How Schools and Colleges Are Innovating During the Pandemic

FutureEd partnered with The New York Times for this story that appeared in the Oct. 18, 2020, Learning special report.

A fall semester unlike any ever known is underway in America.

The coronavirus is lurking around every corner like a ghoul in a Halloween cornfield, waiting to leap out and frighten — if not sicken or kill — anyone who dares pass by.

It has created chaos in the world of education, as some schools refuse to open while others do, only to close again as cases rise.

Some are online, while some are in person — or both. The pressure on students, teachers, administrators and parents is immense and has aggravated educational inequalities. Schools, after all, do more than deliver an education: they are a source of food, socialization and internet connections to the rest of the world — along with child care providers for working parents.

The instability for so many who depend on all that is grim.

But wait. In every dark time across history some people rise up and cope — more than cope really. They demonstrate resilience, creativity and an ability to innovate.

Some experts look at these efforts and hope that many will change — for the better — how students are taught and learn in the future.

Chris Cerf, who started his career as a high school teacher, served as the New Jersey education commissioner, deputy chancellor for New York City’s Department of Education, and is a founder of a nonprofit called Cadence Learning, is one of the optimists.

“I absolutely believe that we are going to come out of this pandemic having learned a great deal about how to deliver quality instruction to students,” he said.

You’ll find a handful of examples — snapshots, if you will — here and throughout our Learning section of creativity in a time of crisis.

It developed, as many things do these days, on Twitter.

In March, Anne Fausto-Sterling, an emerita professor of biology at Brown University, tweeted that professors should “teach the virus” whatever their discipline.

The ideas came pouring in with the hashtag #coronavirussyllabus, and Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council and a professor of sociology at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., collected them into a public document that now includes books (scholarly, fiction and graphic novels), medical journal articles, music and music videos, podcasts and radio, and archives.

Anyone can access the coronavirus syllabus; professors have already said they are using some of its resources in developing their classes. It is updated continuously, and once a month Professor Nelson issues a more curated version that appears on the Social Science Research Council website.

“We’re really trying to capture all the ways human society has tried and is trying to make sense of this quite dramatic change,” she said.

Roberto de Leon starts his online English lesson by reading aloud with fifth grade students. When one student stumbles across a reference to a boa constrictor, the Bakersfield, Calif., teacher stops to describe how the snake squeezes its prey to death. Then he asks them what the boa has to do with the characters in the book.

Across the country, dozens of local teachers play the tape and discuss them with their own students.

It’s part of Cadence Learning, which began as a summer learning program after schools across the nation moved to remote teaching in response to the pandemic. Its goal is to expose more students to the best teaching.

Under the model, a network of 16 “mentor teachers” provide online instruction to about 7,500 students across the country. The mentor teacher appears on the screen, along with three to five students who ask questions and discuss issues. “Partner teachers” then show the tape or use the same lesson plan, working in virtual breakout rooms with their own students.

Cadence raised $4 million from philanthropic organizations to offer the program at little or no cost to school districts. It is also available to pods and home schoolers.

Physical Education: Socks and a Spatula

Even in pre-pandemic days, too few children were exercising as much as they should. Now, many are stuck inside for most or all of the day, barely leaving their couches, either because they are learning remotely — or playing video games.

Emmie Galan and Derek Eckman, physical education teachers at Winston Campus Junior High School in Palatine, Ill., were determined to change that.

“A high proportion of our students are low-income and many are not allowed to go outside at all,” Mr. Eckman said. “The parents need them at home to take care of siblings or fear the coronavirus or because they’re not in perfectly safe environments.”

Golf was one sport he set out to reinvent. He went to a local driving range and suggested his students ball up a sock and find a flashlight or candle stick “or anything you could hold with two hands and practice a swing.”

For badminton, he demonstrated the underhand motion with his racket, while the students used a spatula, and the ubiquitous socks. They used some of the same household items to learn an overhead cast for fishing.

During a recent trip to Chicago, Ms. Galan conducted live biking tours for each of her six classes. Calling it “The Wrigley Run,” she pointed out some of the city’s landmarks as her students followed along on their phones while walking around their neighborhoods.

“I wanted it to be live each time,” so the students could communicate with her while they were doing their own walks.

Amid the rush to provide quality instruction remotely, educators are also realizing they need to find new ways to address the mental health needs of their students.

“In most schools, we rely on word of mouth to make sure kids don’t fall through the cracks,” said Brad Rathgeber, who heads One Schoolhouse, a nonprofit online school that works primarily with independent schools. “Online, you have to rely on other data, other red flags.”

In a one-week course, “Steady in the Storm,” One Schoolhouse is teaching administrators and counselors how to recognize those signs and develop a support team for students.

 “We’re trying to lower the threshold for raising a flag,” said Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist who helps teach the online course. For instance, a missed assignment may not mean much in a classroom where teachers interact with students in person. But online, turning in assignments is a key indicator of engagement. So missed work matters more.

“For teenagers, there’s a lot to be said for underreacting, but not right now,” said Dr. Damour, who writes the monthly Adolescence column for The Times and co-hosts the “Ask Lisa” podcast. The pandemic, she said, is a perfect storm for adolescents, stripping them of the structure and warmth they derive from school and wearing down their parents and teachers at the same time.

The key is to draw on the expertise of teachers, said Elizabeth Katz, One Schoolhouse’s assistant head for school partnerships, who facilitates the class with Dr. Damour. “Whether they’re online or in person, great teachers know when something is up with kids,” Ms. Katz said.

The reality that millions of Americans, largely in low-income and rural areas, lack access to high-speed internet, has been a growing crisis. But during the pandemic it became an education emergency as students struggled to learn from home.

One option school districts around the country have adopted is turning school buses into Wi-Fi hot spots.

One of the early adopters was South Bend Community School Corporation, a school district that serves about 17,000 students — 30 percent without high-speed internet, said Susan Guibert, a s district spokeswoman.

Even before the pandemic, the district started equipping buses with Wi-Fi so more students could connect more often.

The district had outfitted 20 school buses before the schools closed for remote learning in the spring; they added 22 more over the summer and just received a state grant to outfit 100 more, said René Sánchez, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations.

 The gear costs about $1,000 a bus and the district pays about $1,000 per month for data for all of them

The Wi-Fi signal extends about 300 feet. The buses are parked around the city from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the district provides an interactive map so families can find them.,

Michael Flood, senior vice-president of strategy for Kajeet, a company that outfits buses to be used as Wi-Fi hot spots, said its business has grown from 250 district school bus fleets in January to 450 now in almost every state, and includes nearly 10,000 buses.

Even when they are working alone, people tend to cluster together, which is a particular problem during the pandemic, when social distancing is the rule of the day

Enter a technology developed by a UC San Diego student, Nic Halverson, who was frustrated with overcrowding on his campus.

Mr. Halverson thought there had to be a relatively simple way to resolve the problem, so he launched a quest that eventually led him to create Occuspace, a network that can estimate the number of people in a space — say, students studying on a particular floor of a big university’s library. Students can see the data in real time to avoid crowds. Its sensors also work in restaurants, gyms, and offices.

Occuspace is plugged into an ordinary wall socket and senses the number of nearby devices that are emitting electronic signals. Since people tend to carry more than one electronic device at the same time — mobile phones, laptops and tablets among others — Mr. Halverson’s device accounts for this by using machine learning algorithms to get an accurate people estimate.

So far, about a dozen universities have bought the system; prices range from $8,000 to $25,000 annually for university libraries, depending on the size.

On March 11, Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor for the practice of higher education at Davidson College in North Carolina, was in his office with three of his undergraduate research assistants.

“We were all coming to terms with the fact that the last semester was going to end in a way none of us wanted it to,” he said.

Now, their educational trajectory has gone in a direction none of them could have expected.

Professor Marsicano and his students came up with a plan to track how universities transitioned to remote learning by checking websites and social media at almost 1,500 nonprofit four-year universities. Higher education institutions — and others — could then see what was working most effectively in keeping students safe and share ideas.

They collected and analyzed thousands of data points, including whether the colleges or universities are teaching remotely, on campus, or with a hybrid model; which students are allowed to live on campus and how that’s changing daily; if there are layoffs and furloughs around faculty and staff.

The three students and Professor Marsicano posted their working paper on the American Political Science Association’s pre-print website; it became the most viewed in the history of the site, Professor Marsicano said.

They then started the College Crisis Initiative (C2i), which tracks almost 3,000 higher education institutions.

Another Davidson group of student data scientists and programmers, known as Project Pronto, built a tool that crawls the web every day, automatically checking thousands of schools for key terms, such as Covid, closure, pandemic — even words like plexiglass, which is installed to help people socially distance.

The initiative has received foundation funding and therefore can pay the 60 or 70 students who have at any one time worked on the project. It also plans to move beyond the pandemic; currently it is looking at the impact of wildfires on colleges and universities and how they are responding.

In South Carolina, an old-fashioned technology is helping solve the Wi-Fi connection problem — broadcasting.

Nearly half a million South Carolinians live in areas that fall below the Federal Communications Commission’s standard for broadband connectivity. In order to bridge this gap, the state applied for one of the Department of Education’s “Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant” awarded to states tackling educational challenges during the pandemic. The state was one of 11 that received the grants — in South Carolina’s case, $15 million to provide all students with access to virtual lessons, even students without access to the internet.

The initiative hinges on reviving the use of “datacasting,” a term that combines data and broadcasting.

The technology converts a portion of the broadcast signal to offer a one-way transmission of encrypted IP data, and uses existing network infrastructure. South Carolina Educational Television (SCETV), will transmit files, videos and other computer data to computers using an inexpensive tuner and TV antenna.

SCETV, a statewide network of public broadcasting stations, is part of the pilot, along with the South Carolina Department of Education and the company SpectraRep.

The concept of datacasting has been around for years, and is used in public safety and other areas across the country, but “we believe this is the first occasion it’s been used specifically to support education,” according to a statement by Anthony Padgett, SCETV’s president and chief executive officer.

Beyond what we wrote for The New York Times, we found a number of other communities engaged in innovation this fall. Here are a few more examples.

Learning Pods for Everyone

Every school day at 7:45 a.m., the students begin arriving at Christamore House in west Indianapolis: a third grader mastering his multiplication tables, a high schooler taking geometry, a kindergartner learning to read. Amid the pandemic, the community center has become a “community learning site” where students attend class online.

With wealthier families creating their own learning pods for children to learn in small groups at home, The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit, donated $276,000 to create spaces to keep students from the city’s poorest neighborhoods learning—and to keep their parents working.

“We didn’t want low-income families to have to make the choice between their jobs and their children’s education,” said Brandon Brown, The Mind Trust’s CEO.

Conceived in July and opened in August, the 11 community learning sites quickly had hundreds of students on waiting lists for the free programs. Part of the initiative’s success relies on using community-based organizations that already have the facilities, the staff and the relationships with families in need.

Even so, the effort faced a number of bureaucratic hurdles. Christamore House, for instance, had licenses for its early childhood and afterschool programs, but not for those offered during the school day. It took some creative interpretation of regulations and ultimately an executive order from the governor to clear the way for the programs to begin.

Students from six schools with six different schedules arrive each day, some starting their online learning as early as 8 a.m. and other at late as 1 p.m., said Christamore deputy director La’Toya Pitts. Staffers monitor the students to make sure they stay focused on their computer and don’t misbehave on or off screen.

Even after Indianapolis Public School reopened for in-person instruction in early October, about a fifth of the city’s families opted to continue with remote instruction. With increased investment from the Mind Trust and $24,000 from the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office of Education Innovation, three sites will remain open through the calendar year.

G.I. Bill for Frontline Workers

The state of Michigan is eager to raise the number of working-age adults who have a post-secondary degree. And it also wanted to reward those essential workers who are keeping the state functioning.

So it merged those two goals with a new “Futures for Frontliners” program, which will pay community college tuition or the cost of getting a high-school diploma to any essential-services employee who worked at least part-time—and some of that out of the house—from April 1 through June 30 this year.

That could include garbage collectors, maintenance crews, hospital employees and grocery store clerks, said Jeff Donofrio, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Donofrio estimated that 625,000 frontline workers in Michigan have no college degree; of those 125,000 didn’t finish high school.

Futures for Frontliners was inspired by the G.I. Bill, officially the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, which among other things, granted stipends covering tuition and expenses to veterans attending technical schools or college.

The state is using $24 million of the state’s $10.2 billion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security  (CARES) Act funding to pay for the program, although it does not cover books or other resources and no one who is in default of a federal student loan is eligible.

Donofrio said state officials are in the process of going through the tens of thousands of applications already received. The deadline to apply is Dec. 31.

In this District, Everyone Pitches In

When a surge of coronavirus cases in northeast Oregon kept schools from opening in August, the tiny Umatilla School District tapped every employee to make online learning work.

That meant reading remediation specialists became classroom teachers, so that each teacher has fewer students. Instructional aides now provide tutoring from 2 to 8 p.m. every weekday and most of Saturday. School bus drivers deliver meals throughout the community.

Teachers who speak Spanish have been deployed to support families dealing with the stress of the pandemic. Margaret Gutierrez, who teaches a bilingual class to 1st graders, sits on her porch every Saturday and calls parents, talking to them about how children and their families are coping. Sometimes she drives to their homes to drop off assignments or small gifts for work well done.

With 1,400 students in three schools serving low-income families working on local farms or in food processing plants producing much of the nation’s supply of frozen French fries, Umatilla is typical of the small districts that serve much of rural America. In such districts, innovation during the pandemic is necessarily less about expensive new programs or equipment and more about using existing in creative ways.

Tech for Learning Disabled

Teachers of students with special needs have faced some of the most difficult challenges teaching remotely. But at the same time, the assistive technology that already exists to help those with disabilities—from sight to hearing to emotional and intellectual challenges—has made the transition easier in some ways.

“Before COVID, special educators were like the wine tasters of technology—we would test tools to see which worked best,” said Sarah Howorth, president of the technology division of the Council for Exceptional Children and assistant professor of special education at the University of Maine.

One popular web-based tool is called Classkick; it’s a whiteboard-style tool that allows teachers to deliver content in different ways, such as audio recordings, graphics, drawings and text and view students working to provide immediate feedback. That allows teachers to watch a student work in real-time and leave feedback, such as an audio message or virtual stickers, an invaluable feature in remote learning.

Another is Actively Learn, which allows students to access books and hear them read; it also allows teachers to embed questions throughout the text. That is particularly beneficial, because many students with learning disabilities have working memory issues, said Sharon Plante, chief technology integrator at the Southport School in Connecticut, which serves students with language-based special needs, such as dyslexia.

Assistive technology can allow a student to dictate a paper that is changed to writing. A teacher can write out answers or ideas and through their device and a student can hear the teacher speak. The move to remote learning, Howorth said, has also shown how important these tools can be for students with and without disabilities.

Bringing Back Students Who Need School Most

The students pile off the bus at Jack Jouett Middle School and line up for their temperature checks. Once cleared, they step inside where they’re handed a breakfast and a “menu’ for their lunch: this day’s choices are macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly.

Then it’s off to classrooms where they sit, six feet apart, with headphones on, listening to lessons via computer. In this unique hybrid model, the students are in the school building, but most of their classes are still online. Of the nearly 700 students enrolled at Jouett, only about 60 come to school every day.

The school just north of Charlottesville, Va., has brought back only English language learners, students with certain disabilities, and those without reliable internet access—students that Jouett principal Ashby Johnson says need in-person instruction the most.

“When they have interactions with adults in the building, they feel more secure,” she said. “They ask for help when they don’t understand.”

A few miles north, Woodbrook Elementary School has only 12 students in the entire building. The slow start—with just the students who need school most—allowed teachers and parents a chance to get used to the new reality and to see what hybrid learning would look like in the face of concern about in-person learning by many families, Woodbrook Principal Kristen Williams said.

The Albemarle County School District, where Jouett and Woodbrook are located, plan to bring more students back to its schools under an expanded hybrid model, beginning Nov. 9.

Alina Tugend, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a FutureEd senior fellow, Phyllis W. Jordan is the editorial director of FutureEd and Mark A. Stein is a New York-based journalist. FutureEd’s Policy Associate Brooke LePage contributed research. Photo courtesy of The Mind Trust.