Educator reflections on distance learning during COVID-19

Educator planning lessons

As schools began to close in late March due to COVID-19, educators were tasked with finding new ways to continue teaching their students with little time to prepare. We had the opportunity to speak with two teachers at the very beginning of the school closures (March), then again at the end of the school year (June) to learn about their adjustment to distance learning. They reflected on the changes in their approaches, what strategies worked best for their students, and how they are preparing for the upcoming school year.

Ms. D is a high school history teacher and Ms. M is a middle school math and science teacher.

District Expectations

Teaching in the era of distance learning depends heavily on a district’s preparedness, available resources, and community expectations. Like many other school districts in the U.S., both Ms. D and M’s districts originally closed with the expectation of reopening in a few weeks. This resulted in multiple waves of district messaging regarding technology, instructional requirements, and grading.

However, after a few weeks, it became clear that schools would not reopen. Both teachers have since adjusted their expectations for student engagement and describe a tiring process of trial and error in an effort to engage and re-engage their students in learning.

Distance Learning Strategies and Resources

March 2020
June 2020
Ms. D In March, Ms. D planned to mostly stick with her curriculum, such that all assignments stayed on the calendar and were due Fridays.

She put more emphasis on project-based learning. She understood that students would be more motivated to learn about topics they were personally interested in.

  • E.g., Students could choose from 8 different assignment blurbs within the topic of World War II resistance movements. They were then assigned to independently research their topic and produce a summary paragraph and art piece to represent their findings.

She held mandatory virtual class twice a week and used Screencastify to voice over PowerPoint presentations for later use.

After a couple months of distance learning, Ms. D found alternative products and assignments that worked better for her students. She assigned more concrete and complete assignments (e.g., movies and graphic organizers rather than reading)

She used Edpuzzle, an online product that allows teachers to assign existing videos, or create their own and imbed comprehension checks, quizzes, and games. Ms. D was especially drawn to the individual tracking features to monitor student engagement

She transitioned her final essay assignment to a verbal reflection essay to perhaps give students a more comfortable way to reflect on their learning over the past year. She saw one of her highest submission rates of 50%!

She discontinued live meetings. She found them difficult to manage, and they cut into new maximum instruction time required by the district.

Ms. M When distance learning began, Ms. M planned to provide her students with as many options as possible. Specifically, she wanted students to be able to absorb informational and engaging content when their new schedules allowed.

She created and assigned lessons and games using the following:

  • Screencastify
  • Prodigy (math game)
  • Virtual field trips
  • Virtual science labs and simulations
  • Math escape rooms
  • Resources from

She held office hours twice a week using Google Meet and expected all her students to attend.

By the end of the school year Ms. M found that group video check-ins made it difficult to have personal interactions with her students. She opted to use Google Forms to administer check-in surveys to learn about the well-being of her students instead of live calls.

To combat her lower engagement numbers, she transitioned to fewer assignments with less exploration and clearer instructions. She also stopped assigning materials that were not compatible with Google Classroom.

Resources that worked well for Ms. M’s students include:

  • Edpuzzle (she loves the tracking features!)
  • Kahoot lessons and games to introduce newer concepts
  • Quizziz for content review
  • Newsela, which automatically scaffolds readings to different reading levels


Sudden school closures have turned student and teacher routines upside down, but both teachers found ways to create adaptive schedules and take advantage of their new free time. With support from her district, Ms. M makes sure to log off after her required 7-hour work day and take time to relax and recharge. She understands that her high schoolers are also on an adjusted schedule and are more likely to start their days later in the morning, so she uses her extra time in the morning to take walks, go swimming, and cook.

Both teachers found comfort in engaging with other educators. Whether done in a professional capacity to swap notes on distance learning strategies, or on a social level, it is comforting to hear other teachers going through a similar challenging experience. Ms. M said her colleagues have even held a few virtual Happy Hours with great success!

Both teachers emphasized that a crucial part of their remote teaching experience is recognizing the effects of these changes on their students. Many students assumed new roles in their home; others have lost the daily escape of leaving home to attend school. Setting realistic expectations and intentionally recognizing the new contexts of their students helped Ms. D and M practice patience in their new teaching roles.

However, Ms. D and Ms. M both voiced an important main takeaway: most K-12 students are not yet motivated to learn for the sake of learning. A physical classroom, a space many students already associate with learning, also promotes social motivation. At school, students are driven by personal connections and relationships and encounter face-to-face accountability for their work and behavior by their peers and teachers. When these systems are not present, many students seem to struggle to find the self-motivation to ‘log on’ to engage in learning.

Five Recommendations when Planning for the Fall

With uncertainty regarding what learning will look like in the fall, both teachers voiced great strategies for how to prepare for continued distance learning:

  • Take advantage of the beginning of the school year! Districts will have more clear rules in place regarding attendance, grading, and workload. On the first day of school students will know what is expected of them.
  • Consider online and offline learning opportunities. Many districts will use this time to reach 1:1 device ratios, but many can’t. Worksheets, creative visual assignments, or community exploration activities can create opportunities for students to learn without being connected to the internet.
  • Create structure and routines. Consider what time your students will be ready to start virtually learning and coordinate schedules and workload with other teachers. Create a calendar available to all students to provide a visual roadmap throughout the semester.
  • Develop lesson plans, including contingency plans. Use the summertime to plot what parts of your curriculum can be done virtually and what can’t.
  • It will be difficult to virtually instruct students you have never met before. Strategize ways to socially engage with your new students at the beginning of the school year (e.g., video or phone calls).

Topics: Educator professional development and support High school Middle school/Junior high school

Tags: COVID-19 Distance learning