Addressing COVID-19 Learning Loss Through Publicly Funded Learning Pods and Universal Curriculum

August 14, 2020 / Dana Chambers

In July, the Alexandria Times printed my letter to the editor calling for creative childcare solutions in the wake of extended disruptions to schooling resulting from COVID 19. The response to this idea was overwhelmingly positive—the district, community partners, and local city officials see great potential value in providing safe and supportive childcare solutions in the community. I was encouraged to learn that leaders in Alexandria are already engaged in planning conversations with community partners to make this idea a reality—“childcare options with community partners” is one of the four foundational elements in ACPS’s recently approved “Virtual PLUS+” school reopening plan.

But the creativity can go further. While socially distanced supervision provided by after-school and recreation center staff, and college students taking a gap year can address childcare needs (and support the reopening of the economy), this is also an opportunity to support supplemental distance learning while children are in publicly provided care. City-organized childcare can prioritize learning at the center of their plans, and these services can serve as public “learning pods” for the children that need them most. As families with greater resources turn to private schools or funding private “learning pods,” we must ensure we aren’t leaving the rest of our students behind to navigate uncharted virtual learning territory on their own.

Centralized curriculum and instructional planning by the district would be fundamental to the success of embedding distance learning into public learning pods. Districts can support this through identifying universal, grade-level appropriate, virtual instructional materials for all students and schools across the district. Doing so can provide students attending city childcare sites with—

  • High-quality materials with universal access. We know very little about “what works” for effective virtual instruction. By investing in vetted virtual or blended learning instructional materials and providing teachers the opportunity to tailor these materials to meet the needs of individual students, we ensure that all students have equitable access to grade-level appropriate instruction.
  • Consistent access to learning opportunities regardless of learning location. With a common instructional plan, students from different classes and different schools can access common instructional supports regardless of whether they are learning at home or learning at a childcare site. For example, all 2nd graders attending childcare sites across the city could access common materials online and have a virtual 2nd grade teacher piped in to provide synchronous or asynchronous instruction for full group instruction.
  • Childcare staff and/or college-aged tutors who are more easily trained to supervise distance learning. Community partners can be more easily trained to supervise distance learning if instructional plans are consistent across grade levels and content areas. Trained staff can supervise students and provide just-in-time supports as they navigate the material. Aspiring teachers or college-age tutors can liaise with certified teachers or district staff and build their capacity to provide effective tutoring supports to students. If public health guidelines limit the number of in-person tutors permitted to access the physical site, virtual tutors can participate in common grade-level training.

If purchasing a virtual curriculum package is not feasible, districts may be able to create universal curriculum materials at low cost through using the most innovative and engaging lessons from the districts’ most talented virtual instructors. By using universally developed materials to represent a district-wide curriculum, students across the district can benefit from the innovation and talent of particular teachers or access the most effective and engaging lessons regardless of their school, classroom, or city-provided care assignment. This plan also benefits teachers by—

  • Removing the challenge of reinventing lessons plans for a fully virtual environment. Teachers are faced with the challenging task of reinventing lesson plans for a fully virtual environment. They are experiencing this dramatic shift in their role while many are navigating challenging family or childcare obligations as a result of the pandemic. Providing high-quality instructional materials that embed just-in-time remediation to help students successfully access grade-level content would be a valuable resource to teachers.
  • Freeing up teachers’ time to focus on additional differentiation. By alleviating teachers of the burden of developing untested virtual lesson plans from scratch, we will free them to spend time differentiating instructional delivery, providing additional virtual small group supports to students with greater need, and creating extension and enrichment opportunities.

Providing publicly funded “distance learning pods” that access universal curriculum would no doubt be a complex endeavor, requiring extensive coordination among the district, schools, teachers, and the community partners that provide childcare. However, as districts seek to prioritize the most instructionally vulnerable students and mitigate COVID-learning-loss, investing in public learning pods and universal curriculum and instruction is a step in the right direction.