Distance Learning Details

Key Questions for Launching a Distance Learning Plan

Set Goals

How do we set goals and define success?


The Why
Shared goals are essential to give your team a North Star and articulate a clear picture of success that will guide them through 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 contact 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 and 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 one-on-one or small-group settings—leveraging adults with strong existing relationships with students. Creating space for informal conversation and fostering connection among peers are critical for addressing social-emotional needs and facilitating language practice for both 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.

Equity Consideration: Make sure you have identified goals around equity that are practical and not just philosophical. Look for equity considerations across this handbook to help guide your thinking.


  • Equity tool: This Ensuring equity in goals checklist was originally designed by EdTrustWest for college but is easily adaptable for K-12
  • Goal-setting framework: This pre-filled, editable template provides examples of how goals translate into aligned schedules, communication strategies, and teacher support plans. 
  • Dive deeper into planning with this tool by the CCEE and WestEd.

Additional Resources

Create Schedules

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 families; and, most importantly, build continuity, routine, and connection for students in a time of uncertainty.

The How

Take stock: First, determine whether instruction will be delivered in a digital, print-based, or mixed 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.


Use templates as a jumping-off point: 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 mixed model that can be used as a guidance for districts with limits on teachers’ availability to work.

Try to provide both real-time support and independent work: 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.


Ensure sufficient and consistent opportunities to use language: 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, maximize adult-to-child interaction and think expansively about assigning all adults a caseload of students. For example, think in new 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.


Start small and build from there. 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.

Equity Consideration: Consider the needs of students who were most significantly impacted by shelter-in-place first when building your schedule. Provide additional access to families who may not be able to provide home support, tech access or a quiet place to work.


Additional Resources

Communicate Plans

How do we inform, listen to, and engage families?


The Why
During remote learning. families, teachers, and administrators must work together as a team. Now more than ever, communication between schools and families needs to be two-way— not  just one-directional. Investing in a thoughtful communication plan will: support authentic and collaborative family and educator partnerships, strengthen family engagement in children’s learning, reduce stress and confusion, and improve student outcomes during closure.


The How

A comprehensive communications plan will be a great asset to you. If you are short on time and resources, we suggest six key items to focus on as well as additional considerations and sample letters to kick-start your planning process. When you are ready to dive deeper, leverage the resources in the Tools section. 

Six Key Items: 

  • Update your website. Make sure your website has your most up-to-date information and links to recommendations from the CDC and other pertinent local authorities. 
  • Have sample letters ready. To be nimbler in responding to changing circumstances, pre-write letters that you can use in case of a sudden school closure, a local outbreak, or a return to campus. (See samples below.)
  • Ask families about their plans. Send a survey to families to find out whether they are planning to keep their students remote or have them attend on-campus schooling in the fall. Based on this information, communicate to families their options within your district or LEA.
  • Ensure accessibility. Use multiple modalities, languages, and formats to reach caregivers in their native languages. Consider including phone, text, social media, or in-person communication at pick-ups. 
  • Know who has received the information. Create a system for tracking who has received information. This can include a “read receipt” on emails, robocalls, or a personal phone call from a staff member or volunteer.
  • Check for understanding. Solicit feedback to see whether 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 stakeholders. Use surveys strategically to gain insights.

Other Considerations: 

  • Know what, when, and how often you will share information.
  • Be clear and concise during times of heightened stress. Offer links to trusted public health resources but focus on information relevant to the operation of your schools and the well-being of children. Families are receiving a lot of general communication from different sourcesmake yours relevant. 

  • Streamline communication with families. Compile information in consistent messages sent at the same time and in the same way each week. Ensure consistency within your school (this includes teachers sending messages to families in one agreed-upon way to eliminate additional stress for families with multiple children). 

  • Be explicit about what is mandatory and what is optional. When providing resources, prioritize social-emotional health and wellness. Aim to inform, not overwhelm, and to offer places where people can learn more rather than pushing it all out at once.

  • Be open with families and stakeholders. Share what you know, how you made decisions, and what you are still deciding. Honesty will help build trust even if you are telling people things that don’t make them happy. 

  • Review your communication systems. Make sure your communication systems can be deployed quickly to reach families immediately in emergency situations, such as unforeseen school closures during spikes in COVID-19 cases. 

  • Seek input and build partnership. Key “mantras” related to family engagement still apply:

    • Caregivers are capable and want to help their children regardless of their backgrounds.

    • Caregivers are their children’s first teachers and are experts on their children.

    • Caregivers have insights that are important for us to understand.

When you are ready to dive deeper into developing your communication plan, consider this planning tool from CCEE and WestEd.


Sample Letters

Equity Consideration: As you look at your communication plan and messages, make sure you have provided information in various languages and through various channels to ensure information is shared to all with opportunities for feedback. Remember, communication is a way to give information, offer support, and check in on needs—so it should be two-directional.


Additional Resources


How do we efficiently identify needs to inform support?


The Why
As students are working remotely, we must keep an eye on what they are learning and where they are stuck. Assessments allow the teaching team and all stakeholders to understand what students need, what is being learned, and where resources need to be focused. Additionally, distance learning puts a spotlight on the lack of equity among the different home learning environments. By leveraging thoughtful assessments, schools can direct resources where they are needed most.


The How: 

While students are fully remote and cannot come to campus, data can be a critical tool to connect what students have done and what they need.

This alternative assessments tool was created by the San Diego County Office of Education to support districts and schools in identifying, collecting, and monitoring data points critical to distance learning. The metrics focus on the following essential categories:

  • access to distance learning curriculum

  • support for family and student well-being

  • engagement in learning

  • access to social-emotional learning and support

  • communication structures and processes

  • mitigating learning loss 


  • Well-being and safety. Learning cannot take place until students feel safe. Intake surveys and wellness questionnaires can be very powerful tools to help you gain insight into students’ connection to peers, relationships with adults, and overall emotional health. (More about this can be found in the SEL section.) 

  • Equity and access to resources. Some students have been disproportionately impacted by distance learning. To determine student and teacher needs with access and equity in mind, consider conducting surveys on what students have access to during distance learning. Pivot and Unbound Ed developed a great Equity Toolkit to increase equity in your community with some ready-to-use surveys and tools. 

  • Academic learning and progress. By using thoughtful assessments, schools can accelerate learning by focusing resources where they are needed most. Below are considerations for how to rethink assessments when learning is offsite. 

    • Start with what you have and build from there: Teacher knowledge, pre-closure test scores, surveys, past distance learning work, formative assessments, and online curriculum data are all important for understanding what students know and need to learn. 

    • Remember, helpful assessments don’t have to be in the form of tests. Writing samples, projects, collaborative work, or even brief verbal check-ins can give timely information about student comprehension and progress toward their learning goals. 

    • Consider one-on-one conferences to assess reading comprehension, progress, and gaps.

    • Be mindful not to continuously add new assignments for a distance learner who is far behind, as without support they will most likely give up.

Equity Consideration: Look for data on which students did not have access, which became caregivers themselves, which experienced loss, etc. Be intentional about breaking data down by your various subgroups to uncover potential pockets of greater need, including At-Promise Youth, Socially/ Economically Disadvantaged families, Special Populations, Homeless families, Foster youth, and LGBTQIA+ students.


Additional Resources

Trauma-Informed SEL

How do we best support students' social-emotional well-being?


The Why
Emotional safety is the foundation for all learning and success. The pandemic has caused widespread trauma (personal, vicarious, collective, and historical), heightening the need for trauma-informed SEL to care for ourselves, our students, and their families. Because our communities have experienced trauma to various degrees, we must first address Maslow before focusing on Bloom. Students need to feel connected to school and caring adults—especially when they are remote. 


The How

During these difficult times, it will be critical for LEAs to develop trauma-informed crisis response systems that are particularly sensitive to the emotional needs of families, students, and staff. Some thoughts to consider:

  • Every kid, every day. Think about creative ways to leverage all staff to maximize adult-to-child interaction. For example: think in new, expansive ways about who, among all adults that typically work in schools, could be assigned to groups of students for regular check-ins and follow-up.

  • Connection comes first. Prioritize maintaining connection with students via text, phone, live video, small groups, or one-on-ones, leveraging adults with strong existing relationships with students. Creating space for informal conversation and fostering connection among peers are critical for addressing 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.

  • Develop a clear referral or extra support plan. Work with the counseling department and outside providers to be responsive to students’ needs. Consider establishing video-conference social groups or counseling groups.

  • Plan for dealing with loss. Consider what you will do to deal with loss of school community members. Work with counseling staff on how to handle commemorations, memorial activities, and permanent marker establishment, if allowed. Determine how memorial activities will strike a balance among honoring a loss, resuming school activities and class routines, return to schedules, and maintaining hope for the future.

  • Provide families with information on services available at school and beyond. Work with all staff to identify families who need extra support. Reach families who require urgent attention weekly (or more often, as needed). 

  • Offer an employee support plan to address staff SEL needs. Support staff members experiencing secondary trauma or compassion fatigue. Reach out to your community-based organizations and partners to make sure psychological supports for staff are available.

Additional trauma-informed SEL practices include:

  • Create predictable routines during class time.
    • Open each class period with a welcoming activity or routine. This will build (or re-build) the community and helps connect students to each other and the work. Examples include: morning circles and interactive whole-group greeting activities. 
    • Close each video session in a special way that leaves students feeling positive. Examples include: one-minute celebrations and reflections on learnings.
  • Prioritize connection and building strong and supportive relationships.
    • Create opportunities to listen to and learn about each other. 
    • Consider using staff from various programs to ensure every student has a caring adult connection every day. 
  • Offer opportunities to share experiences and process emotions.
    • Allow for and normalize spoken and written emotional expression.
    • Read and discuss current events (medical developments, social responses to the virus, etc.) as a way for students to receive factual information as well as to talk and process emotions.
  • Empower students and build agency. Helping is shown to decrease stress and anxiety and give students a sense of agency. Assign projects in which students get to become helpers. Helping can include making a video teaching a math concept, recording a book for younger students, or making thank-you cards.
  • Help provide closure. Offer students an opportunity to reconnect and create a sense of closure regarding the previous school year through journaling or writing letters to their former classmates or teachers. 

Equity Consideration: Identify ways in which equity, social-emotional learning, and academic development can reinforce each other rather than being pursued separately.


Additional/Actionable Resources

Capacity Building

How do we best support teachers and staff?


The Why
Teachers and support staff are on the front line of distance learning. For many, this moment of distance-learning may feel like they are back to their first year of working with students. Remember that they too are dealing with living in unprecedented pandemic times and may be caring for their own children and family members at home. Making sure they have access to tools, training, and supports is essential. By ensuring they have access to counseling and 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 learn and grow from the experience.


The How

Strong staff support plans will provide personal support, best-practices sharing, and continuous professional development with mandatory and opt-in forums for learning.

  • Acknowledge the depth of mindset and practice shift this will require of teachers. Veteran teachers will feel like novices again, tried-and-true practices for student engagement may not 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 about the type of training they need.

  • 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 distance-learning context and require creativity from teachers. Provide examples of new ways of supporting language use remotely, such as multi-mode instruction (e.g., video, audio, and slides).

  • Given regulations about the amount of time teachers are required to be home when they present with symptoms, substitute teachers may be needed more often than before. Make sure your current policies do not limit the amount of days a substitute can work for you. 
  • Offer scripted protocols to help teachers facilitate online meetings to optimize engagement. Anticipate that it will take a while to get the kinks out.

  • Foster a community of support among peers. Build processes for collaborative learning, peer sharing, and iteration as teachers adapt to distance learning instruction. Develop best practices by seeking out peer collaboration and connection with someone in a similar role but different context.

Equity Consideration:  As teams move from emergency distance learning to intentional distance learning, make the time to review equity issues staff members have encountered and develop culturally responsive strategies for the work ahead. 


Additional Resources

English Learners

How do we put English Learner needs at
the center of our instructional plans?


The Why
In California, more than a third of our students live in homes where the primary spoken language is one other than English. English language learners have been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic by losing English language exposure and supports that assist both language development and the ability to learn subject matter content. 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

This playbook was written with EL best practices in mind for all content, including schedules and materials. Language proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking must be considered when designing remote-learning plans. Overall, we recommend prioritizing activities that emphasize social connection, such as reading with families and peer interaction, over decontextualized skill-building exercises 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. Additionally, they do not generally help build language proficiency.)


To fully support English learners and their families, we suggest the following guidance created in partnership with Ensemble Learning.


Academic Support: 

    • Prioritize language learning in schedule and curriculum decisions.

      • Language proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking must be considered as schedules are designed for on-campus and off-campus learning. 

      • Present new instruction in multiple modes (video, synchronous instruction, audio, or slides), with graphic organizers, to aid comprehension.

      • When curating content, use videos with closed captions or subtitles when possible.

      • Be sure to consider how and when integrated ELD and designated ELD supports will be provided. 

      • Carry out continuous assessments and adapt curriculum as students’ language proficiency levels change.

      • Check whether the curriculum you are using now has an online or tech-enabled component. If not, consider purchasing a vetted, research-based curriculum that offers distance learning opportunities.  

      • Ensure students have access to grade-level appropriate materials in addition to learning level materials 

      • Distribute tutorials and guides describing how to access translation extensions or apps such as Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, and Microsoft’s Immersive Reader.

      • Provide instructional materials that demonstrate an understanding of students’ cultures. 

    • Create opportunities to use 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 include: discussing a book, teaching content, reviewing instructions, modeling process, checking student wellness, discussing current events.

      • Create a system to provide students opportunities to interact with peers and practice basic interpersonal communication skills  (e.g., chats, comments on assignments, virtual meetings, group activities).

Family Support:

  • Honor home languages. Encourage caregivers to continue using their home language to talk, read, discuss texts, and help their children with schoolwork. (Suggestions and resources for this can be found below.) 

    • Emphasize to families that working on materials in their native language is not just acceptable, it is encouraged. 

    • Validate caregivers’ value and commitment to their children’s learning in whatever format makes them most comfortable and engaged. 

    • Assign students an “online tech buddy” who shares the same home language.

    • When possible, offer core curriculum in the home language. 

  • Provide information and tools. 

    • Send books home with students to foster literacy-rich environments. 

    • Provide resources for families not just for what to teach, but also how to teach

  • Build a village of support

    • Coordinate an adult (teacher or another adult the student knows well) to regularly check in with families. If you have an EL specialist, free some of their time to check in on off-campus students. Send caregivers messages at least once a week to ensure they feel supported during distance learning. (Apps such as TalkingPoints can help teachers communicate with caregivers in their home language.)

    • Consider hosting a virtual family night to introduce the new hybrid learning format and suggest practical ways families can support students with language learning at home. Consider hosting weekly evening “fireside chats” for families to gather and connect with one another and their teachers.

    • Offer to add additional caregivers to communication to eliminate barriers and gaps.

    • Consider setting up peer-to-peer (caregiver-to-caregiver) connections to ensure families do not feel alone or disconnected from learning.

Equity Consideration: Understand culture and elevate home languages as students spend time learning from home. Doing so both honors families and increases parent and caregiver connection to school. 


Additional Resources

Special Education

How do we effectively serve students with
disabilities in a distance-learning model?


The Why
There are 7.5 million special education students in the US affected by COVID-19 school changes. The burden of change has fallen disproportionately on students with greater needs, and they merit more focus and attention. Moreover, 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 California 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 for serving 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 be convened remotely with family involvement and should be scheduled whenever possible.

    • Train personnel to provide remote support. Train personnel on options for delivering services and supports to students during virtual learning, including FERPA considerations. Specialized service providers such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists 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 distance 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.

    • Put the most at-risk first. Rally teams of teachers and social workers to focus on the needs of your most at-risk students and develop a plan for them first.

    • Monitor engagement and attendance. Involve everyone in your school community— from school leadership to the front desk receptionists—in your efforts to monitor and encourage engagement and attendance. Leverage whomever individual students have close relationships with, not just their classroom teachers.

    • 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.

    • Work with caregivers. Connect with and support caregivers directly and train them in how to support their students in accessing the online curriculum. The modifications will have to be implemented in the home as opposed to in the classroom.

Equity Consideration: Leverage technology and remote learning in ways that don’t mistake equal treatment for ensuring equity. 


Additional Resources

Support Programs

How do we holistically leverage
ancillary programs to support families?


The Why
There’s a great deal of benefit in leveraging all available resources to support student learning and well-being—and in the current crisis, it’s more important than ever. When kids are fully remote and cannot come to campus, it is imperative to lean on the vast world of online and community-based resources that can help support students, staff, and families.


The How

  • Address needs collaboratively. While each region is different, most schools are facing challenges in four big areas: child care, academic support, nutrition, and mental health. 
  • Leverage the County Office of Ed. Partner with your County Office of Education to make sure mental health referrals and food security options are tapped into and made available to your families. Think expansively about support 
      • Lean on your local continuation program, which should have experience with distance learning.
      • Discover online classes that are available to you, such as UC Scout, which offers free A-G approved courses for California schools. 
      • Lean on partners like youth-serving CBOs (such as YMCA), after-school program providers, city or county recreation agencies, and libraries. Many are offering fully remote enrichment activities, such as 4-H At Home.
  • Plan collaboratively with community organizations
      • Inventory needs. Create a list of highest-priority needs your students have that could be supported by CBOs and after-school providers (such as outreach to disconnected students, family engagement, supervision, enrichment,  interviewing families about needs and tech issues, meal distribution, drop-off/pick-up).
      • Create a clear list of services. Use this inventory to make a clear list of services you need partners to support. 
      • Create a clear plan and timeline with partners. invite selected CBOs into the planning dialogue for summer and fall. The earlier community partners are involved in planning, the clearer each party can be about roles and expectations, making implementation of plans much smoother (as opposed to creating plans and then informing partners of their role).
  • Leverage CBOs’ flexibility and relationships to the community. Work with CBOs to get creative and meet kids, families, and schools where they are. CBOs across the state are eager to play a strong role in supporting students in every way they can, and stand ready to step in and play complementary roles in partnership with schools. CBO staff are often from the same communities as the children they serve, and bring invaluable relationship assets which are critical to keeping kids connected to school. They can broker a range of support resources to students and their families.

Resources for Families

Equity Consideration: Embrace a hive mentality and leverage service providers and community programs to expand the team available to your learners. Prioritize organizations that also embrace an equity mindset and have experience serving those who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.


Additional Resources