Opportunities and Challenges in Using Online Learning to Maintain Continuity of Instruction in K–12 Schools in Emergencies

by Heather L. Schwartz, Faruque Ahmed, Jennifer T. Leschitz, Amra Uzicanin, Lori Uscher-Pines

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BACKGROUND: Distance learning provides a way to continue instruction in emergencies and can support social distancing. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, prolonged school closures can occur with little warning. Lessons learned from prior prolonged school closures can inform much-needed planning for future ones. In the 2017 hurricane season, more than 1,000 schools in the United States experienced closures lasting 10 or more days. Yet, despite the rapid expansion of online instruction, little is known about schools' use of it in public health and other emergencies. METHODS: In 2017-2018, we conducted 13 focus groups and 11 interviews with school practitioners to identify promising practices, barriers, and facilitators for distance learning in emergencies. RESULTS: We found few examples of use of distance learning during emergency school closures in 2017. While there are significant barriers to offering distance learning in an emergency, schools that already offer online learning prior to an emergency are best equipped to continue instruction during closures for some types of emergencies. CONCLUSIONS: Additional efforts could enhance preparedness for distance learning in K--12 schools in the framework of all-hazards preparedness.

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