In Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters symbolizing danger and opportunity. Following this logic, school crisis preparedness should include strategies to ward off dangers while taking advantage of opportunities. While closing schools is a drastic but important step to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, it is critical for districts to develop well-designed plans to continue student learning during unexpected school closures.

Schools that have already implemented personalized learning enhanced by technology tend to see less disruption during a challenging time like the current closure of brick-and-mortar school buildings.

According to national surveys on school health policies and practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three out of four school districts with comprehensive crisis/emergency preparedness plans included procedures for responding to pandemics in their plans.

Nine out of 10 covered procedures for implementing unplanned school closures in their plans. However, only half of the schools or districts had incorporated in their plans procedures for ensuring the continuity of education (e.g., online classes, prepackaged assignments) during unplanned school closures.

Additionally, the CDC data shows that in 2016, approximately 64 percent of districts had one or more district-level leadership group(s) that addressed the management of infectious diseases, like in a pandemic. Yet, only 40 percent of the school districts included technology staff in their leadership teams. Since online learning has become an important means to ensure the continuity of education during unplanned school closures, a well-designed plan for handling crisis/emergency situations calls for the expertise of technology staff.

School closings and performance

So far, there has been little research on how unscheduled school closures affect students’ learning. Researchers from the University of Maryland (2007) examined seven years of data on student performance. They provided evidence that losing school days to unscheduled closings has negative effects on student performance on state assessments.

School closings had a larger effect on the performance of students in lower grades, compared with fifth- and eighth-graders.

  • On average, in academic years with unscheduled closures, the number of third-graders who performed satisfactorily on state reading and math assessments within a school was nearly 3 percent lower than in years with no school closings.
  • The passing rate for third-grade math and reading assessments was estimated to fall by more than a half percent for each school day lost to an unscheduled closure. In other words, in years with more days of unscheduled closures (10 days is a common number in heavy-snow winters), for every 100 students, at least five more could not pass third-grade reading and math tests than in winters with no unscheduled closures.

Personalized learning

Closing a school can be a preventive measure against the danger of infectious diseases. The continuity of education during school closures requires innovative learning opportunities for students during such closures. As students have no choice but to stay at home during unplanned school closures, learning becomes more personalized, more dependent on technology, but more demanding for educators to structure and guide.

According to a recent report by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), an association for school system technology leaders, personalized learning is a learning activity “when all aspects of learning are chosen by the learner, including but not limited to topic, pace, strategy, and presentation of knowledge/skills.”

Although rapid advances in technology platforms and digital content have enabled more widespread use of personalized learning, educators need time and effort to use technology and tailor instruction to the needs, talents, and skills of each individual learner (U.S. Department of Education, 2019).

In the CoSN report, an international advisory board ranked personalized learning as one of the most important factors that drive K-12 innovation in 2020. The advisory board pointed out that, with the help of technology, schools would seek “the opportunity to move toward a balance between teacher facilitation and student learning.”

However, technology-driven innovation in K-12 schools is challenged by the lack of equitable access to the internet and quality digital technologies, and to educators’ inadequate knowledge about the effective use of technology.

Forward-thinking schools

Forward-thinking schools give us at least two important messages to build technology-based personalized learning into an existing education system. One is to encourage and support teachers to embrace technology in their daily instruction; the other, to engage students in learning with the help of technology.

California’s Fresno Unified School District
In 2016, Fresno Unified, one of the highest-poverty districts in the U.S., started a Personalized Learning Initiative (PLI), based on a pedagogical model designed to foster a collaborative learning culture where teachers and students take ownership over their own learning. PLI enables schools to collect data automatically when students use digital tools. Some of the data was used to measure students’ ability to collaborate and to take responsibility for their own learning. In general:

  • After one year, teachers used more collaborative learning in their classrooms, more technology to give students rapid feedback and formative assessments, and more digital applications to design learning activities.
  • After two years, achievement data showed that PLI students performed better in English language arts (ELA) and math than their peers not participating in the program.
  • After one year, when doing technology-based learning activities, PLI students collaborated more than non-PLI students who had the same level of technology access, and the more PLI students collaborated, the higher the scores they were likely to achieve in the second-year ELA and math assessments.

Ohio’s Lancaster City Schools
Two-thirds of Lancaster’s students come from low-income families. The district not only provided digital devices for students in grades three to 12, but also conducted extensive professional development for the staff.

  • Since 2017, LCS teachers have started helping students use technology in a variety of ways, including teaching special education students how to use digital devices to communicate with their parents/educators and keep them informed.
  • In 2018, when having access to highspeed internet became more and more crucial for students, LCS partnered with a local telecom business to give out Wi-Fi hot spots to students.
  • Since 2018, LCS teachers have already helped students use digital devices daily for collecting and analyzing data. The district has been determined to make sure that its students can use the latest technology in their learning.

By thinking ahead, these districts have overcome hurdles such as unequal access to technology and have embedded technology-based learning into their school systems.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for schools to rethink innovation and integrate technology more effectively to offer personalized learning for students.

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