Back in March, the coronavirus outbreak prompted most of America to shut down, forcing schools to shift abruptly to remote learning and make plans on the fly. The hope was that quarantine would buy time for the nation to contain the virus. By fall, officials expected children would fully and safely return to school.

Over four months later, those hopes dim with every passing day.

The outbreak has worsened and schools are no better off than they were this spring, still creating plans with too little time amid too much uncertainty, only to scrap them shortly thereafter as cases continue to surge throughout the nation. Nineteen of the 25 largest school districts have announced they will start remotely. On July 17, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the third-largest school district in the country, originally announced it was implementing a hybrid model in reopening, but CPS has since changed course, possibly due to threats of a strike from the Chicago Teachers Union over safety concerns, and announced it, too, will start virtually. (Inside Philanthropy reported earlier on a $50 million public-private partnership to pay for high-speed internet access for 100,000 mostly low-income CPS students over four years.)

Fast Learner

Schools have no choice but to lean into the uncertainty of all-remote learning, and one funder willing to experiment with them is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Since the beginning of the pandemic, CZI has granted over $9 million to support educators and students through remote learning, including committing $5 million in COVID-19 response grants to address the social-emotional and mental health of students and families. Previously, we reported that CZI’s investments in expanding access to online education opportunities has proven to be prescient in light of the current moment.

Its biggest grants so far include $1.2 million to DonorsChoose, the popular crowdfunding site for teachers’ projects. It gave $1 million to the State of California to reduce the digital divide. A $550,000 grant to Crisis Text Line, a text-based service, will help students experiencing personal crises. And CZI gave $500,000 apiece to the Council of Chief State School Officers for resources for state leaders around school closures and the International Society for Education Technology to help districts navigate remote learning.

Many funders have converted their traditional grant awards into general operating support to give grantees flexibility during the pandemic, but while CZI has given emergency grants, it continues to support specific projects. CZI also seems to be focused on the long-term aftermath of COVID-19 in funding organizations that deal with social and emotional health, especially in the wake of the police-involved killing of George Floyd. CZI’s latest round of grants hints at what could become a major trend among education funders. It has given $850,000 to five organizations that partner with schools predominantly comprising students of color to bring about racial equity and social connectedness in remote learning and school recovery.

Making New Connections

One grantee, Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), has received two grants from CZI. EOS helps 375 high schools in 29 states identify and support students of color who wish to enroll in advanced classes. CZI awarded EOS $75,000 to assist school leaders to draft COVID-19 plans that ensure educational equity; $170,000 will fund a four-month pilot with an individual school partner to explore creative ways to center race in school recovery programs, focusing on Black male students.

Sasha Rabkin, chief strategy officer at EOS, says CZI invited the organization to apply for additional funding to figure out how to make remote learning more engaging and equitable. Rabkin says that EOS surveyed 5,500 students across the country and found that nearly 80% reported that they struggled to maintain their motivation while learning from home.

When EOS dug into why this was the case, Rabkin states, “Only about 18% indicated that access to technology was the problem, but well over 50% indicated that engaging in class was a challenge.”

Content for remote learning, Rabkin suggests, should allow students opportunities to talk about the unprecedented events of the past few months: the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.

“What we saw in our surveys is that over 50% of students wanted to talk about their COVID experiences. They have lived through two of the most momentous shifts in my lifetime, let alone theirs. Schools need to embrace the reality that young people are living with fears. The best instruction happens when young people feel safe. Right now, safety is incredibly challenging for young people, and so schools, virtual or otherwise, couldn’t not be thinking about that.”

Creating Trust

One simple way schools can create community is to have students name staff members they trust, Rabkin says. “All the students that take our survey in the fall, which last year was about 410,000 students across the country, identified trusted adults in the building. We showed them a list of all of the adults in their building and they identified up to three. A lot of our schools have now used those trusted adult lists that they can access through our online platform to have the individual adults reach out to students.”

Rabkin acknowledges the difficulties schools continue to face in planning the logistics of reopening, as well as the digital divide that schools and funders have scrambled to resolve by distributing devices and buying internet access, but says getting technology into students’ hands is just a first step. Fostering a sense of belonging and community within a virtual space is the next one. This could be a promising area for funders to support as they think about what schools can do moving forward through a pandemic with no end in sight. CZI, for its part, is not treating remote learning as a blip in American education.

“A lot of recovery plans focus on operational realities, not on pedagogy, engagement and motivation,” he adds. “Schools need to think much more broadly about things that are not class-based as a way to generate engagement that lasts through time. We had students reporting they have no formal time to meet in their extracurricular activities in the virtual learning environment. Why shouldn’t the chess club be meeting on Zoom just like they did after school? That engagement comes from feeling a part of a community, not from having somebody make the War of 1812 interesting.”

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