With the COVID-19 related school closures in spring 2020 and the need to modify learning models for the start of the 2020-21 school year, Michigan schools were pushed to adopt remote instruction and student support. This research study seeks to understand the learning continuity plans formulated by districts, as well as teacher, parent, and student perceptions of how these plans were executed. The study will draw upon original Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) research as well as published studies by researchers at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, Sundberg-Ferar, and the Institute for Teaching and Leading. These resources will be reviewed and synthesized to bring out a more comprehensive understanding of the experience of transitioning to remote learning from the perspective of stakeholders involved.
This research study is needed to help schools and districts in Michigan and across the United States understand the impact of their planning, implementation strategies, and related actions on the effectiveness of remote or distance learning programs. As a result of the nationwide disruption of K-12 education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, MVLRI anticipates that K-12 schools and districts will be seeking to proactively design effective remote learning programs in the event of a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic or other significant events that cause extended school closures. The findings from this particular study will help inform school leaders of the continuity plan strategies and actions that have been most effective in planning for future situations necessitating remote or distance learning.
This research study had two primary research questions. First, how did Michigan schools and districts respond to the extended school closures in spring 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic? And second, how were these responses perceived by school or district stakeholders (e.g., students, families, teachers, administrators, etc.)? Each of the sections under findings will be formatted in such a way to answer each research question. Initially, findings will be presented related to what schools planned to do during emergency remote instruction in spring 2020, followed by stakeholder perceptions gathered through multiple avenues.
To answer the research questions and understand how schools approached the initial emergency shift to remote instruction as well as teacher, parent, and student reactions, research was collected internally by MLVRI researchers through reviewing a random sample of district Continuity of Learning Plans (Plans) and by reviewing research collected by other organizations.
In spring 2020, the Governor of Michigan instructed all school districts across the state to ensure their Plans were appropriate, equitable, and accessible for students and families, ensuring every student who needed it had access to an appropriate computing 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. In order to ensure school districts’ Plans addressed these concerns, the state of Michigan issued a template for school districts to use which consisted of 15 questions to which districts were expected to respond. The Plan template, which can be found on the Michigan.gov website, was developed in collaboration with the governor’s office, Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, and the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers. 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 both 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 MVLRI researchers for review and analysis of their Plan; a partial report of this was published as a blog on the Michigan Virtual website. Researchers at the Educational Policy Innovation Collaborative (EPIC) at Michigan State University similarly analyzed school districts’ Plans; however, their analysis and resulting report included Plans from all 813 school districts in Michigan.
Additionally, Michigan Virtual also collaborated with Sundberg-Ferar to conduct small group interviews with approximately 65 participants including students, parents, teachers, and administrators from across Michigan. These interviews were intended to gain insights into their personal experiences with the shift to emergency remote instruction in spring 2020.
Harrington and LeBlanc (2020) captured and reported the stories of three schools and districts beyond the state of Michigan that made the shift to emergency remote instruction with what they consider to be a high level of success. Interviews with the school leaders describe their efforts during the transition and how leveraging digital curriculum helped to position them for success. While this research was conducted with Michigan schools, it is included because it provided an additional perspective on schools nationwide in comparison to Michigan.
Finally, this report also utilized research conducted by Carter et al. (2020) at the University of Michigan, and again, researchers at the EPIC at Michigan State University. Carter et al. (2020) distributed a survey to both teachers and parents via social media, listservs, and email groups between March and May 2020, and the researchers collected nearly 3,000 responses. The second resource out of EPIC built off their earlier work and sought to understand educators’ responses to the transition to emergency remote instruction. Researchers conducted a statewide survey in partnership with several Michigan education associations and received approximately 8,500 responses from teachers and over 300 responses from principals.
District Plans for Alternative Modes of Instruction
As Michigan school districts developed their Plans for remote learning and completed a Continuity of Learning Plan (Plan) template to be filled out and posted on their website, one aspect that schools were required to address was how they planned to provide instruction in a manner other than in-person. In the study of 813 Michigan school districts conducted by EPIC out of Michigan State University, researchers found that while there were many differences among the ways in which schools approached remote learning, what remained consistent was that most schools indicated that virtual or digital instruction was going to be used as the primary format to deliver distance learning content (Lovitz et al., 2020). While most districts indicated that hard copy media was only going to be used as an alternative mode of instruction for students without internet access, 11% of the districts studied planned to use hard copy media as their primary mode of instruction (Lovitz et al., 2020).
Similar to the findings above, 95% of districts studied by MVLRI indicated that they planned to provide a “hybrid” model of instruction (DeBruler & Green, 2020). Traditionally, a hybrid model of instruction refers to a blend of traditional in-person instruction with online instruction. However, a hybrid model in this sense simply indicates that teachers planned to use multiple modes of learning (both digital and hard copy media) to meet the needs of all students. For example, DeBruler & Green (2020) found that while 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.
In order to facilitate emergency remote instruction as specified in district Plans, roughly half of the districts studied by MVLRI indicated that they needed to__and were able to__purchase devices (tablets or computers) for their students (DeBruler & Green, 2020). Roughly one-third of districts indicated that they purchased wireless internet hot-spots out of necessity for their students (DeBruler & Green, 2020). Similarly, Lovitz et al. (2020) found that most districts (79%) planned to provide devices and internet access to at least some students while some districts (15% for electronic devices and 7% for internet access) planned to provide them to all students.
Perceptions of Districts’ Implementation of Instruction
Based on teachers’ perceptions of instruction implementation, districts and schools were largely unprepared for remote instruction. As soon as school districts developed their Plans for remote learning in spring 2020, most teachers were asked to shift their instruction from in-person to online. Approximately 33% of teachers were asked to make the shift to remote instruction less than one week after the school closures, 24% were asked after one to two weeks following school closures, another 33% were asked to shift to remote instruction three to four weeks after closures, and the remaining 5% made the shift after five or more weeks (Carter et al., 2020). Teachers’ feelings on preparedness to make the shift to remote instruction varied, as well. About 33% of teachers felt well prepared but approximately a quarter (26%) felt unprepared to teach remotely. Schools and districts maintained high expectations for remote learning despite a majority of teachers feeling at most only somewhat prepared, and students facing serious issues of access and equity (Carter et al., 2020).
During spring 2020, online, asynchronous resources were the primary instructional tool used by 32% of teachers, while 22% of teachers reported using live online class sessions as their primary form of instruction (Carter et al., 2020). Whatever the primary resources used, teachers felt that remote instruction was more work than face-to-face teaching with 59% of teachers reporting this sentiment (Carter et al., 2020). Teachers were concerned with the increased workload in transitioning content to be compatible with remote instruction and the likely increased workload of teaching in a hybrid or blended environment (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Only about a fifth of teachers (18%) felt that their districts provided well organized professional development to help them in the shift to emergency remote instruction, and nearly a third (30%) did not feel that their district provided adequate professional development (Carter et al., 2020). To compensate for the lack of organized and coordinated district-level professional development, teachers reported using their own networks, seeking out resources on their own (Cummings et al., 2020), and also reported more collaboration among peers (Michigan Virtual, 2020). Most teachers expressed a desire to learn more about remote instruction but felt that professional development should focus first on how to teach remotely and then explore online resources and tools, this way tools can be utilized to enhance instruction (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Based on responses from teachers, it seems that schools and districts were also unprepared technology-wise for the shift to emergency remote instruction. According to teachers, only 23% of their districts provided a device for every K-12 student. Further, 64% of teachers did not regularly use a learning management system prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (Carter et al., 2020). In addition, nearly half of the responding teachers reported that prior to remote instruction, students were not asked to access technology at home. It is unsurprising then that 60% of teachers reported that students struggled either “somewhat” or “a lot” to access necessary technology independently (Carter et al., 2020).
A majority of teachers (60%) felt that the number of applications or websites they asked students to access (most often 3, 4, or 5) was the right amount. However, parents did not necessarily agree. In fact, 33% of parents felt they were asked to access too many applications for their child (Carter et al., 2020). Further, teachers and parents differed on the accessibility of applications as 69% of teachers felt the resources were accessible at home whereas only 39% of parents agreed. This discrepancy matters as parents and students were much less likely to fully participate when they felt that the resources were too difficult to access (Carter et al., 2020). The discrepancy is startling, 79% of students who reported that resources were easily accessible fully participated in their remote learning compared to only 0.5% of students who had difficulty accessing resources (Carter et al., 2020).
District Plans for Communication Expectations and Teacher-Student Contact
In order to ensure that there was some form of regular communication back and forth from school to home, school leaders made sure to outline their teacher-student communication expectations in their district’s Plan. Although expectations differed in terms of the frequency of these teacher-student interactions, Lovitz et al. (2020) found that most districts specified how often student check-ins must take place, and nearly all of those suggested a weekly frequency. Specifically, 92% of Continuity of Learning Plans required teachers to check in frequently with individual students, and 84% of Plans required that teachers check in with students via one-on-one meetings (Lovitz et al., 2020). However, a review of district Plans found that only 62% of districts indicated an expectation that teachers would make contact with every student at least once per week. Additionally, approximately half of the districts indicated an expectation that teachers would reach out if student participation was lacking.
Office hours were mentioned frequently in district Plans as a way to provide an opportunity for teacher-student interaction. A review of Plans found that just over half of districts indicated that their teachers planned to provide “office hours” or “direct contact times” for students. At Prospect Mountain High School in Alton, New Hampshire, teachers actually planned to designate three hours of each school day towards office hours (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2020). While designating that much time for office hours each day was not found to be typical, it did provide both students and parents a significant window of time in which they could reach out to teachers directly. Some districts mentioned the use of spreadsheets to track contact that was made with students and to serve as a record of such communications.
Perceptions of Districts’ Communication Expectations and Teacher-Student Contact
Research conducted by Michigan Virtual found that during the shift to emergency remote instruction, 56% of parents expressed that communication from their child’s school was consistent throughout the closings. Many parents, however, also reported feeling overwhelmed with the amount of communication and the disparate nature of the communication. Some, but not all, parents reported that communication from their child’s school improved over time as schools realized the volume and medium of communication was potentially overwhelming, with email emerging as the most likely form of communication (Carter, et al., 2020; Cummings et al., 2020; Michigan Virtual, 2020). Teachers, however, did report other methods such as holding virtual office hours and holding virtual tutoring sessions, albeit to a lesser degree than other forms of instruction (Cummings et al., 2020).
Teachers also expressed that they were thankful the shift to emergency remote instruction in spring 2020 happened when relationships with students and parents were already well established. Relatedly, they were worried about building new relationships in a 100% remote or even blended learning environment in fall 2020 (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
District Plans for Measuring Engagement, Attendance, and Participation
The ways in which school districts planned to measure student engagement, attendance, and participation varied widely, ranging from schools not providing many details at all to providing a very detailed Plan. In an analysis of Plans, MVLRI researchers found that roughly half of the districts studied had highly detailed plans for evaluating student participation and providing feedback, while the other half of districts more simply indicated that feedback would be provided. Approximately 66% of districts studied indicated that they planned to use a combination of “interaction, communication, and assignment completion” to evaluate student participation.
Harrington and LeBlanc (2020) found that schools planned to measure attendance by student engagement in coursework and their communications with teachers. One particular school in their study, Taos Academy Charter School located in Taos, New Mexico, wanted to keep a “business-as-usual” mindset as much as possible, holding synchronous classes via video conferencing, but reducing students’ mandatory attendance in enrichment courses to provide students and their families some flexibility (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2020).
Perceptions of Districts’ Plans for Measuring Engagement, Attendance, and Participation
Student engagement and participation was highly variable during the shift to emergency remote instruction with differing perceptions between parents and teachers. While 61% of parents reported that their students fully participated in all remote learning activities, only 7% of teachers reported that all of their students participated in all remote learning activities (Carter et al., 2020).
Generally, while over 50% of teachers reported that more than half of their students participated in some remote instruction, 12% of teachers reported student participation of less than 10% (Carter, et al., 2020). Teachers perceived the asynchronous learning options (those done whenever the student wanted and not at a specific time like a video call) elicited the highest level of participation from students (Carter, et al., 2020). This is not surprising as these activities could be completed when it was most convenient for the student and parents. However, while being able to make their own schedule was appealing to some students, learning to effectively manage their time was a real challenge for others (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Teachers reported that attendance and keeping students engaged with schoolwork were the most significant challenges of remote teaching (Cummings et al., 2020). When asked about potential reasons for low student participation and engagement or lack thereof, teachers reported motivation as the main issue. Lack of access to either a computing device or internet was only reported by 17% of teachers as the main reason for low engagement (Carter et al., 2020). However, this was still a very real barrier and is discussed in detail in a later section. Teachers also expressed the need for a better understanding of what motivates students in remote learning environments as the traditional emphasis on grades no longer seemed to be a strong enough motivator (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
District Plans for Delivering Content and Support to Special Populations
As school leaders put together their Plans, one of the questions asked districts to describe how they intended to deliver content in multiple ways to ensure access to learning for all students. While the question did not specifically ask schools to address the needs of English Language Learners (ELL) or students with disabilities, Lovitz et al. (2020) found that 70% of Michigan school districts participating in their study indicated that they would make accommodations or modifications for students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), have 504 plans, are designated as ELL, or high school seniors. Fewer districts (26%) addressed providing accommodations for ELL in their Plans, and for the most part, those that did included minimal details regarding the specific accommodations offered or how they would be provided. Even fewer plans (19%) mentioned specific accommodations that districts planned to make for high school seniors as they closed out their high school career in a remote setting (Lovitz et al., 2020).
MVLRI researchers found that 58% of districts planned to provide some level of support to one or more of the above populations of students, while slightly less than half of the district Plans reviewed (42%) made no mention of a plan to provide any level of support to the above populations of students anywhere in their documentation.
Perceptions of Districts’ Plans for Delivering Content and Support to Special Populations
Unsurprisingly, delivering content and support to students in special populations was uniquely challenging during emergency remote instruction. Teachers and principals working in schools with reportedly lower English Language Arts (ELA) achievement, lower student socioeconomic status, and less access to broadband internet reported being more worried about the impacts of the shift to emergency remote instruction (Carter et al., 2020). Teachers in these districts and schools reported sending home more physical resources than their peers in other districts as a way to overcome some of the perceived barriers to students (Cummings et al., 2020). These concerns turned out to be legitimate ones as Carter et al. (2020) found that students in Title I schools (which typically have lower English Language Arts (ELA) achievement, lower student SES, and less access to broadband internet) tended to participate less in remote learning than students in non-Title I schools based on responses from both teachers and parents.
District Plans for Changes to Assessment, Assignments, and Instruction
The move to remote learning resulted in many changes to the typical delivery of instruction. It is no wonder that school leaders and teachers needed to make changes to the design and delivery of assignments and assessments, as well. Some districts specified different guidelines, based on grade levels, for instructional time, lessons, and independent school work (Lovitz et al., 2020). These districts indicated that less time was to be spent on instructional activities for younger children but increased with each grade level or grade level band. Many school districts suggested that teachers also simplify assignments and instruction, focusing on essential content only, while making informal checks for understanding by giving more formative assessments (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2020). Approximately one-third of Michigan school districts planned to adopt a “no harm” grading policy in which students’ final grades couldn’t be lower than the grade they would have earned prior to school building closures (Lovitz et al., 2020).
Perceptions of Districts’ Plans for Changes to Assessment, Assignments, and Instruction
Teachers reported many concerns related to assessment, assignments, and instruction. A vast majority of teachers and administrators, 85% and 91% respectively, reported concerns over students missing instructional time (Cummings et al., 2020). Concerns were also expressed surrounding who or what was supplying online content as well as the ability of schools and districts to purchase content or create their own (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Nearly three-quarters of teachers also reported challenges with remote instruction, such as consistent internet access and lack of technology training for students, facilitating student participation remotely, and lack of family assistance with learning activities (Cummings et al., 2020).
Parents expressed concerns with remote instruction, as well. Nearly one-third (32%) of parents felt that they were doing the work of a full-time teacher for their child (Carter et al., 2020). Additionally, parents were not clear on how their child’s teachers wanted content taught and wished they had been provided with more clear expectations (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
District Plans for Supporting the Mental Health and Emotional Well Being of Students
During the school closures in the spring of 2020, school leaders were asked to indicate in their Plan how they intended to provide mental health support for students affected by the state of emergency. As required by Michigan’s Executive Order, almost every Continuity of Learning Plan (99.6%) specified ways in which students’ social-emotional learning and/or mental health needs would be addressed (Lovitz et al., 2020). While the majority of district Plans specified resources for students’ mental health and nutrition needs, the far majority (82%) specified that they would provide access to site counselors and other mental health professionals, and just over one third indicated that they would provide referrals to outside sources as needed to further meet mental health needs (Lovitz et al., 2020).
To assess mental health needs, one-fifth of districts indicated that they intended to survey all students (DeBruler & Green, 2020). Approximately 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 (DeBruler & Green, 2020).
Perceptions of Districts’ Plans for Supporting the Mental Health and Emotional Well Being of Students
The health, well-being, and safety of both students and teachers were of paramount importance for teachers, parents, and students. Early in the shift to emergency remote instruction, there was an emphasis on supporting teachers’ efforts to stay connected with their students and parents (Michigan Virtual, 2020). Educators reported an intense sadness over the physical separation from their students as well as the loss of the human interaction and spontaneity of a physical classroom environment (Michigan Virtual, 2020). A vast majority of teachers and principals reported having concerns regarding the long-term economic impact of the pandemic on their students as well as concerns over students losing access to critical supports and services often fulfilled by the school, such as free/reduced meals and counseling services (Cummings et al., 2020).
Both parents and teachers were concerned about consistent parental support in a safe home environment and access to technology to support remote instruction. Teachers were concerned that if either was not present, students would not be able to stay on track academically with their peers (Michigan Virtual, 2020). Some students reported that the remote learning environment felt more emotionally safe, with decreased peer and academic pressure. High school students expressed happiness over the shift to emergency remote instruction, again reporting that it relieved a lot of the pressure associated with grades and assignment deadlines (Michigan Virtual, 2020). However, the remote environment presented its own challenges with older students reporting feelings of embarrassment with their homes resulting in a refusal to attend or to fully engage with video conference meetings (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Districts’ Technological Challenges
While some school districts were more prepared for the transition to remote learning than others, it is fair to say that nearly every district experienced technological challenges of some sort. Some schools found that they had areas within their district without reliable internet access, which caused obvious connectivity issues for students. The widespread geography of some rural districts led some others to plan for instruction without the use of any technology at all (DeBruler & Green, 2020). While only 10% of districts indicated being fully 1:1 (each student being provided with their own appropriate computing device) prior to implementing their Plan, it is no wonder that a vast majority of districts noted challenges with adopting alternative modes of instruction, many of which had to do with access to devices and to the internet (DeBruler & Green, 2020).
The technology challenges experienced by many school districts led to a need to work with local internet service providers to ensure internet connectivity at home for some students as much as possible. In many cases, tech departments had to prepare for the remote use of technology as well as to revamp the way technical support was provided to both students and staff (Harrington & LeBlanc, 2020).
Perceptions of Districts’ Technological Challenges
While the shift to emergency remote instruction necessitated, for most schools at least, the adoption of some level of technology-facilitated instruction or communication, the degree to which this happened statewide varied considerably. Educators expressed a concern that much of their effort during remote instruction was focused on overcoming technology hurdles leaving less time for actual instruction (Michigan Virtual, 2020). Teachers in 1:1 schools reported that students had an easier time independently using their technology and accessing resources than teachers who were not in 1:1 schools (Carter et al., 2020).
A major concern during the shift to emergency remote instruction was student access to devices and the internet (Cummings et al., 2020; Michigan Virtual, 2020). Teachers often reported that many households in their districts not only did not have a computer or the internet, but they often lacked physical supplies such as pencils, paper, etc. required to work and learn from home. Teachers, parents, and students also reported that it was difficult for students to find a quiet place to work and that family stressors, of all kinds, were a major barrier to overcome and likely impacted motivation and performance (Michigan Virtual, 2020).
Taken together, the wealth of research published on districts’ transition to emergency remote instruction provides a multidimensional overview of how schools approached a wholly new experience. In many cases, districts and schools were unprepared for remote instruction with little prior experience in using individual devices, learning management systems, or connecting with homebound students.
The stories that emerged both from district plans as well as perceptions of parents and teachers tells of individuals or groups of teachers doing whatever they could to continue to provide instruction and support for their students. Experiences of coordinated district or whole school efforts were not as prevalent suggesting that there is considerable room for growth and improvement at the district or school level to both support and equip teachers to provide remote instruction as well as prepare and support students engaged in remote learning.
This report was intended to provide a glimpse into the chaos, confusion, innovation, and dedication to teaching that occurred in spring 2020 in public schools in Michigan and around the country. This report is part of a two-part series, the second of which will explore education in Michigan in fall 2020, lessons learned from emergency to planned remote instruction, and recommendations from the MVLRI research team on how schools can position themselves to thrive moving forward.
Carter, V., Terry, C., and Kolb, L. (2020). K-12 teacher and parent experiences with remote learning during COVID. School of Education, University of Michigan. https://soe.umich.edu/sites/default/files/2020-08/K-12TeacherandParentSurveyResultsfromRemoteLearningDuringCOVID.pdf
Cummings, A., Kilbride, T., Turner, M., Zhu, Q., and Strunk, K.O. (2020). How did Michigan educators respond to the suspension of face-to-face instruction due to COVID-19? An analysis of educators’ responses to the 2020 EPIC COVID-19 survey. Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. https://epicedpolicy.org/how-did-michigan-educators-respond-to-the-suspension-of-face-to-face-instruction-due-to-covid-19/
DeBruler, K. & Green, C. (2020). District plans for shifting to remote instruction in spring 2020. Michigan Virtual. https://michiganvirtual.org/blog/district-plans-for-shifting-to-remote-instruction-in-spring-2020/
Harrington, C. & LeBlanc, E. (2020). Preparing for emergency remote teaching and learning. Institute for Teaching and Leading. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58b6471486e6c03c662ce3a6/t/5eea194efcebef2ab3d53fc4/1592400240184/Brief_1_v12.pdf
Lovitz, M., Kilbride, T., Turner, M., & O. Strunk, K. (2020). How did Michigan school districts plan to educate students during COVID-19? An analysis of district continuity of learning plans. Education Policy Innovation Collaborative. https://epicedpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CoL_Policy_Brief.pdf
Michigan Virtual. (2020). Emergency remote learning immersion & critical takeaways. Michigan Virtual. https://michiganvirtual.org/research/michigan-voices/