Blog Post

Navigating Distance Learning

Distance learning is a work in progress. Although most teachers routinely utilize online tools to teach, not everyone has access, experience, or has completely transitioned to online learning. And with change comes challenges. After talking with teachers from a variety of districts and schools, I’ve found a few emerging themes can be applied right now.

Strategies that Are Working

Flexibility for teachers and students

  • Teachers are using a variety of materials and resources to meet the needs of their students. Providing resources for students, teachers, and parents to communicate in a variety of ways.
  • Mixing synchronous and asynchronous lessons and activities. This took many forms across the nation. Some districts have had a small amount of synchronous time each day and office hours, other districts required students to be online for numerous hours each day. Hours of screen time are not ideal, however; ensuring that teachers are accessible when students have questions or need support is key.
  • Teaching in smaller breakout groups—when possible—rather than whole group, lecture-style lessons during video sessions. When I discussed distance learning with my class, they shared the importance of the smaller setting during distance learning. This is similar to when we were in the classroom as well. Often, especially for math and reading, the class would break into smaller groups for guided reading or math lessons.
  • Providing choice boards for students to make decisions about how to demonstrate their learning during asynchronous learning.
  • Using interactive slideshows or hyperdocs for students to actively engage during video lessons using a shared Google Slides file or using an app such as Pear Deck. Pear Deck is a powerful add-on to Google Slides that allows the instructor to control which slide is visible to the students and gain feedback in different ways. Teachers can add polls, allow students to draw on slides, ask for numerical or text responses, and much more. Student responses are visible to the teacher but are kept private from the other students. This works well for students who may be uncomfortable sharing using their audio or the whole group chat features of the video platform. Teachers may display student feedback with the class, however in that view all of the responses are anonymous. After the lesson, teachers can save all of the student responses on Google Drive.

An emphasis on connections and feedback rather than grades and deadlines.

  • Although the academic impacts of distance learning cannot be underestimated, the well-being of students is most important. We may not be able to fully see or hear about the social-emotional impact of distance learning on all of our students, but it is ever-present. This is not just online school. Students are unable to connect with one another as they did in the school buildings, during extracurricular activities, on sports teams, and in the neighborhood. There are other strains on families during this time. Taking this into consideration when planning lessons and expectations for assignments cannot be overlooked.
  • Having morning meetings to check in with students and bring the class together at the beginning of synchronous sessions. Some teachers are also using daily/weekly Google Forms to check in on students and provide an opportunity for students to share feedback privately.
  • Providing opportunities for students to connect with one another outside of lessons through lunch bunches, social groups, and video chats. Lunch bunches can take the form of a small group of students who join via video chat to have lunch together and talk or play games, or a larger group of students broken into smaller breakout groups/lunch “tables” with an adult moderator in each group.

Video lessons and activities

  • Posting video recordings of synchronous lessons for students who were unable to attend or would like to review the material again.
  • Creating recorded supplemental lessons or tutorials for students to access during asynchronous work time.
  • Using tools such as Flipgrid for students to interact using video recordings during asynchronous work time.

Unexpected Outcomes

Resource Use

  • Resources teachers had access to—but previously had not used—are now being explored and used, including FlipGrid, Screencastify, WeVideo, Kahoot, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, and G Suite tools. The adaptability of teachers and staff to help connect with and teach students has driven professional development in new areas.
  • Student Interactions o Student interactions online versus in-person have brought out strengths in students that did not always show in the classroom. Some students who were shy in the classroom have come alive with the digital format. What can we take away from distance learning for future in-person learning? How can we adapt lessons to meet the needs of more learners? The use of blended learning or flipped classrooms could become more widespread moving forward.
  • Many students have learned new independence and advocacy skills. They are finding ways to advocate for themselves and their learning, such as asking for one-on-one meetings with their teacher or leaving private comments on an assignment.

Areas of Need

Equity for students

  • Not all students have access to laptops and internet at home, and those who do have access may be sharing their device with siblings, parents, or other family members. Some schools have been able to provide devices and wi-fi hotspots to all families, but that is still not the case for many. This likely will be a continuing difficulty.
  • Students in special education programs may not be able to get the services and supports that they need through distance learning. Similarly, students with IEPs, 504s, or ESOL needs may not be able to get supports in the same ways that they previously had. Supports vary from school to school and district to district. This is unacceptable.
  • Some teachers have not been trained to teach virtually and the availability of tools available to students, teachers, and families varies from district to district. Some districts provided for the use of video tools for synchronous learning, while others provided mainly asynchronous (virtual or on paper).

Inconsistent rigorous content

  • Distance learning in the spring happened quickly. There was little time to plan for the transition and expectations were mixed. Numerous states across the nation cancelled end-of-year standardized testing and standards taught were pared down due to the decreased amount of instructional time and equity concerns.

What strategies are working for your class and school? What challenges have you encountered? Together we will learn and adapt to meet the needs of our students and support them during this challenging time!


Lisa Rode is a CS for All Teachers Community Ambassador who teaches sixth grade at Kings Glen Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. CS has transformed Lisa’s own classroom—she includes programming and robotics into all the subjects she teaches. She is passionate about advancing the integration of programming, computational thinking, and physical computing into all elementary school subject areas. Lisa was chosen as the 2019 Fairfax County Public Schools Outstanding Elementary Teacher.