A few thoughts on returning to school in the age of Covid-19

If British Columbia and other jurisdictions are serious about a “continuity of learning”, then it’s clear that distance or distributed learning (DL) will play an integral part. As such, I would like to offer the following suggestions based on my 27 years as a secondary public-school teacher, seven of which were in DL. I certainly have no magic eight ball; I offer my thoughts merely to add to a difficult but important conversation.

1. Keep it simple: Many excellent teachers would have trouble creating a decent PowerPoint, let alone a complete online course. Let’s not burden teachers with a complex Learning Management System (LMS) if simpler alternatives are available. Even though I taught in a DL school for seven years, I would prefer to keep it straightforward. If I’m allowed, I’ll use OneDrive or Teams to house my files and Blogger to communicate my instructions. That’s it. We don’t have the time or ability to get fancy. And I’m not just talking about delivery. Our assignments and assessment will need to be radically streamlined, too. One of the dirty secrets in asynchronous online learning, particularly for courses that can’t rely on multiple choice, is that it is extraordinarily inefficient. For example, opening, assessing and giving feedback one assignment at a time is incredibly time-consuming, and is much more inefficient than hand marking, say, a set of paragraphs all at once. And that assumes we are processing the same assignment all day, which is unlikely to happen. So, don’t go overboard! If we can avoid that, our jury-rigged DL offerings may not be pretty, but they will be manageable.

2. Keep it flexible: One size will certainly not fit all. Already, after one week, I’ve heard dozens of different solutions that educators are eager to try. And why not? If individual teachers, departments and schools are motivated by their own solutions, why should we deny that enthusiasm? IT people will be swamped as it is; we need the good will and participation of interested teachers to mentor and support fellow educators who are not technologically savvy. [I will be happy to help if asked!] To be sure, school district IT departments still have a valuable role to play. We’ll certainly require a common page that all teachers can link to, and presumably a school’s administrative system will still be in place for marks and communication. If IT departments want to offer a common platform like Moodle or D2L, I have no problem with that, as long as we aren’t all compelled to join. In other words, instead of having to support the entire teaching staff, it would make sense to limit IT support to those without alternatives.

3. This is not the time for “disaster pedagogy”: In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein warns us against disaster capitalism, a form of neo-liberal opportunism that uses crises and chaos to push through a radical agenda on behalf of entrenched interests. Unfortunately, as she writes, “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure”. Let’s not make this a moment of transformational change in education. If certain educators think this is the moment to fundamentally alter our pedagogy, as many have suggested on social media this past week, then we’ll run up against #1 and 2. We simply don’t have the time, tools or expertise to implement something drastic, and despite our profession’s love of bandwagons, I just don’t see many teachers willing to put forth 16 hour days to transform on the fly. Given the stress we’re under, I think we’d actually see a great deal of pushback.

4. Acknowledge the problems up front: There are a lot of critical challenges that I and others foresee, and I certainly don’t have many answers. On the other hand, ignoring these questions is likely to backfire.

a. Even if we lend out our school laptops (which will be a logistical challenge in itself), do all our students have Wi-Fi access at home?

b. When I was in DL, the common rule of thumb was that a 20% completion rate for paper correspondence courses and a 40% rate for online courses was pretty good for asynchronous, learn-at-your-own-pace learning. Almost universally, those students who were successful had one or both of the following assets: self-discipline and supportive parents. What do we do if massive numbers of students lack those elements and don’t complete their work? [If we only mark the work that is submitted, as some have suggested this week, then good luck getting anything submitted.]

c. If a teacher’s course is “hands-on”, how does he or she teach the course online? Vocational programs, physical education and art are difficult to replicate in DL, and they usually rely on community resources that aren’t easy to access right now.

d. Many educators are suggesting one-on-one video conferencing as part of the solution. How do we offer video conferencing for 200+ students in a linear secondary or 100+ students (x2 interactions) in a semester school? If we are going to meet with multiple students in one video conference, do we have the robust technology to accomplish this? And, once again, what if students can’t and won’t participate?

e. How will our most vulnerable students react to online learning? This is a tough one!

f. BC teachers and CUPE workers will apparently return to school, without students, on March 30. How will staff congregate in a school to support each other, but avoid violating the current 50 person limit? I’m worried about Covid-19 transmission. Seriously, do I wear gloves and a mask next Monday?

g. Will school districts provide teachers access to resources like TurnItIn.Com? Speaking from personal experience, I can guarantee you that plagiarism is going to be a real problem, particularly at the end of May and June if we hold firm to our traditional deadlines.

h. Is there a way to deliver paper tests? Creating online exams with proper invigilation is a massive undertaking that would take us well beyond next September. At my old DL school, we had to pay for a network of community testing sites with certified invigilators. Otherwise, I’m sorry to say, cheating would have been rampant. Could schools still allow students to write paper exams at school? Are there safety protocols that would allow it?

i. If certain teachers do build their courses in and contribute content to an LMS, who owns the courses and content? Teachers should be very careful and ask questions before committing to a district learning platform.

j. How will we get certain necessary resources, like textbooks and novels, to our students?


I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed right now. The daily emails that assure us “we are working on it” haven’t exactly helped. I’m starting to think we should provide a final mark now, but allow students a chance to improve their mark if they so wish.

In any case, I’m going to try to relax for a few more days and then jump into the deep end once again. Any thoughts? Any suggestions? Have I missed some important issues and questions? I’d love to hear from you. [Meanwhile, I just discovered a six year-old bottle of wine at the bottom of my wine rack. Things aren’t all bad, it seems.]


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3 Comments to "A few thoughts on returning to school in the age of Covid-19"

  1. Tamara's Gravatar Tamara
    March 24, 2020 - 2:52 pm | Permalink

    No suggestions but I appreciate your thoughts.

    I do think this may be a transformational time in education just because of the nature of all that is happening. And, there are a number of new teachers (such as myself) for whom the new curriculum with its open, inquiry focus is the only curriculum we know. I see opportunity for project-based / interest-based learning and students (who have access) collaborating online. Though of course, as I’ve mentioned before, I still have my optimistic goggles on and will only know for sure what will work and what won’t as I gain more experience. I do worry for students needing Enhanced Services. I’ll be starting a new contract teaching a grade 4/5 class in a Tier One school after the break and that will be the situation of many of my new students. I’m wondering how I can best connect with them when we’re starting from a distance. And, I wish we would be provided with an update soon because I feel the lack of communication is leaving too much space for worry and speculation.

    I did find this article on Edutopia interesting: https://www.edutopia.org/article/what-teachers-china-have-learned-past-month. Maybe you will too.

  2. Ken Nachtigal's Gravatar Ken Nachtigal
    March 25, 2020 - 8:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks. Colin, for your analysis of the next “probable window ” of learning. I’m not sure if I want to call this “continuity of learning” as there are many variables to be identified/secured so I am considering this a “probable window.” My view goes back to a previous era: “The Good, the Bad. and the Ugly.” The contents of #1 above could be “good”, #2 could be “good/bad”; now, #3 and #4 appear to be dressed exclusively for the ugly genre. I become concerned when decisions are made by those furthest removed from the daily situation. Then, when this happens, we’ll see more of #3 and #4.

    Enjoy your wine, Colin! Thanks for your insights.

  3. March 27, 2020 - 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Well done champ!
    Looking forward a tad to retiring!


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