Key Questions for Launching a Distance Learning Plan


How do we set goals and define success?

The Why

Shared goals are essential to give your teams a North Star and articulate a clear picture of success that will guide them through the transition to distance learning.

The How

Start by aligning on prioritized goals and creating a shared understanding among your team about what success looks like, what is feasible, and how to ensure aiming for “perfect” does not get in the way of achieving “good enough” as the team builds and learns.

Plan measurable actions to meet your prioritized goals that can be communicated to stakeholders on a week-by-week basis. Some goals to consider are:

  • Creating a sense of connection through consistent routines, school practices and rituals that can foster a sense of connection and regular touch points between teachers and students.
  • Building momentum by establishing cultural norms that convey that school is still happening, just very differently than usual.
  • Leveraging new approaches, adopting a flexible mindset to embrace creative ways to meet students’ needs at a distance.

California’s population is diverse, and goals should take into account the diversity within a school’s community to ensure that distance learning approaches are tailored to students’ needs. Decision makers should consider students’ family contexts, including home language, access to resources, and presence of other responsibilities such as caretaking. With that in mind, your plan should begin by orienting around students’ hierarchy of needs, including addressing health and safety, social-emotional wellness, and family supports, as only on top of that foundation will the learning and access to content that students need and deserve be possible.

Plans should prioritize maintaining connection with students, whether by text, phone, or live video and in small groups or one-on-one, leveraging adults with strong existing relationships with students. Creating space for informal conversation and fostering connection among peers, are critical for addressing both social-emotional needs and language practice, both for English Learners and other students. Establish shared goals and expectations of success for the district, and encourage school leaders to use a similar process with their staff to set the stage for school-specific needs.

Goal-setting framework

This pre-filled, editable template shows how goal-setting translates into aligned schedules, communication strategies, and teacher support plans. (PDF | Word Download)

Additional Resources

Hierarchy of School Needs, from the COVID-19 Schools Resource Hub

Remote Learning Recommendations During COVID-19 Emergency, from the Illinois State Board of Education, in particular the section on multilingual learners starting on page 21


How do we help students and teachers structure their day?

The Why

Schedule guidelines allow teachers to plan learning experiences with prioritized goals in mind; set clear expectations and communicate them to students and parents; and, most importantly, build continuity, routine, and connection for students in a time of uncertainty.

The How

First, start with understanding whether your instruction will be delivered in a digital, print-based, or hybrid model. For each model, we have developed sample plans that outline how teachers and students would spend their time, including sample daily and weekly schedules and week-by-week goals and activities for districts, school sites, teachers, and students.

The sample plans are intended to be modular and used as a starting point for schools and districts. We understand that each educational system may have unique needs and requirements (e.g., amount of work time required, agreed-upon prep time or times that staff are needed to be available for students). Accordingly, we have created baseline recommendations for allocating time and, from there, have offered schedules to illustrate one way to meet this need throughout a “work day.” For districts that have restrictions on timing for synchronous interactions, we suggest condensing the periods for live interaction and building in time for planning, preparing, and reviewing as needed. We have also provided four-hour work day samples for the hybrid model that can be used as a guidance for districts with limits on teachers’ availability to work.

  • The digital model is most common in contexts in which each student has an internet-connected device of their own, particularly at the high school level. Instruction is delivered online to full classes or small groups. Students log on to a platform to participate in lessons in real time and submit assignments electronically.
  • The print-based model is most common in areas with limited internet access. In this model, students use textbooks and printed work packets. Teachers make phone calls to students individually or in groups to check in and discuss work. This model should only be used sparingly, while continuing efforts to increase connectivity and device distribution until moving to the hybrid model is feasible.
  • The hybrid model is most common when at least half of the student population has access to the internet. In this model, students attend daily “class” via video platform (e.g., Zoom, Google Hangout) or conference line and submit work electronically. Teachers check in with students who are not able to join class (typically via phone or or smartphone video chat app) to discuss work and prepare them for assignments.

The above plans provide examples of how schools can provide a balance of “synchronous” learning, real-time instruction delivered by teachers, and “asynchronous” learning, in which materials are sent back and forth. Ideally, all students would receive both types of learning opportunities, regardless of technology access.

Regardless of format and timing, one of the critical elements of your schedule should be to ensure that students have sufficient and consistent opportunities to use language. Speaking, listening, reading, and writing should all be core to distance learning plans. As important for native English speakers as they are for English Learners, these activities can be facilitated through learning apps, multilingual technology tools, phone calls, radio broadcasts, or workbooks and photocopies.

Think about creative ways to leverage all staff when building student schedules that maximize adult-to-child interaction. For example, think in new, expansive ways about who, among all adults that typically work in a school building, could be assigned to groups of students for regular check-ins and follow-up.

As you move forward, encourage school teams to start small, aim first for establishing routine and connection, and build from there. The plans above include week-by-week goals that aim for early wins and build from there, giving space for teachers to try, learn, and adapt. Take into account the broader need for wellness, mental health, and connection among students and adults alike. Effective distance learning must foster connection, a sense of belonging, and social-emotional wellness. Only when students and teachers have adapted to new ways of working should additional coursework and activities be layered on.

Models of Distance Learning and Examples of Engagement

Priority Checklist: Key Components of a Distance Learning School Day (PDF | Word Download)

Special Education

How do we effectively serve students with special needs?

The Why

The burden of distance learning will fall disproportionately on students with greater needs, and thus they deserve more focus and attention. Also, it’s the law: all students with disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate public education even in times of crisis, as outlined by the Department of Education.

The How

Regardless of whether you are using a digital, print-based, or blended approach, great teachers remain the most critical factor in student learning – and that holds true most of all for students with higher needs. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Implement universal design for learning (UDL). The CDE has named UDL one of the most effective tools to serve students with atypical learning profiles. This still holds in a distance-learning setting, and students can still have multiple options for engaging with content.
  • Encourage collaborative problem solving. Take a hive-mindset approach, tapping your community of “kid warriors” to band together in coming up with creative solutions. For example, how can resource specialists, instructional aides, and EL coordinators be re-deployed to check in one-on-one with students and provide small-group or direct services?
  • Explore ways to deliver and adapt services in a new setting. Given these unusual circumstances, you may be wondering how to write new IEP goals, process a “change in placement,” or meet mandated accommodations/modifications for students. IEP meetings can and should be convened remotely with family involvement.
  • Ensure therapists are trained in “telehealth” options and have access to HIPAA-compliant platforms for remote delivery of counseling services. Specialized service providers such as physical therapists and speech therapists should continue to provide services remotely as much as possible.
  • Budget and plan now for compensatory services (e.g., physical therapy, one-on-one support). For students with moderate-to-severe disabilities, partner with caregivers and think outside the box about service providers. Despite your best efforts to ensure that students with disabilities get the support and services they need through remote learning, some students will likely still need compensatory services to make up for the loss of in-person support during this time. LEAs should plan now for additional compensatory services. For students with disabilities, especially those with high support needs, individualized communication with the student, their family, and personal care providers can be critical to ensuring families know you are considering their needs and are a part of the effort to meet them.
  • Ensure accessibility. All online programming and web-based content must be accessible for screen-readers; the gold standard is compliance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Levels AA. Make sure that any technology provided to students (e.g., laptops) has the specific technology loaded that students with disabilities need.
Additional Resources

IEP Accommodations in a Remote Setting, from Quality Matters

School Closure Toolkit for Special Populations, from the Tennessee Department of Education

Special Ed Compliance & IEP Guidance, from El Dorado Charter SELPA

Remote Learning Guidance – Accessibility, (pg.5), from the Riverside County Office of Education

California Peer-Run Warm Line, Free text- or video-based peer therapy for Californians seeking emotional support

Family Communication

How do we reach and support families?

The Why

More than ever, families, teachers, and administrators are on a team. Investing in a thoughtful communication plan will support authentic and collaborative family and educator partnerships, strong engagement of families in children’s learning, and improved student outcomes during closure.

The How

The vast majority of parents and caregivers are experiencing additional stress, so keep that in mind when developing your communication plan. Communication is critical, but “overdoing it” or losing sight of the empathy that parents deserve can add to the stress.

  • Streamline communication with families, including by compiling information in consistent messages sent at the same time each week.
  • Use multiple modalities, languages, and formats to reach parents and caregivers in their native languages, including phone, text, social media, or in person at meal pickups.
  • Don’t overload parents and students with “busy work.” Providing home learning resources to parents can be appreciated and important, but consider family resources that prioritize social-emotional health and wellness.
  • Support home language use. Ensure that parents know that continuing to talk, read, discuss texts, and help their child with schoolwork in their home language is encouraged and beneficial.
  • Check for understanding and elicit feedback to see if your communications are being received and “heard” by families. Ask families what is and is not working to leverage the voices and wisdom of diverse families and stakeholders.
  • Address student privacy needs by communicating openly and directly with parents about how the district is ensuring privacy and security of student data used in the course of distance learning.

Sample family letter in English (PDF | Word Download) and in Spanish (PDF | Word Download)

Family handbook template in English (PDF | Word Download) and in Spanish (PDF | Word Download)

Additional Resources

Communicating with English Learners and their Families, from Colorin Colorado

One Great Thing For Tomorrow, daily tips, resources, and activities for parents, from EdNavigator

Social Emotional Learning Activities for Families, lessons and activities for students of all levels, from Guilford County Schools

Professional Development

How do we best support teachers and staff?

The Why

For many teachers and support staff this moment of distance learning feels like they are back to their first year of working with students. Add to that the fact that they too are dealing with living in unprecedented pandemic times and may be caring for their own children and family members at home. Teachers and support staff are on the front line of distance learning. Making sure they have access to tools, training and supports is essential. By assuring they have access to counseling, equipping teachers with immediate training and ongoing support, districts and school leaders can help teachers not only maintain continuity with students throughout the crisis, but to learn and grow from the experience.

The How

Strong staff support plans will provide personal support, best practice sharing as teachers transition their day-to-day work to a distance learning format as well as continuous professional development with mandatory and opt-in forums for learning.

  • Acknowledge the depth of the mindset and practice shift this will require of teachers. Veteran teachers will feel like novices again, tried and true practices for student engagement won’t work, and technical hurdles will create frustration.
  • To the extent possible, avoid wholesale adoption of new platforms right now. To the extent possible, leverage technology with which teachers, students, and families already have some degree of familiarity.
  • That said, most teachers will likely be utilizing technology in new and more extensive ways than they are used to. Ask your teachers the type of training they need – whether it’s Google Classrooms tutorials or best practices in remote class facilitation.
  • Provide teachers with additional guidance around supporting the needs of English Learners in a remote context. Literacy-rich and context-specific strategies are important for English Learners – and all students – in a remote context, but require creativity from teachers. Provide examples for new ways of supporting language use remotely, such as multiple modalities of providing instruction (e.g. video, audio, and slides).
  • Foster a community of support among peers by building processes for collaborative learning, peer sharing, and iteration as teachers adapt to distance learning instruction.
  • Offer scripted protocols to help teachers facilitate online meetings to optimize engagement, and anticipate that it will take a while to get the kinks out.

Setting Goals for Teacher Support and Professional Development During Closure (PDF | Word Download)

Additional Resources

Remote Learning Guidance – Pedagogy and Practices, (pgs. 2-5), strategies for teachers to keep students engaged while learning remotely, from the Riverside County Office of Education

Sample Schedule for Assistant Principals/Deans, from Instruction Partners

Supporting multilingual learners (MLLs)/English language learners (ELLs) during the COVID-19 Shutdown, from The New Teacher Project

English Learners

How do we ensure our instruction centralizes the needs of English learners?

The Why

In California, more than a third of our students live in homes where a language other than English is the primary language spoken. Because of this, we must build our response to distance learning with students who are English Learners (ELs) as our primary and target population. Furthermore, what works for English learners is great for all learners. That means that our schedules and handbooks, resources and curriculum tools must also align with best practices for ELs.

The How

Putting our EL students’ needs at the center of our work is not only important—it is imperative. This playbook was written with EL best practices in mind for all content, including schedules and materials. Overall, we recommend focusing on activities that emphasize connection and social interaction, such as reading with families and peer interaction, over decontextualized skill-building, such as worksheets. Worksheets and practice sheets can be used to a limited degree, but students will likely be discouraged and unmotivated by too much rote work, and they generally do not build language proficiency. 

To fully support English learners and their families, we suggest the following guidance from Ensemble Learning

Social-Emotional Support

  • Coordinate an adult (teacher or another adult the student knows well) to regularly check in with a small group or one-on-one. Use this time for: 
    • Informal conversation to ask about students’ emotional and physical well-being 
    • Authentic connections with students through jokes and stories 
    • Active listening when students speak (e.g., nodding, asking follow-up questions) 
    • Time for students to talk about their feelings regarding distance learning and the current events affecting them
  • Provide instructional materials that demonstrate an understanding of students’ cultures. 
  • Create a system to provide students a way to interact with peers (e.g., chats, comments on assignments, virtual meetings, singing songs).

Academic Support 

  • Ensure students have access to grade-level appropriate materials by designing supports for rigorous learning content.
  • Create a “Week-at-a-Glance” document that holds all the work students are supposed to do for the entire week with embedded hyperlinks when appropriate.
  • Host office hours when students can log on and meet virtually or over the phone for help.
  • Assign students an “online tech buddy” who shares the same home language.
  • Create assignments intended for the family to complete together in their home language.
  • Set up virtual meetings via video calls to teach lessons or check in with students. Small groups of 5-8 students for 20-30 minutes work best. Consider homogeneous and heterogeneous language groups as appropriate. 
    • Ideas for virtual meetings: discussing a book, teaching content, review instructions, modeling process, checking student wellness, discussing current events, etc.
  • Whenever possible, provide graphic organizers for lessons to aid comprehension.
  • Record video or screen-sharing lessons to model processes, explain instruction, and teach new content.
  • Use videos with closed captions or subtitles when possible or provide video links.
  • Present new instruction in multiple modes (video, synchronous instruction, audio, or slides).
  • Distribute tutorials and guides on how to access translation extensions or apps such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Microsoft’s Immersive Reader, etc.
  • Provide Designated ELD in small homogeneous groups on a regular basis.

Family Support

  • Create tutorials (with translation when possible) of how to access, engage with, and turn in virtual work.
  • Provide information for parents in multiple formats.
    • Set up a call with parents to explain the distance learning format, answer questions, and help set up students for success.
    • Send parents messages at least once a week to ensure they feel supported during distance learning. (Apps such as TalkingPoints can help teachers communicate with parents in their home language.)
  • Offer to add additional caregivers to parent communication to eliminate communication barriers and gaps.
  • Consider setting up peer-to-peer (parent-to-parent) connections to ensure families do not feel alone or disconnected from learning. 
  • Consider hosting weekly evening “fire-side chats,” simply for families to gather and connect with one another and their teacher.
  • Emphasize to families that working on materials in their native language is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. Homeschooling is challenging enough, and doing it in a non-native language may easily discourage families. Therefore, validate parents’ value and commitment to their children’s learning in whatever format makes them most comfortable and engaged.