District Plans for Shifting to Remote Instruction in Spring 2020

two children learning online in front of a computer
Should we go fully digital, use paper copies, or use a hybrid model? How will we assess the technology needs of our students? Should we arrange for meal pick up, delivery, or some combination? How will we manage and monitor student learning? How will we continue to meet the social-emotional needs of our students? These are just some of the questions that school leaders faced as they developed their plans for continued learning after school doors were shuttered for the year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 2nd, 2020, Governor Whitmer signed an executive order instructing all K-12 schools to close for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. In doing so, the Governor’s office, in conjunction with the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers, developed a Continuity of Learning Plan (Plan) template to be filled out by each district and posted on their website. 

Continuity of learning plan requirements

The Governor instructed districts to ensure their Plans were appropriate, equitable, and accessible for students and families, ensuring every student who needed it had access to an appropriate device with an ability to connect to the internet, to continue to provide mental health care services for students, and to continue to provide meals for families in need.  

The Plans consisted of 15 questions to which districts were expected to respond. The full set of questions can be found on the website. Generally, the questions asked districts to describe the alternative modes of instruction they planned to use including content delivery, outreach and communication, plans to monitor student learning, budget and additional expenditures, and plans to support students academically and emotionally. 


A total of 543 open-active public LEA districts were identified through the Center for Educational Performance and Information Educational Entity Master. Of the 543 districts, 100 were randomly selected by The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) for review and analysis of their Plan. Of the 100 districts, 98 had Plans publicly available (in at least some format) on their website. Most Plans were easily accessible; however, for 13 districts, their Plans were deemed very difficult to locate by MVLRI.

Research motivation

MVLRI was interested in understanding the districts’ responses to the Governor’s executive order closing all school buildings and facilities, as well as the specific details and concerns of districts as they moved to emergency remote instruction. In particular, MVLRI was interested in understanding the alternative models of instruction schools planned to adopt, challenges associated with these models (including budget), as well as how districts intended to support students academically, socially, and emotionally. 

What alternative modes of instruction did districts intend to adopt? What are the associated challenges with these? 

Key Findings:

  • A vast majority of districts indicated they would use both digital instructional content and paper copies of instructional material. Only a handful of districts planned to use only digital or only paper-based resources.
  • A vast majority of districts indicated challenges with adopting alternative methods of instruction, primarily around access to devices and the internet. 

Alternative modes of instruction

When shifting to emergency remote instruction, 95% of the districts studied indicated they would provide a “hybrid” model of instruction, meaning they intended to make content available digitally but also described how they would provide hard copies of instructional materials for those students who needed it. However, a few of these “hybrid model” districts noted that digital content would be secondary or supplementary and would not necessarily be the primary method of lesson delivery. A sampling of districts noted the following:

We will offer every student educational enrichment opportunities through hard copy instructional materials such as workbooks, grade-level instructional packets, and reading books. We will also offer many other educational opportunities through virtual learning. We will not be handing out devices to students under this plan and will not be providing internet hot spots. The only students that will receive laptops are those students enrolled in a college class. Note – students will not be penalized for lack of access to electronic learning platforms.

The primary method of delivery, regardless of internet access, will be a hard copy for all students. Any online opportunities are secondary to the hard copy packets.

Given the reality of the digital divide, schools will first provide non-digital access to content. All digital content may be seen as enrichment and will not be used to assess learning and growth.

Three of the districts included in this study  indicated that they would be using a “technology-based only” method of lesson delivery. Their individual responses to this question included the following details: 

We plan to use Canvas, a learning management system (LMS), for remote learning. A device will be made available for those students who have internet access but do not have a device. Hot spots will be provided to students who have a device but do not have internet access. 

We believe that we have the resources to avoid the hard copy approach, but we are also prepared to create and distribute them if necessary.

Paper packets will only be used in the instance that a student does not have internet connectivity—all students have a device.

On the other hand, two of the districts included in this study responded that they would be using a “non-tech based” method of lesson delivery. Their responses to this question included the following details: 

We will be using relevant and engaging individualized work packets for our K-8 students in all subject areas (E.L.A., Math, Science, and Social Studies), including Specials classes (Art, Spanish, P.E., and Music). These meet our students’ needs best because the majority of our students don’t have access to technology and parents requested the paper materials. 

Teachers and parapros will deliver instructional packets to the students’ homes each week and pick up the previous week’s assignments at the same time. Pick-up/delivery of assignments will utilize non-contact delivery procedures.

Challenges with emergency remote instruction

When asked if there were challenges associated with emergency remote instruction and adopting alternative modes of instruction, 87% of districts indicated “yes.” While this question in the Plan did not specifically ask districts to specify any challenges they face in providing alternative modes of instruction, the districts that did so describe challenges worth noting. Many districts indicated challenges with internet access—some due to areas without reliable internet access or due to the widespread geography of their district. When asked if all students have existing technology, only 10% of districts indicated yes. Nearly 80% of districts indicated no and 10% did not indicate a response. 

Access to technology

While only 10% of the districts indicated being fully 1:1, meaning each student has a designated computing device available to them, prior to implementing their Plan, two districts indicated that they were able to deploy enough devices to be 1:1 currently. Three districts indicated that they were able to provide a device to any student that did not have access to one. Two districts indicated that they are able to be 1:1 in some grades, but not all. One district indicated that students without wifi access may also choose to receive a USB drive with assignments that can be accessed on a device from home.

To facilitate emergency remote instruction as specified in district Plans, half of the districts indicated that they needed to, and were able to, purchase devices (tablets or computers) for their students. Roughly one-third of districts indicated that they purchased wireless internet hot-spots out of necessity for their students. 

Responses from schools varied but included details that described the struggles that some of these school districts faced, which were underscored by the pandemic and the need to suddenly teach remotely:

Our finance and technology departments identified a strategy to transform laptops into Chromebooks, load protective internet software for at-home learning, and deploy electronic devices that includes deploying 3500 laptops and nearly 800 hotspots to students throughout the county through a partnership with FedEx.

Our district covers 364 square miles and is home to 1,030 pre-K through 12 students from four townships. This rural area presents multiple barriers to learning at home. Concerns of device availability, access to connectivity, and parental support for learning in some homes require us to respond in multiple ways to the “new” way of completing the 2019-2020 school year.

According to our local survey, 15% of the entire district does not have access to reliable internet.

Only 72% of our students have internet access in their homes.

Some districts also described challenges associated with student access to devices (tablets or computers), noting that the shift to emergency remote instruction has exposed and made more relevant the challenges their students face regularly, such as poverty, homelessness, and chronic absenteeism. 

This health crisis has intensified significant, pre-existing challenges in our district. Over 82% of our students receive federally funded free or reduced lunch. Over 60% of our students are enrolled in our Schools of Choice program, which requires them to travel a substantial distance to and from school from a city outside of our district’s boundaries. Over 30% of our student population is considered chronically absent due to a litany of inequities that exist in our surrounding area and 25% of our students are transient. The nexus of all of the aforementioned demographics have forced our district to place a significant emphasis on basic and social-emotional needs while maintaining high expectations and academic rigor for remote learning.

Additionally, one school district noted a struggle they experienced in regards to student use of devices on private home networks as opposed to use on school networks:  

The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires that if the district assigns laptops for student home use, the device must have internet-safe filtering purchased and installed. District devices are compliant when on the school network, however, we cannot currently control URL filtering on private home networks. We are researching options for future home use student devices.

Challenges facing rural districts

Michigan’s unique geography also presents challenges specifically for remote, rural districts. Several of these districts serve very few students—certainly less than 100, with some only serving 15-20 students. In their Plans, these districts that are almost exclusively K-8, indicate serving the specific needs of their students often largely without technology but through packets or other printed materials. 

We are a K-8 rural district and only have 69 students. The internet is not really required in our plan. On Mondays, when students pick up their food delivery, each student will receive a special treat bag and ideas for activities at home to stay busy.

We are a K-6 district and are using instructional packets only—no technology.

Considering all of the challenges that school districts were facing, it is no surprise that there were additional costs associated with this shift to remote learning and teaching. 

Additional expenditures associated with the shift to emergency remote instruction

Seventy-four percent of the districts indicated additional expenditures associated with building closures and moving to emergency remote instruction. These expenditures included items such as mailing costs, printing costs, fuel and mileage, learning supplies, technology, personnel time, etc. Twenty-six percent indicated no additional costs or did not specify the total expense or the necessary expenditures. 

The average cost of additional expenditures for the 74% of districts that provided detailed budgets was $110,003.74. When sorted by amount, the median (or middle) cost was $51,675.00, with one district anticipating as little as $300.00 in additional costs and yet another anticipating nearly $1,000,000.00 in additional expenditures. 

While school districts faced the challenge of determining how to transition teachers and students to remote instruction, children were met with significant challenges of their own. How would they continue learning without the face-to-face support of their teachers? How could they deal with the stress and anxiety of the situation caused by the pandemic? How would they get the meals they were accustomed to receiving at school? 

How do districts intend to support students academically, socially, and emotionally?

Key Findings:

  • One-fifth of districts indicated that they intended to survey students to assess mental health needs. About half of the districts described well-developed plans for supporting student mental health as well as coordinating school personnel and resources to reach out to students in need of additional support. 

Mental health supports

Of the 98 districts analyzed, 19% indicated that they would be surveying all students to assess their mental health needs as part of their focus on student mental health. While surveying students was not a requirement of their Plan, it was encouraging that so many school districts indicated that they had already done this or intended to do so. Even districts without the intent to survey students intended to provide mental health support to students during the shift to emergency remote instruction. Responses around providing mental health support were placed in one of three categories: well-developed, indicated, or not indicated. 

Responses we considered to be “well-developed” described strategies that were more hands-on and thorough. For example, the response may include specific details as to how counselors planned to reach out to at-risk students or describe a tiered process for meeting students’ needs. To be categorized as “well-developed,” the response needed to describe specific steps that the district planned to take to make the mental health of their students a priority.

We categorized 41% of the responses to this question as “well-developed” with respect to student mental health supports, beyond what would be minimally expected. An example of a “well-developed” response is provided below: 

The district will follow a tiered model of support to determine needs for equity, access, and mental health while making weekly contact. If a need is presented, the teacher will elevate that need to the principal to determine the necessary follow-up. Members of building-level “Student Support Teams,” led by the principal and consisting of school service workers, behavior specialists, and assistant principals will help connect the family to school counselors, ISD social workers and school psychologists, and outside agencies. The principal will also hold weekly meetings with teachers to identify any additional students or families in need.

We placed 58% of the responses into the “indicated” category as they provided a response that was mostly hands-off, general, and somewhat vague, primarily describing where resources can be found if students/parents need them. An example of an “indicated” response can be found below: 

All of our staff members are sensitive to the needs of the students and families we serve. We have a group of qualified staff members (counselors and social workers) that are available as a resource for students/families in need of support. Our district focus has been to meet all of the needs of our students and families. All of our staff members, no matter what role they play in the district, know that they will be a source of comfort for students. We recognize that interaction and communication will vary greatly, but we are all committed to ensuring that our students are safe, happy, and healthy.

One response was categorized as “not indicated” as the district did not provide any information to answer this question. 

Social emotional learning supports

Twenty percent of districts described strategies for providing social-emotional learning (SEL) support to their students within their Plan. Some districts even dedicated a specific portion of their Plan to discuss their strategies for SEL support. Examples of such support include: 

Development of a social-emotional task force led by building counselors

Embedding social-emotional learning activities and resources into learning plans

Creation of a twenty-four-hour hotline specifically for SEL support

Use of Suite 360 [a web-based software program]

Each building has a student support specialist (SSS). A major component of their job responsibility has always been to provide leadership and guidance related to social-emotional and mental health and they will continue to perform in this capacity, contacting students and providing generalized support. 

The school district will provide social-emotional lessons and activities for students and parents to engage in at home weekly.

On Fridays, a virtual social-emotional lesson using the Positivity Project (P2P) will be taught to all students so that families end the week on a central theme for that week (e.g., ‘love of learning,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ etc.).

While 39% of districts studied only mentioned social-emotional support, 41% did not mention it anywhere in their Plan. It is important to note, however, that the Plan instructions did not require that districts outline SEL-specific supports, just that they continue to support the mental health of their students. 

Final thoughts

In this study conducted by MVLRI, there was incredible variation in district Plans to continue instruction amidst the closing of school buildings and facilities. For a vast majority of districts, emergency remote instruction and providing alternative modes of instruction included at least some aspects of digital learning. 

The shift to emergency remote instruction is by no means a simple one, but it is one that every district in the state was required to make in April 2020, and it is one that will happen again in some form during the 2020-2021 school year. In our analysis, some districts seemed better prepared to handle that shift. It was not a consequence of having available funding or resources, although those certainly helped to provide solutions, but a willingness to accept the situation and develop a Plan that continued to put all students at the center, considering student and family needs at the most basic level. 

This blog represents a small subset of the items analyzed for a larger report on Michigan districts’ responses to COVID-19 school closures and the shift to emergency remote instruction. That analysis will be published with a forthcoming report that will also include districts’ responses to MI Safe Schools Roadmap. For more on this topic view the Learning Continuity Plan Analysis by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University.

About the authors 

Kristen DeBruler

Dr. DeBruler is the Research Manager at MV. She has been in the field of K-12 online education for nearly a decade and joined Michigan Virtual in 2012. During that time she conducted research on preparing K-12 online teachers and supporting K-12 students. Some of that work focused specifically on K-12 online teacher preparation, K-12 online learner demographics and success at several state virtual schools, and learning trajectories in K-12 online mathematics courses. Dr. DeBruler received her doctorate in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology from Michigan State University and has experience teaching at the Master’s level, both face-to-face and online. 

Christa Green

Christa received her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Kent State University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. She taught middle school language arts and social studies for seven years before coming to work for Michigan Virtual in 2018. As a Research Specialist with the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute, Christa enjoys using her passion for education, curriculum, research, and writing to share and shape best practices in online and blended learning with other educators not only in Michigan, but nationwide. 

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

The Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) is a non-biased organization that exists to expand Michigan’s ability to support new learning models, engage in active research to inform new policies in online and blended learning, and strengthen the state’s infrastructures for sharing best practices. MVLRI works with all online learning environments to develop the best practices for the industry as a whole.

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