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Delaware’s uneven long distance learning experience: “The wild, wild west”

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Mark Fowser
Mark Fowser
Mark Fowser is a veteran broadcast-journalist in Delaware and New Jersey. He has anchored and reported with WDEL, WHYY, Delaware1059, WILM and Delaware First Media (now Delaware Public Media). Mark lives in New Castle.

Isabel Lugar is a senior at Charter School of Wilmington

The plunge into remote learning for Delaware’s 140,000 students has been one of significantly varied experiences and different levels of success.

One education advocacy organization has released a new database that compiles and compares district and charter school distance learning plans, and they conducted a study of 250 students to get their feedback on what’s working and what’s now as students learn from home.

DelawareCAN (Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now) was formed just over three years ago as an advocacy group for Delaware students.

Their new database, comparing the distance learning plans each district and charter school submitted to the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE), reveals promising practices and stark differences in remote learning across the state.  

Kevin Winton is junior at Mount Pleasant High School

Of the 19 Delaware school district plans that were reviewed, only 10 (or 50%) expect their teachers to deliver real-time or recorded teaching to support students while learning at home. In contrast, in 17 of the 21 charter school plans DelawareCAN reviewed, there is an expectation of real-time or recorded teaching while schools are shut down. 


One of the most fascinating aspects of the study concerns the teaching of new material.

All 21 charter school plans indicated that new content would be taught to students, while only 7 of the 19 districts plan to teach new content until schools reopen. The school districts not teaching new materials are offering review and enrichment.

The lack of teaching new material in some districts also contributes to widening learning gaps.

“While students at Charter School of Wilmington have been moving forward with their curriculum since March 16th, and students at Eastside Charter School or New Castle County Vo-tech are progressing to new content remotely, other students are inexplicably being asked to rinse and repeat over a two-month period,” said Atnre Alleyne, founding executive director of DelawareCAN. 


Charter and district school learning plans highlights:

• Start dates varied widely for remote learning — from as early as March 8th for some charter schools and academies and as late as April 19th in the Indian River School District

• Charter schools are much more likely that districts to provide real-time or recorded instruction for students while schools are shut down.

• Students in Delaware charter schools are much more likely to be taught new academic content remotely than students in school districts.

• More than half of Delaware’s districts and charters had specific expectations for teacher outraech to students and their families while schools are shut down.

• The majority of districts have not publicly communicated specific plans for supporting parents with the transition to distance learning.

Allison Shaw is a senior at Mt. Pleasant High School

DelawareCAN also surveyed 250 students to get their impressions of the success or failures of remote learning.

Highlights of student survey:

• Some students feel they are getting a lot of work with little instructional support

• Students are thirsting for more interaction and engagement in their classes 

• Many students hide their faces from Zoom meetings
• Fewer students respond to teachers or speak up when asked to chime in

• Students want school leaders to create opportunities for them to connect with peers

• Students’ mental health and overall well-being warrant more attention

Students gathered recently for a Facebook Live event hosted by DelawareCAN to talk about their experiences with distance learning.


Their viewpoints were mixed: some appreciated the flexibility of schedules, some felt they were getting more work than ever before, but some questioned whether they were really learning.

Mya Brown of Newark Charter School said the transition has actually been helpful.

“This time has given me a lot of time to think about how I was just going through the motions with school, and so this has really allowed me to take control of my learning,” Mya said.

“The Wild, Wild West”

During the early weeks of distance learning, DelawareCAN set out to gather information on the plans of schools and school systems: how would they continue instruction while students are scattered? When would they start? How would they do it?

It was a time that DelawareCAN Founder and Executive Director Atnre Alleyne likened to “the Wild, Wild West.”

According to DelawareCAN’s findings, some districts started their distance learning plans during the first few days that schools were closed. One district – Indian River in Sussex County – had not officially started with distance learning until April 20.  Also, charter schools were more likely than school districts to be teaching new academic content as opposed to “review and enrichment,” and to offer access to live or recorded teacher-led instruction.


DelawareCAN reported that nearly all districts and charter schools surveyed their families to identify their technology needs. In the case of Eastside Charter School, a partnership with NREDiT NOW raised $40,000 dollars to ensure that every student who needed a laptop received one.

In those districts that offered access to teachers, Zoom was often the technology of choice.

Through its own Zoom conferences and Facebook Live events, DelawareCAN set about trying to determine how distance learning was working.

This freshman at Charter School of Wilmington sets up her remote learning wherever’s most comfortable

Students provide mixed feedback: “It’s just a lot of work.”

 “When you talk to students they said, ‘I’ve gotten this work that I have to do and I’m trying to learn but I have to do a lot of it on my own,’” Alleyne said. “Some were feeling that even though they’re getting work, they don’t feel like it’s the work that’s getting them to the next level of readiness.”

Another student said this:

“It’s just a lot of work. The teachers are literally just giving us work and saying, ‘here, learn it.’ The teachers, they don’t really teach us… It’s just a lot of work and I kind of hate it.”

Students also indicated that home circumstances such as parents who work and having siblings to take care of add to the stress of learning in a new way.

Said another student:

“I am going to have to take care of my brothers more and help them out, be on top of their work and make sure they are fed and like showering, and all these other things too on top of everything that I have to do…that’s a little bit stressful to think about.”


A learning curve for teachers

The transition has involved a learning curve for teachers as well as students, according to New Castle County Vo-Tech School District Superintendent Dr. Joe Jones. Jones participated in DelawareCAN’s Facebook Live discussion April 22nd.

“We have instructional technology coaches who have been working tirelessly with our teachers – obviously some are more adept than others but in a case like auto body a lot of the curriculum is online,” Jones said.

A major part of the Vo-Tech educational experience has also been compromised because of the need to learn remotely. The cooperative employment program for senior year students offered work opportunities during the school year for 75-to-80 percent of the senior class. Some of them are currently not employed because of the economic slowdown.

“It’s a major concern. We think as New Castle County Vo-Tech, we’re bridging high school into employment,” Jones said.  “We’re building the next workforce.”


Monitoring needs to continue

DelawareCAN plans to compile more results of its survey of students and parents about the online learning experience so far. Additionally, Alleyne said matters such as parent engagement and support, accommodations and services for students with special needs and the myriad of questions that face this year’s graduating class are ongoing matters of study.

DelawareCAN hosts community meetings – virtually – each Thursday. Interested Delawareans may find out more at www.delawarecan.org

Mya Brown, meanwhile, hopes the dialog – which has drawn school administrators, elected officials and others – continues long after the learning experience returns to the actual classroom.

“This (the DelawareCAN student voice event) is really showing us that we need to keep students at the table. The top people are looking to students for advice, and that should be going on all the time.”

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