student doing remote learning

“You don’t need to see my face to learn.” That’s what I said to kids who “disappeared” for long school absences. “We can do this remotely.”

I discovered something–with a little advanced thinking, remote teaching can work. In the beginning, I asked students to check in via email when they could. Meanwhile, I’d send notes, attachments, “executive summaries,” and anything I thought would keep them current.

I’d adapt, change up, and ask them to strike out and do some research and personalized learning on their own and report back.

It worked.  Students weren’t lost when they returned–whether it was for a day or two or a hospitalization.

Every teacher should develop a remote teaching plan. It won’t just help an individual kid, it’ll keep your class up to date for all sorts of other reasons, too.

Remote teaching keeps everyone up to date

In the beginning of my career, I was all about attendance. I’d hunt kids down.

I’ve gone to homes, bribed students to give up the locations of their school-skipping friends, and Skyped no-shows right into their class.

But sometimes students have other things in their lives that keep them from being physically present–family trips, obligations, illnesses, and other things that are important to them and their families.

We can do one of two things–judge and punish students, who often don’t have control over when flights to see their grandma overseas will be cheapest or whether their parent (who will get fired if they miss work) needs them to babysit a younger sibling in a pinch–or, we can teach them.

I chose to teach.

“You can be absent,” I told them, “as long as you check in.” I said it didn’t change school attendance policies, but they could get the work done.

“Calling in” worked so well that if I didn’t email back right away, they’d text their friends to hunt me down. That was even better. “Tell him…”  I had to do even less work.

You might be thinking, “This teacher’s insane telling students they can be absent.”

Let me be clear–I wasn’t giving them carte blanche permission to be out. They were going to be out anyway. I was simply saying, “Learning will continue.”

And it did.

Often, I asked kids about attendance problems–because an attendance problem is a symptom of bigger things, from serious family problems to homelessness or instability. Those are reasons to act, and quickly.

But by creating a remote teaching plan, I took away fear, judgement, and reasons to lie.

And guess what? I trained them for higher-end jobs with flex time and remote work.

This shift increased grades, taught professionalism, and kept students up to date. We did all this without a single school-issued device, with kids in a Title I (low-income) school.

All it took was a little flexibility.  “Got email?” Good. “Don’t have email? Well, here’s a quick rundown of the next two weeks, do this instead, and come back ready to share out your thoughts.”

There are a thousand reasons why school “can’t” do this… “We don’t have tech, we don’t have internet, my students don’t have devices or wifi at home.”

That may be true. And younger students (I was high school) can’t just “call in,” but, with a little creative thinking and having systems in place, even young students can do remote learning.

…Successful adults are working remotely

In 2012 I took a remote job with a Silicon Valley company. I didn’t meet my team in person for nearly two years, yet we worked well together. Since then, I’ve worked with people from all over the world.

More and more jobs are going remote. If high-level companies, freelancers, and contract employees can be remote, schools can rethink attendance, too.

Let’s rethink the “excused absence.”

Many schools categorize attendance. Kids without doctors notes are “unexcused,” or worse, truant.  The note from a parent no longer works in this system. If a student doesn’t need to go to the doctor, or worse–can’t–they may not be able to make up work. Grades suffer.

Teacher attendance policies are getting stricter, too, even for teachers with sick days available to them.

This can be downright dangerous.

I had one student who was sick for weeks.

“Go to the doctor,” I said.

“Miss,” he said. “The only way I’ll get to the doctor is if I’m dead. And even then, my mom’ll wait an extra three days to see if I rise up like Jesus Christ. She can’t take the shift off unless it’s really important.”

A trip to the doctor costs $100-200 for an uninsured or underinsured family. Add in the day’s lost pay.  Many times, the trip isn’t necessary. There’s nothing a doctor can do for the average flu or virus. They say, fluids and rest.”

Forcing people to get a doctor’s note regardless of whether treatment is needed does a few things: First, it says “We don’t trust you” to parents and employees. Second, it encourages people to work or attend school sick because they can’t go for a note. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Third, if they do go for an unnecessary visit, they expose everyone they meet along the way.

Today, with flu and Covid, public health officials are telling people to stay home and  (you guessed it!) check in remotely.

Schools and workplaces are saying “If you’re sick, stay home,” but as long as policies punish them, they won’t. Attendance is now factored into school ratings in my state, so it’s become even stricter.

I went to a grad school class for a week with walking pneumonia because “no one misses this class.” I didn’t know until later people get quarantined for such things.

Do you need to be in school to learn?

Yes… and no.

The research says kids who do not attend school are at higher risk for a ton of bad things. However, most of the research is about kids who are truly absent. “Remote learning” is not “absent.” It’s guided learning.

Done well, remote learning works. We know this because there are entire K-12 alternative schools online, and many people even get degrees without ever looking at their professor. On a micro-level it was a game changer for many of my students.

Redefining attendance and being flexible doesn’t just work for flu season. I’ve used it as a Plan B for snow days, if I was away for a conference, home sick or to stop “summer slippage” and even continue classes–for no credit–into the summer for interested students.

The Real World is going remote–only schools are left behind

If businesses can use email, Slack, Google, messaging apps, Telegram, Signal, text, video chat, Zoom conferencing, group documents, and project management software (Asana and Basecamp are free), schools can too.

The bonus here is teaching these communication flows and productivity tools is teaches students how to work in the professional workspace.

Tips for teaching remote

Planning a good remote teaching strategy depends on the goals, the resources you have available, and the age group.

I had high school kids. I used a simple “check in” flow using email in the beginning. As the tech built out, I had access to Google Classroom, too.

I’ve created embedded documents with multimedia resources, sent PDFs of my own online lesson plans, and often adapted assignments based on what a student said they could do remotely.

It used to be that many kids didn’t have internet. Today that number is lower than you might think. Ask this, “How often do you check your Tik Tok, Snap, or Instagram?” If an older kids gives an answer, they have enough internet to get your email. If no, you make another plan.

For younger students, that requires having parents check in or having a work-station or site where work is available on demand and ahead of time.

Use email or Google Classroom

If your school has Google Classroom make it your default remote flow.  Teach students to check there first. You may even add “If you are out” to the bottom of the post. This keeps you from needing to send an email, and students can submit work if appropriate.

Have a Plan B

When students can’t access the internet, have a Plan B takeaway. This can be, a set of critical objectives or questions for each unit or simply, “Practice this.”

Try using a section of the board that says, “If I am absent this week, I will…” and put a long-response question, research item, or practice assignment, customized by unit. Students can copy down that bullet point wherever they keep their assignments.

Make a YouTube channel

You’ve always wanted to be a YouTube star, haven’t you?

Give YouTube a try for class. Go on your webcam, teach some math, and do it again tomorrow.  Tell kids you’ll be posting there on days class is canceled, that they can watch the video.  This works for blended and flipped learning classes while you’re together, too, and provides a place for you to let kids re-watch things they didn’t understand.

Use (or create) a website

Again, a wonderful option if you don’t have Google Classroom. It’s how I started building my catalog of resources. I wrote articles, put online course material, and posted my own content for all the courses I taught. I never took it down–I left it there for the universe to enjoy and linked to it later when we got Google Classroom.  It’s still there today, I just stopped paying for the ad-free option through WordPress, which I highly recommend you use for any WordPress site you build.

Give work ahead of time

If you know there’s going to be a storm, pep rally, or any class-canceling event, you can give the work ahead of time. This helps to keep multiple classes on track.

You can also have a treasure trove of ready-to-go passion projects that don’t need much prep.  Plan one for each unit you’re teaching so work is close to what would’ve been happening in the classroom, and you’ll only have to debrief students for a minute when they return.

I found it wasn’t important that students did exactly what we did in class, but that they were practicing their skills without a break. Often, students who were absent did more work than I asked.

Putting this in the regular flow

Whether your whole school shuts down for a storm or emergency, or a student has a planned vacation, you can keep on track if everyone’s on the same page.

Create an “absent policy” for yourself and students.

Doing this let me keep kids up to date–and even teach class when I was out sick or for a conference. It was a game changer. This isn’t just for Covid closures, it teaches best-practices for remote work, a trend many of them will be likely to experience in the future.


Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash