During the COVID-19 outbreak, schools across the country have had to adapt to ensure that students keep learning and getting the education they need. Since closures that began in March, schools have had to quickly adapt curricula so they are accessible to students completely through distance learning. Distance learning, also known as remote learning or distance education, is learning that doesn’t require students to attend classes in-person in a classroom. Rather, classes and educational materials are accessed over the internet in various ways.

“Distance learning can be useful,” says Haley-Rose Smith, a Yellow Wood Academy special education teacher. “It lets students learn in an environment they are already comfortable in (their homes), and because they are more relaxed, they can learn better. There can also be more autonomy in learning — students can feel like their learning has meaning. For instance, the younger generation that grew up with tech, they tend to have a leg up on their teachers because they have that tech knowledge — so they get to teach us at times, which really builds their confidence.”

Distance learning can take several different forms and be adapted, according to what is best for a class or appropriate for a particular student.

Adapting curricula 

Smith views the challenge of adapting curricula to distance learning as an opportunity to redirect her students.

“We play more games,” she says. “We think of strategies to get them outside when they can because right now, they can’t go outside as much. We just want to make sure they get to be kids during this time.”

Smith uses technology to adapt how she teaches. She uses Google Forms to send out multiple-choice questionnaires or quizzes for her students. She uses Google Docs to work on documents at the same time as her students do. All student calendars at her school, Yellow Wood Academy, have been updated to include links to all classes, so that students’ schedules were able to transition rather seamlessly, from in-person learning to distance learning.

Different needs according to age groups

Smith says that with her older students, it’s more straightforward to adapt her lesson plans with them because there are naturally already more discussion-based activities when teaching older students. Smith says that teaching younger students requires more new content or lesson plans for her to create.

“For secondary students, distance learning is easier for them because they are capable of a lot of independent work,” says Smith. “It’s harder for primary students, who are still developing foundational skills.”

She says that project-based or activities-based work is a successful way she has been engaging primary students.

“One day, we made musical instruments with glass jars — by filling waters at multiple levels,” says Smith. “We learned about sound waves that way.”

Overcoming the challenges

While distance learning offers opportunities for innovation and hands-on learning, there are some drawbacks that must be creatively managed.

Taylor Anderson, guidance counselor at Yellow Wood Academy, has found that while some students are struggling with the loss of the social aspects of their education, others are benefiting from this unique experience, because it’s opened the door for educators to get creative when it comes to helping students connect.


“Our goal is to create many social opportunities and see what sticks,” Anderson says. “We have student hangout lounges once a day for 20 minutes, we’ve re-opened several clubs for one day a week. We’ve had online virtual career fairs with dog trainers, writers, and visual set designers. This week we will have a performer and speaker who appeared on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and gave a Ted Talk on accepting who you are. Keep brainstorming and get creative. We’ve had plenty of ‘failed’ experiments, but were able to find success with a little tweaking here and there.”

Monica Price Cohen has two school-aged kids. Her daughter is a high school sophomore in the Seattle Public Schools and her son is a sixth-grader at Yellow Wood Academy. She admits that while she’s seen great efforts from many of her kids’ teachers to keep classes going, there are some limitations with distance learning, primarily the lack of socialization.

Anderson says that at Yellow Wood Academy, they’ve found that adding a bit of time before and after a class has helped.

“The in-person schooling experience is difficult to replicate,” Anderson says. “We’ve had success with in-class student hangouts. We give the option for students to join a separate student hangout near the end of class. Since students are already in class, it creates for a seamless transition to see their friends for a few minutes face to face.”

Learning in real time 

When class sizes are small enough, when students utilize teacher office hours, or when classes conduct class discussions, learning in real time — or synchronous learning — is a good way to maintain and build social connections, which can fall by the wayside with distance learning.

Price has seen this in action with both of her children. Both students have had to adapt to online-only learning over the past month, and often, it has resulted in creative ways of learning in real time.

“My son one day drove the science curriculum,” says Price Cohen. “He got a Fresnel lens. He wanted to show his teacher how to use it with the sun to start fire. He was figuring out how to show his teacher (on video chat). He was burning a little piece of wood with his Fresnel lens — and that wouldn’t have happened in a classroom environment. There, he would’ve taken his lens to school with him, and maybe talked about it. But because of distance learning, he was able to show his teacher his lens, and his teacher was able to teach him about how the lens worked.”

Smith also uses Google Hangouts with her students. She says that she and her students often screenshare during classes. Smith also says that if certain students are well supervised, then she also takes a creative approach to real-time distance learning.

“We go outside,” she says. “And we’re digging through the garden to look at worms to learn about worms. We do nature walks.”

Asynchronous learning

Often, synchronous learning is blended with asynchronous learning in distance education. Asynchronous learning is when students learn material at their own pace, on their own time. Older students tend to do better with asynchronous learning than younger students, as they are more independent.

Price Cohen’s daughter’s ceramics class has gone from a class that was done in real time to a class that is asynchronous — and the results have been very good in this particular case.

“My daughter’s ceramics teacher records herself once a week giving a lesson, which lets the students watch the video when they are ready,” says Price Cohen. “She also gives them a video of [professional ceramists] to watch.”

An assignment was done with homemade sculpting clay, from a recipe made using common household ingredients. Price Cohen’s daughter then recorded and took photographs of her sculpted work done at home and submitted it to her teacher.

Smith notes that while distance learning can be necessary for some students at certain times — such as during this pandemic or due to a student’s anxiety — she still believes that distance learning cannot take the place of in-person learning.

“I don’t see us going all out with it — remote learning — because you’re limited in giving the interaction that children really need to learn. They can’t do the same kind of learning online as they can in person.”

Founded 30 years ago, Yellow Wood Academy is a nonprofit K-12 school on Mercer Island that provides its students with individualized education. Our collaborative, accessible learning environment uniquely engages each student, embraces their potential and prepares them for their future.