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Parents guide to online school: 9 questions to help vet your back-to-school choices

Erin Richards
USA TODAY

In Brandon Wislocki's fifth grade class this spring in California, daily virtual classes were an experiment in creativity.

The Zoom sessions featured guitar playing, group discussions about literature, live math lessons, checks for understanding through Zoom's chat function and silly games, such as Oreo stacking and household scavenger hunts.

The remote lessons featured something many students didn't get this spring when the coronavirus forced instruction online: the learning of new material.

Wislocki's students at Stonegate Elementary in Irvine, California, still covered the core math and English standards that would have been taught in person from mid-March to the end of the school year. 

Brandon Wislocki, a fifth grade teacher at Stonegate Elementary School in Irvine, Calif., starts many of his virtual classes by singing to students.

The experience suggests online learning doesn't have to be bad. There are ways to make it more engaging and effective, education experts said. But schools have little time to figure out how to do that before schools reopen this fall, and they haven't devoted much effort to it.

A growing number of districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, plan to start the year with online-only instruction amid a surge in coronavirus cases. In Richmond, Virginia, schools will be online for the first semester. Prince George's County Schools in Maryland called for all students to learn online until at least February of next year.

Many other districts plan a mix of in-person and remote learning – and many ask parents to choose an instruction model for their children.

How can parents tell if what their school has planned for online learning is any good?

Here are nine questions to help you vet the quality of your school's virtual learning program.

Will you have the tech and a teacher for online learning? (If not, ask for paper) 

Because virtual teaching is so new – the world has never seen so many traditional teachers shift to online instruction – there's little conclusive research on what methods produce the best academic outcomes.

The widely agreed-upon basics: You need a computer, preferably one per student, internet access and a teacher who is comfortable teaching online. A lot of disadvantaged and rural students didn't have the technology this spring, and a lot of teachers weren't comfortable teaching through a computer.

If you don't have the technology your child needs, or if the teacher seems to be struggling online, ask whether there's a plan to receive high-quality, tailored materials in print form. 

Wislocki worked in TV production and on movies in Los Angeles before becoming a teacher, so the shift to managing Zoom rooms and recording educational videos came naturally to him. His daughter's third grade teacher was not as technologically adept.

"Still, he created good paper packets, and he called a few times a week for a one-on-one conversation," Wislocki said.

"Low-tech" distance learning programs can be effective, said Michael Barbour, a professor at Touro University in California who has studied virtual learning.

He said countries around the world that did the best job of reaching all students during the pandemic were ones that effectively employed old-school tools, such as comprehensive paper packets and lessons broadcast on television or the radio.

"Australia still provides programming through educational radio," he said. "Both New Zealand and Nebraska had strong correspondence programs with paper packets, which could be dropped off at the driveway. Several states partnered with local television stations to provide instructional programming."

Teaching on TV:While schools closed, these teachers aired TV lessons

Whether online or paper-and-pencil, remote instruction should include study materials and assignments that are personalized and relevant to students' lives.

Will there be a common online learning platform?

When schools moved online in the spring, teachers within the same district or even the same school often used different online platforms to create assignments, engage with students and offer feedback. Harried parents had to figure out multiple logins.

Online education experts said schools should commit to having students access all their classes through a single system.  

"A lot of districts thought they had done a lot around instructional technology, but it wasn't enough," said Christine Voelker, director of K-12 programs for Quality Matters, a company in Maryland that reviews and offers standards for virtual courses.

"It may have been that I have one kid who is using Google Classroom and another teacher was using Schoology," she said, referring to a learning management system that's seen a surge of business during the pandemic. "There needs to be more consistency."

Jack Hartman, left, and his brother, Luke, work on their laptop for their virtual learning lessons this spring in Oak Creek, Wis.

Will there be live, virtual instruction? 

No expert would recommend exactly how many minutes students should be online each day at various grade levels.

They did say some instruction should be live, with consistent teachers and a consistent schedule

"There is some evidence that synchronous instruction is important," said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education in Washington state, which has been following how schools respond to the pandemic. 

"It's important for kids to see their friends and feel like they’re part of the classroom," she said.

There should be activities for students to pursue off screen, especially for younger students.

Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner called for all teachers to commit to live, daily instruction this fall when the school year starts online. Students will have a regular class schedule, and attendance will be taken – two other signs that expectations will be higher than in spring, when LA teachers could create their own work schedules, didn't have to use live video and didn't have to work more than four hours daily, an agreement reached through extensive union bargaining.

Online-only for fall:LA, San Diego students will start virtually – a growing trend against what Trump wants

California's budget bill outlines that schools must meet minimum daily instructional time requirements even if schooling remains online: 180 minutes for kindergartners, about four hours for other students. Documented student work can count toward those minutes, in addition to time spent online with a teacher. 

What kind of individual communication will my child receive?

Teachers should provide students with more individual communication in a remote learning environment compared with an in-person class, said Cindy Carbajal, manager of teacher programs for Pearson's online and blended learning programs.

"Phone calls and individual communication allow you to get to know your student's strengths and know what they’re into," she said.

Carbajal said that's especially important when it comes to grading feedback, which should be friendly, include the student's name and always start with what he or she did well. 

“Students learning virtually may never meet their teacher in person, and they're not going to be very motivated to succeed if the first thing they read on the work says, ‘Redo!’ ” Carbajal said.

What's the plan for grading, attendance and testing?

In spring, many schools did away with grades altogether and didn't penalize children who missed online class.

States received waivers from annual federal testing requirements.

Parents should ask how that will change in the fall, said Wayne Banks, a seventh-grade math teacher at KIPP TEAM Academy in Newark, New Jersey. Banks is teaching a virtual math class this summer to students around the country as part of the National Summer School Initiative. 

Ask your school: Will attendance count by simply signing in – or by completing assignments?  

Whatever the answer, the expectations should be clearly communicated from the beginning.

Banks said parents should ask whether students will be assessed on their work through online tests or some kind of performance or project. It's good to ask how schools will maintain the integrity of tests when children can take them online at home, potentially outside the supervision of an adult, he said. 

What are accommodations for students with special needs, or students learning English?

In general, students with disabilities have not been well-served in the transition to remote learning. Neither have students who are still learning to speak English.

Some of those concerns can be addressed with online accommodations such as closed captioning, speech-to-text or text-to-speech programs, translation programs and tools to support learners with physical impairments, said LizKolb, an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Education.

“It may take some time for teachers to understand how to meet all these needs and for support staff like paraprofessionals to figure out how to do this virtually,” Kolb said. “Most virtual (charter) schools are able to make these accommodations, but they've had years to put these supports in place. Traditional schools are aware they need to do this, but they may still be working on the ‘how.’”

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What feedback can you offer your school?

Successful distance learning requires families to be more involved in their children's education, said Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab in Massachusetts.

Parents already learned that: Many dread having to supervise their children's education while juggling full-time jobs. 

There's an upside: Districts that incorporate feedback from teachers, parents and students are far more likely to make changes work better for everybody.

"There's exactly one generation who have gone to school online during a pandemic, and we need to find ways to listen to them," Reich said during a webinar on remote learning hosted by Harvard University.

Neema Avashia, a civics teacher in Boston Public Schools, said her eighth grade students readily offered feedback about what parts of online instruction worked for them and what parts they could do without. 

"They’re not bogged down in what the budget is saying and what the president is saying,"  Avashia said during the same webinar. "Young people will talk about what they value."

What do teachers plan not to cover this year?

Despite the best intentions, it's likely schools won't be able to cover the same amount of content as in a normal year, education experts said. 

"We need to Marie Kondo the curriculum," said Jal Mehta, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, referring to the Japanese tidying expert famous for chucking everything that doesn't add value. "What are the most important skills, knowledge and competencies we really need kids to learn this year?"

Parents can press their children's teacher or school about that. They can ask about how teachers will cover topics in a way that helps catch up kids who fell behind.

And they can ask about whether there's a plan for addressing students' social and emotional needs – which most experts said is harder to do in a virtual space. 

How do teachers plan to make online learning more fun?

In California, Wislocki was able to keep his students engaged for 90 minutes each day by interspersing goofy antics and games into his instruction.

One day, everyone ate donuts during class. Another day it was yogurt. One of the most highly anticipated games was a scavenger hunt. Wislocki called out basic household items, and students scampered away to search for them. Whoever returned with the item first and held it up to the computer camera won.

Other teachers across the country have donned costumes, sung songs or danced on screen to keep kids' attention.

What might seem exaggerated for in-class teaching, Wislocki said, is often welcomed online.

Several education experts stressed that giving students project-based assignments that incorporate their lives or their interests – and that take them away from the screen – should be prioritized. In spring, many students were asked to watch videos, then hand in a written response. That's poor teaching, the experts said.

"We have an opportunity right now to try things that we’ve wanted to try but have never had the time to do," Wislocki said. "So let’s do some new stuff."

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.