How We Built It: The Four Key Principles We Kept In Mind While Designing Distance Learning

At RePublic, our mission is to reimagine public education in the South. The last few weeks has led us all to reimagine public education, as we have tried to figure out what school means during a global pandemic.

RePublic responded by closing our schools to keep everyone safe and opening virtual classrooms. We did it overnight. And, we did it by keeping a few core principles in mind.

“KEEP EVERYONE SAFE AND HEALTHY”

First, our distance learning program needs to keep everyone safe and healthy. Our schools are closed to keep our community safe. Nothing in the plan could undermine that. That means no in person meetings. No widespread distribution of materials. Learning would have to happen virtually and, for the most part, with devices that families already had in their homes.

“KEEP IT SIMPLE”

Second, we wanted to keep it simple. Our parents are our partners in distance learning. Our plan needed to be simple enough that a parent, with lots of other things to manage, could support their child to complete assignments and connect with their teachers each week. That meant limiting the number of assignments, touch points, documents, and platforms. In the end, RePublic Distance Learning is one assignment per class per week with a single deadline for every one: Thursdays at 6pm. Scholars submit work on online platforms they and their families know.

While this program works for the overwhelming majority of our scholars, some of our scholars require additional support. Namely, scholars with disabilities, English language learners, high school juniors that are preparing for the ACT and AP exams, and graduating seniors all require tailored supports that will allow them to achieve their goals during this period.

“WE HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY”

Third, we have a role to play. Our goals are to slow any slide in academic performance while scholars are away from school and to provide a source of community and connection to our families and scholars. If we were health care professionals, we would be taking care of sick people. If we were engineers, we would be building hospitals or ventilators. We are teachers. When there is a crisis, we teach. When the story of the coronavirus is told, a generation of school children will remember what they learned about perseverance and ingenuity from their families and teachers.

“WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER”

Lastly, we are in this together. Our families have extended us an enormous amount of grace since this experiment began five weeks ago. They recognize that we are all in this together. We are aligned in our desire to figure this out for our scholars so that the return to normal finds them happy, healthy, and ready for the challenges of the next grade.

Looking ahead, we expect these principles will continue to guide us. In the next couple of weeks, families can expect three changes to our distance learning program:

  • Greater use of educational applications to ensure that scholars are keeping their math and reading skills sharp
  • Better systems for sharing best practices in distance learning among our teachers
  • A deeper focus on independent reading.

Personally, this has been a period of intense growth for us as leaders and educators. Like many of you, we are balancing our work, which has only gotten more intense, with young children at home. We are also trying to guide our schools at a time when questions as important as when we will be back in school are impossible to answer. If there is one thing we’ve learned it is a profound sense of humility in the face of a crisis that is larger than either of us could have imagined. Our teams trust us to come up with answers, but often the best we have to offer these days are questions.

Coronavirus will pass, as will this experiment to distance learning. We hope, though, that the spirit of community, ingenuity, and humility will stick with us as we enter the next phase.

In the next few weeks, expect to hear directly from our teachers, leaders, parents, and scholars about what distance learning at RePublic has been like for them.

Kevin Heffel is RePublic’s Chief Academic Officer. In addition to managing RePublic’s transition to distance learning, he has also managed his family’s transition to home-schooling, if you can call it that.

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