-yellow-red COVID-19 risk spectrum. That allowed schools to open in a hybrid environment, with about 40 percent of students engaged completely in distance learning, and the rest coming into school half of the time. But Enos hopes that the pandemic’s lessons will stay with the district — and with schools across the country — long into the future.

“Before, technology was an add-on,” he says. “Now it’s integrated. I hope things don’t revert back.”

MORE ON EDTECH: 5 tips for finding the best PD platform for your district’s teachers.

Illustration by Taylor Callery

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