Legal Issues

8 Steps for Developing a Robust Plan for Distance Learning

Make sure your district is covering the legal basics as you develop your remote instruction efforts.

8 Steps for Developing a Robust Plan for Distance Learning

While plenty of school districts have had to hit the ground running to implement their distance learning regimens, make sure you're covering the basics in your plan so you're not blindsided when life returns to normal. Recently, Gretchen Shipley, partner at California-based law firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP (F3 Law), provided guidance on how to develop a robust plan that will stand up legally while also sustaining educators and staff as they transition to delivering instruction to students remotely. The talk was part of a presentation on "Classrooms in the Cloud," hosted online by CITE, California IT in Education.

Step 1: Assess Your Resources

That includes hardware, software and anything else needed to serve your student population, Shipley explained, including economically-disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English language learners. If your goal is delivering distance education, then that could encompass "a whole spectrum of options," she said. "On one end, the most focused and direct delivery method may be online instruction live. On the other end of the spectrum, it could be giving paper packets to take home."

Step 2: Inquire about Accessibility

Find out from your families what they have at home. Do they have devices? Do they have connectivity to the internet? As Shipley noted, in the state of California, like many states, schools are "obligated to provide our students with a free education." That means districts can't "compel our families to purchase internet or devices." As a result, your district can expect to spend its own funding to make sure there is that connectivity in your students' homes if that is needed. However, in providing equal access to students, it doesn't necessarily mean it has to be delivered through the same medium, she added. "As long as you're providing similar curriculum on paper as online, in most states that should still meet your goals and your requirements for equal access to all students."

Step 3: Procure What's Needed

Typically, as you go out to purchase the resources needed to provide equal access to all of your students, "you have to go through a fair and competitive process," said Shipley. However, there's also usually an emergency exception that allows districts to get around that requirement. "Many if not all school districts are in the process of declaring an emergency, if they have not already, and part of that emergency declaration can be the need to purchase emergency resources," she explained. Even so, she recommended, have the district business team review contracts being used to make those purchase, "for things like data privacy, term length, termination [and] insurance." Another aspect to consider as is to turn to your E-rate expert or consultant to find out whether the federal funding program would cover those purchases.

Step 4: Expect a Ramp Up

The longer your district delivers distance learning, the greater the expectations for filling in the gaps. One biggie here, according to Shipley, is delivery of internet access for homes that don't already have it. Two ideas worth considering: putting hotspots on school buses and parking them in neighborhoods where access is scant; and providing a web page and other communications to families about the organizations in your area that are helping to deploy free Wi-Fi. If there's equipment needed to make that work, be ready to jump in and provide it. Another biggie: Check in with families to see how they're managing and whether your distance learning plan needs to address new problems. Access may not be as all-encompassing as you thought; and families with students who have special needs may not be communicating their challenges.

Step 5: Identify Curriculum

Identify the curriculum you intend to use to deploy distance learning. While teachers are working with the curriculum and instruction teams, principals should focus on reviewing the contracts of the software companies providing the materials. "We need to make sure the content meets standards and is safe by having all the correct data privacy tools in place," Shipley explained. Also, down the road, individual states may request some kind of statement spelling out the learning resources used in a given school and the instructional time involved. For that reason, she suggested districts come up with some form of record-keeping to retain that information, even if the state doesn't "expressly" require it.

Step 6: Provide Training and Communicate

As user-friendly as software and devices can be these days, districts will still need to provide training to their staff, families and students on how to use them, said Shipley. As part of training staff especially, she advised keeping in mind that there could be "collective bargaining implications." She suggested bringing in "human resources or labor employment administrators to navigate that process." Also, make sure all along that you communicate your distance learning plans with your community--as well as your expectations.

Step 7: Put Process and Policies in Place

Run your hardware resource deployment by the book. "First and foremost, work with your county health department to determine what safety measures are needed and expected--gloves, masks, Clorox wipes," said Shipley. The process may also involve recording the condition of the devices going out and their serial numbers so that you can track them as they're returned to the school later on. Many districts are requiring families to sign an agreement that covers expectations of use, notices about recording and FERPA compliance. Also, she added, "Don't forget to evaluate your insurance coverage in case devices go missing or [get] stolen."

Step 8: Maintain IT Support

Make sure your "essential service" workers encompass the IT team, to continue providing support for staff and students. As Shipley pointed out, cyberattacks are on the rise. "Make sure your IT team is aware of that and can continue to provide a safe learning environment for your students."

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