In mid-March, just two months after students returned from winter break, classrooms across the U.S. were suddenly empty again. A series of shutdowns required students and teachers to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help keep communities safe.
At their peak, the closures affected at least 55.1 million students in 124,000 U.S. public and private K–12 schools, according to data collected by Education Week. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 1,300 colleges and universities in all 50 states canceled classes or moved to strictly online instruction.
As the closures stretched from weeks to months, educational institutions at all levels scrambled to provide the best possible instruction for students at home.
For many schools, especially those with higher populations of low-income students, the pivot from in-person to online learning was fraught with challenges—from providing students with access to the internet and internet-capable devices to setting up the software needed to deliver classes and communicate with families.
Additionally, the quick pivot to online learning exacerbated existing inequities. Only 9% of teachers in schools serving high percentages of low-income students or students of color reported that all or nearly all of their students were completing assignments, compared to roughly a quarter of teachers in other schools, and 66% of teachers reported that their students lacked the necessary devices or internet connection, a survey by RAND Corporation’s American Educator Panels found.
Concerned by these and other challenges, Walden University CEO Paula Singer saw an opportunity to leverage the university’s expertise to support its colleagues in education as they transitioned to online and hybrid classrooms.
With more than 25 years of leadership in online learning and a mission of positive social change, Walden is uniquely positioned to help schools transition to online and hybrid learning. More than 420 faculty and 59,500 alumni of The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership make up a global network of experts with experience in online education.
With Walden President Ward Ulmer and other university leaders, Singer assembled a cross-functional team of Walden experts in operations, business, and academics to provide resources and consulting services to schools at no charge.
“Walden has always been mission-driven in the work that we do,” says Darrell Luzzo, Walden’s senior vice president and general manager, who led the 10-person launch team. “We decided that it was an appropriate manifestation of our mission, given our expertise in digital teaching and learning, to provide this outreach service at no charge to K–12 schools or school districts and historically Black colleges and universities.”
In the earliest days and weeks of closures, schools were in what Luzzo calls “emergency remote teaching,” the first in a three-phase transition to a fully integrated blended learning approach. During this period, spanning from mid-March to the end of the 2019–2020 academic year in June, schools were primarily focused on covering the basic needs of teachers, students, and families.
“Educators are so driven by the mission of educating our youth, they found a way to make it work,” Luzzo says of the early days of the pandemic. “They were driving printout packets to homes, they were knocking on doors because students weren’t logging in to class, they were worried [about] who had equipment and who didn’t, and who had Wi-Fi access and [who] didn’t. The degree to which whole communities mobilized to allow education to continue as well as it possibly could was remarkable.”
By the summer, schools across the country were confronted with the likelihood that online and hybrid learning would continue well into the 2020–2021 academic year. Yet major challenges still existed. According to the RAND survey, for example, just 12% of teachers reported covering through distance learning the full curriculum they had planned to cover if schools hadn’t closed due to COVID-19.
“As the fall semester approached, teachers began to realize that they would very likely be engaging with students in some sort of blended fashion throughout the entire academic year,” Luzzo explains. Schools, districts, and teachers may have laid the foundation, but they needed help with the next steps for an effective, sustained approach to high-quality digital teaching and learning.
“Although schools had addressed many of the more immediate connectivity and access issues that arose last spring, there was widespread recognition that many other solutions are required to operate a really smooth and effective online learning operation, like additional teacher training, communications with parents and families, and preparing the home to be an effective learning environment,” he adds.
Luzzo and his team worked throughout the summer to create a web portal with online learning resources for parents and families, which launched in August. By the fall, they had identified three educational institutions to work with for the first phase of the initiative: a school district in west Texas; a K–5 elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota; and a historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Louisiana.
“We decided to limit the number of schools we would work with this fall,” Luzzo says. “Each institution understood that we’re just getting started with this initiative, and they were extremely grateful for our help.” The team hopes to expand the initiative to additional schools next year.
With partner institutions established, the team set to work identifying each one’s unique needs. “When we have a need presented to us, we leverage our own expert faculty and staff to be the ones to deliver that expertise to the schools,” Luzzo explains.
The Digital Teaching and Learning Readiness Rubric Walden developed assesses the K–12 schools in nine areas, from teacher readiness and family support to technology and funding. “The greatest needs we have seen in the schools so far have been in teacher readiness and family and community readiness,” says Steve Canipe, associate dean of the Riley College of Education and Leadership and part of the launch team focusing on K–12 schools. “Teachers are being burned out. They’re not used to working in a virtual environment.”
The team is working with the HBCU to transition its classes to more of a blended and hybrid format. Walden is also helping to shift student services that previously operated in person—registration, student affairs, financial aid, academic advising—online. “Moving every single service at the university online has been the biggest challenge,” says Riley College of Education and Leadership Dean Kelley Costner, also a member of the launch team. “And another challenge is that the students have families of their own. They’re trying to stay in school and trying to home-school their kids, too. It’s just a snowball effect.”
The team’s strategy includes creating short- and long-term plans tailored to each institution’s needs. With the university in Louisiana, Costner and the Walden team have hosted several summits covering critical topics like implementing remote student services, providing faculty feedback to support student retention, and implementing high-quality, digital instructional design. Walden faculty and staff are also available for one-on-one support and problem-solving.
“We show them the Walden way,” Costner says, noting that the HBCU in particular has been highly engaged at all levels, from the chancellor and president to student services, and that attendance grows with each event. “It’s not something that is going to be over in a month or two. It’s ongoing. We’re just now scratching the surface, because next we’re going to take them through the implementation stages.”
For the K–12 partner schools, Walden is taking a more incremental approach. “We aren’t going to deliver a three-hour summit, because that would just stress teachers out more,” Canipe explains. Instead, the team will create a collection of “knowledge bites” or “tidbits” to help teachers solve specific challenges, from online assessments to family communication.
At one school, for example, students have all been supplied with Chromebooks for online learning. Many teachers, however, are left using outdated personal devices while teaching from home. To help mitigate potential technology issues, the Walden team is developing a set of specific instructions and workarounds for teachers to run the necessary software on their personal computers so they can stay connected to their classrooms.
As schools at all levels struggle to adapt to an online approach, Walden is proud to offer tools, resources, and expertise. “What makes our faculty so unique for this challenge is that they work for an online university but they may also be a teacher, a professor, a principal, a superintendent, a community college president,” Costner says. “So they can understand [both] sides.” With this perspective, the Walden team can assist the partner institutions as they overcome each challenge and continue to integrate blended learning.
“We’ve always been problem-solvers,” Canipe says of Walden. “It’s just in our DNA.” Costner points to the university’s status as a Certified B Corporation®—signifying that Walden has met rigorous standards of social and environmental impact, accountability, and transparency—as well as its social change mission. “We are here for the greater good, and what greater good is there during a global pandemic than Walden stepping in to help? That’s just who we are,” she says.
Luzzo agrees. “This is, undoubtedly and without question, the most fulfilling role that I’ve had in education,” he says. “Every time I speak with a principal, a teacher, a superintendent, even parents, they are overwhelmed with gratitude because they know they’re not experts in online learning. Anything we can do to help them provide the very highest quality online or hybrid education moving forward will have a huge impact.”
And even when it’s safe for students to return to full classrooms, online learning isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. “I believe that a blended form of education delivery, with online, digital elements offered both in and outside of the classroom, as well as face-to-face instruction, is likely to be the future of education,” Luzzo adds.
With Walden’s support, educators are becoming better equipped to meet student needs now and in the future—both in person and online.