As students return to school amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, school districts are using different models to balance instructional and safety needs ranging from fully in-person to fully remote with a spectrum of hybrid approaches in between. On this episode of Policy Outsider, Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies at the Rockefeller Institute, and Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Rockefeller Institute, highlight various instructional models and discuss how parents and caregivers can prepare for a school year of uncertainty. The discussion of parent strategies will focus on access to and effective use of technology, communicating with teachers and administrators, helping students develop socioeconomic and social skills in a nonstandard environment, and highlighting resources for parents who have children who are at home full- and part-time.


Brian Backstrom, Director of Education Policy Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Leigh Wedenoja, Senior Policy Analyst, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Alexander Morse  00:05

    Welcome to Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. Many kids, parents, teachers, and administrators are getting ready to go back to school. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, what does going back to school look like this year? Well, that’s uncertain.

    Alexander Morse  00:23

    And so for today’s episode, we’ve invited Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies, and Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst, both of the Rockefeller Institute to help us break down and understand some of the uncertainties and challenges of going back to school, as well as provide some tips that can help adjust to new learning environments. And a quick note, before we begin, we recorded today’s episode on Zoom, the video-teleconference software. So please bear with us for any minor technical sound quality issues, which do not distract from a great conversation coming up next. Today, I’m joined by Brian Backstrom, director of education policy studies, and Leigh Wedenoja of the Rockefeller Institute. Brian, Leigh, thanks for being here today.

    Leigh Wedenoja  01:38

    Thank you for having us.

    Brian Backstrom  01:39

    It’s great to be here.

    Alexander Morse  01:41

    As I mentioned at the top of the podcast, this school year is going to be unlike any other and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what schools are doing, will they have in-person or remote learning classes? And so I’d like to start with a little bit of background on what the different learning options are and what different states are doing.

    Leigh Wedenoja  01:59

    Sure. So one of the things that we’ve noticed coming into this is that there are really three options: Schools could have children in school full-time, schools could have students remote learning for full-time, or some combination of the two, either having kids in school part of the year, part of the week or having certain grades in school. What also is interesting looking at different states is that school calendars vary from state to state. So some states have already opened, whereas others are waiting to see what the initial layout of the situation is going to before they start.

    Brian Backstrom  02:38

    I think one thing that’s also interesting is there’s differences within those three categories. There’s differences in how not just states but school districts and even individual schools are approaching remote learning. There’s differences in how they’re constructing a hybrid model. And there’s even some differences and how individual schools are going about in-person learning in this tricky time.

    Alexander Morse  03:02

    Who gets to decide when schools get to open or close or what type of instruction model to follow?  There

    Brian Backstrom  03:08

    There are some general guidelines that the state will issue. For example, in New York, we have if your region has an infection rate of above 5%, then they’re going to go and revisit you. But it really is left to the individual school districts how to do it,. You’re going to experience an virus outbreak in an individual school and that school might close for two weeks. So there really is even a lot of variation in what school calendars are going to be like Leigh was saying or actually how it’s all going to roll out. So you basically you have states issuing general guidance of whether schools can and cannot open sometimes with a bright line about when they’ll have those. And then within that, the decisions are left to local school districts and sometimes even individual schools about how they want to approach things.

    Leigh Wedenoja  03:57

    I think this reflects largely the situation of education in general in this country, there are very broad federal standards then more specific state standards and requirements. And then within those, local school districts and schools get to decide how they want to run their schools in their classrooms. And that has filtered into how they want to deal with remote learning or hybrid learning in the wake of COVID. Interesting to see that states have responded differently with openings and with closings already in Georgia, we saw the Cherokee County Schools started by going back fully in-person only to have to start to pull it back. It started with a couple of kids sick and then they started closing one high school, then both high schools, and then pulling back even further. So that is an example of how you see this state specific, district specific, school specific response.

    Alexander Morse  04:53

    It sounds like there’s a ton of uncertainty. You were mentioning that there’s a federal level, a state level, right down to the individual school level. So parents and students and teachers alike are probably all over the place as to how to prepare for this. But I want to touch back on what you said about the hybrid models and that schools can do different types of instructional learning. Could you go over a few examples?

    Brian Backstrom  05:15

    I know, for example, the city of Newark is under a mandate that they start schools virtually. They don’t want kids there in-person with a classroom instructor in the same room. But one network of schools, I think it’s about a dozen schools or so decided that they needed the kids to come someplace where internet access was ensured and was reliable. And they also wanted to give their parent population the ability to go to work if they wanted to. So the way that they’re doing remote instruction is they’re having the kids actually come to the school, sit in the classrooms, they have the laptops, they have Wi-Fi access, and the teacher is beamed in doing remote. That’s one way I know that there are also other schools that are having the teachers come in and do remote from their classrooms so that the teachers can get the coaching and the support that they feel they need to make sure they’re delivering instruction effectively. Those are exactly opposite approaches, but again, both can be effective if they do it well and do it right. That’s just one example too, there’s many more.

    Leigh Wedenoja  06:24

    The second most common kind of hybrid learning is going to be where students are only in school certain days. So this would be a situation where in order to reduce density in classrooms and potential transmission, for example, third, and fourth graders would go in Tuesday and Thursday, and first and second graders would go in Monday, Wednesday, Friday. This would allow them to utilize more classroom space, keep kids physically distance from each other. And to decrease the load of kids on a bus, for instance, at any one time. We don’t talk about buses as much. But those are generally crowded, and places where kids are only half awake and maybe not distancing appropriately. They’re all also schools, again, who for to increase physical distance in their classes only have some grades coming back physically into the school. Generally younger grades who need more hands on learning, and who parents would need childcare for. Parents can generally work from home while their 14 year old is virtually learning but would need to be actively involved with a five or six year old. So that is an alternative for a hybrid model.

    Brian Backstrom  07:35

    And one of the things that we started out talking about is the uncertainty. And I think the examples we’re giving here is how this uncertainty is going to continue. And it’s going to continue for parents, it’s going to continue for some students. And one of the things that Leigh mentioned, when you had the staggered days, some kids coming in some days straight to effectively socially distance in the facilities that are available. That’s tricky for parents who need childcare, parents who have a job to be able to schedule certain days off rather than being at work during their normal work hours. So this is going to present challenges to everybody, not just schools, to parents, to kids, even to workplaces trying to accommodate all of these uncertainties that are going to roll out, people are going to find out what’s working better, and people are going to find out alternatives.

    Alexander Morse  08:22

    Following up on that, Leigh if you want to take this, what are some of the challenges that we expect to see moving forward?

    Leigh Wedenoja  08:28

    I think the biggest challenge is going to be for parents to balance work with their kids schooling, there’s a high likelihood that parents are going to end up with kids being pulled out of physical schooling or not being in physical schooling for part of the year. And they’re going to have to find a way to get childcare or to have their work schedule work from home to work around that. I think there are two situations that all parents should start preparing for now. One is what happens if schools physically close completely? How are they going to manage work with that? How are they going to manage their children’s remote learning? And what happens if there is an exposure at their school, in which case, if a child is exposed and then exposes their parents, that entire family is going to need to quarantine for two weeks. So parents need to be prepared now for how they’re going to deal with work, how they’re going to deal with grocery shopping, if they are exposed through their children’s school.

    Brian Backstrom  09:26

    And I think one of the things that that exposes too is how the local economies intersect and interweave with the operation of the schools. One of the things Governor Cuomo talked about when he was first rolling out this slow startup of the economy was that everything is interconnected. And if we’re going to open the economy, we need to know that we have to open up schools so that parents who are working can go to their jobs. And I think this is really the trickiest juncture that we’re at during the whole Coronavirus pandemic right now, our economy is slowly opening up. Now we have the big burden of opening up schools, and how are we going to do this to keep everybody safe?

    Alexander Morse  10:09

    Keeping everybody safe is the priority and the big challenge that all schools are facing, I want to talk more about some of the existing barriers in terms of providing in-person instruction or providing remote learning. One thing that comes to mind is access to the different types of technologies, something that maybe low-income schools can’t fully provide for their students. So what’s being done on this front so that we’re not widening the education gap?

    Brian Backstrom  10:37

    I think the trickiest thing that schools school districts parents and students are facing now is the at-risk population of students. And that involves a variety of kids. It involves kids who have individualized education plans or special education. It involves kids who are learning English as their second language and it involves a lot of low-income kids who simply don’t have the resources that are available. I don’t think that there’s probably ever been a sale of Chromebooks as high as we’ve seen across the country right now, as school districts and schools are rushing to get parents the technology they need. But even when you give a kid the laptop and the software that’s necessary to hook up, it really depends on whether they have access to the internet. We heard stories back in the spring of kids sitting outside on the curb outside of a McDonald’s because that’s the only place that they could get access in their neighborhood. And I think that we’re seeing some of that. Baltimore estimated that something like 60% of its school kids didn’t have adequate access to wireless technology. And so a neighborhood coalition formed, did some fundraising and started putting up wireless relay signals in the neighborhoods that they could. These are sort of stopgap measures, and I think they sort of expose a lot of the inequities. But I think one of the trickiest things that we’re going to see is adequately delivering effective education to our population of students that have special needs, whether it’s special education, low-income that they need to catch up, or English as a second language.

    Leigh Wedenoja  10:37

    We’re better prepared for certain aspects of the pandemic reduction and in-person learning, because in this country, we take a summer break. So we do know about what happens when kids are out of school for too long. And it is vulnerable students, as Brian said, who are English as a second language, who have individual education plans, or who have limited resources at home, who suffer the most from being out of school. So it is actually the districts that have the fewest resources who serve these populations, who are often pushing for return to in-class learning, because they are the ones whose students suffer the most when they’re out of school. I would like to mention that a lot of local libraries have really stepped up in improving their Wi-Fi access on the grounds surrounding the libraries. And libraries are still prevalent in rural areas in a way that these neighborhood associations are not. So that there is access in places that traditionally do not have broadband. One of the other things that is changing resource-wise and another equity concern is what happens when students are physically in the classroom, how supplies are used is different. Kids are not going to be able to share in the same way they have in the past, which means that every student is going to need their own supplies, their own crayons, their own markers, their own scissors, something that is not budgeted for. It’s going to be coming out of either the parents pocket or if the parents can’t afford it likely the teachers pocket.

    Alexander Morse  13:53

    Yeah, that certainly is a big challenge that might not be on the forefront of everyone’s mind. So thank you for bringing that up. Also thinking about students not being in the classroom or in the schools, there’s a non-instructional component to being in school like the socioemotional development of students, what’s at risk there if students are forced to do remote learning?

    Brian Backstrom  14:16

    The connection with teachers is really vital, particularly for kids in the younger grade. And particularly for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes it’s the most important adult connection that they have. And through Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, or whatever meeting instructional technology that the district is using, you lose a little bit of that. And it’s also potentially distracting for a child to be trying to learn in their house. You just don’t know what the situation is. In particular, if you have three different siblings that all go to different schools, all on different laptops at different times trying to get instruction, it’s going to be very tricky for parents to figure it out. And I do think there’s going to be some rollout here. But one of the things I think teachers are going to be learning most is how to make that connection, that that vital connection for their kids using technology, and they can do it. We’ve seen some very effective online learning, we’ve seen some very effective virtual classrooms. And I think it’s just going to take a little more time than people really want to allow it.

    Leigh Wedenoja  15:24

    There was a huge benefit in the spring, that when we pulled into fully remote learning, that students had already built relationships with their teachers, all of the technology struggles were nothing compared to the fact that students knew their teachers, they developed a classroom routine, they knew the other people in their classes, and they could leverage those relationships to move into a digital learning environment. We’re not going to have that in the fall. For a lot of these students, they’re going to have a new teacher or in middle school in high school, a set of new teachers that they’re going to have to try to build a relationship with remotely. I’m generally not a person who suggests watching a lot of YouTube videos. But teachers might really benefit from watching the YouTube videos that their students really like. Students, you know, follow these performers and build virtual relationships with them. And teachers can learn a lot about what helps build those relationships for the early stages of class. The critical time is the first month of school, that’s when you build relationships, that’s when you set expectations> High school students that start being truant in that first month are almost half as likely to graduate than other students. So we have this critical time period. And both teachers and parents need to get creative to make sure that their students are engaged with their remote learning teacher.

    Brian Backstrom  16:46

    We touched on a really important part, which is this truancy. And let’s just say absences and absence from schools. I think one of the things that school administrators really need to dedicate themselves to is dramatic student outreach. They need to make sure that these kids are making a connection. One of the things we saw this spring, when it sort of hit everybody unexpected was an incredible number of kids who just never even logged on in the given day. I think I saw a story about Los Angeles where they said about 40% of the kids didn’t log on. You saw similar thing in Philadelphia and we really need to combat that. Not only is it just like being absent from school, you’re not learning. But I think that it’s so easy to not log on, so easy to not connect that this, you’ll see it repeating itself if it’s not stopped early on. And so along with that first month of making the connection, you really do need to make sure that as a school you’re reaching out and as a parent, you need to make sure that your kid is logging on. And we’re gonna give this a go.

    Leigh Wedenoja  17:51

    And I think this circles back to these noncognitive and the socioemotional skills. We focus a lot on what that means for elementary school students who have not had time to sort of build how to be a good friend, how to share, how to delay gratification. But we also need to focus on the socioemotional skills for older students, a lot of which has to do with how to build a routine, how to be able to get up and get yourself motivated every morning, something that is much more difficult when you’re doing remote learning, and also something that we’ve traditionally measure through attendance and through tardies, so we’re also not going to be able to measure these effects in the same way anymore.

    Brian Backstrom  18:32

    One of the things that we’ve seen in the past that sort of helped engage students even online is the flipped classroom. We have heard a lot of talk about this, you know, maybe 10 years ago, where class time is really used for discussion and small group work and engaging your peers. And your off time is used to do homework. I think we’re going to see that evolve here. Now, with a lot of schools that are doing virtual instruction is you’re going to see that time used for classroom engagement. I think that’s a wonderful thing to do, and then use your out of classroom time for the regular lesson.

    Leigh Wedenoja  19:10

    I completely agree. When I taught statistics, I taught a semi-flipped classroom where half of class time was used for group project activities. And it was much more effective at teaching the concepts than me lecturing about curves all day ever could have been.

    Alexander Morse  19:28

    So building off of that, these sound like creative solutions to our current problem, what are some other ideas to what we’re facing?

    Leigh Wedenoja  19:28

    Talk to your kid’s teachers. Take the time to really learn what the classroom plan is and what the teachers ideally need from you as a parent to support your child getting the best possible learning experience that can seem difficult. Parents and teachers and students are all going to get frustrated, but you’ve got to remember that everyone is doing the best they can. And I think that’ll keep at everyone a little bit more saying going into the rest of the year.

    Brian Backstrom  20:04

    And I think from a school perspective, too, you need to be creative and flexible and adaptable. And if it’s not working to have the teachers come in and do remote instruction to the kids from the classroom, by flipping that around, try bringing the kids into the classroom have the teachers doing remote instruction, if you need to ensure things like children’s attention to the lessons, children’s presence, and access to technology, that might be one way to do it. And we’re seeing these pockets of innovation happening already. And I think you’re going to see the clockworks start spreading. But I want to emphasize too, what works in one school and one place isn’t going to work necessarily in another place. And we see that already, we see something like four-out-of-five rural schools are doing in-person learning, but about four-out-of-five of urban schools are doing all virtual learning. And so we already have this combination of different approaches. And I think that’s based on different parent needs, different student needs, and different district capabilities.

    Leigh Wedenoja  21:07

    There’s one possibly really good thing that could come out of some of this remote learning is that students who go to under resourced schools or students who go to rural schools that just an offer fewer courses, once they learn how to learn online, that will open up a lot of other options for schooling. For instance, adding AP courses that cannot be offered in a small school. If students have facility at learning online, they’ll be able to learn other things online as well, which could really help some of these smaller schools to expand their curriculums.

    Alexander Morse  21:40

    So it’s really about using this time to find out what works and we need to rise and meet the challenge.  Yeah,

    Brian Backstrom  21:46

    Yeah, I think districts can plan all they want to, and I think parents can prepare all they want to, and everything’s going to be different in week two. And one of the things we talked about was the uncertainty, you have to plan that it’s going to stay uncertain for a while. But I think that there are solutions out there, there are teachers, administrators, and parents who are being very creative about their approach to learning this year. And I think we’re going to get there.

    Leigh Wedenoja  22:11

    I think one of the best things that parents can do to make sure that their children who are students learn the most is what they do outside of classroom time, as well. Making sure that your kids have the opportunity to get outside to be active to do things that they find fun, whether or not those are traditionally educational things will help revive them and make them less stressed out when it comes to their classroom time. And that’s just as important as making sure to pay attention during your online lecture or your online quiz module.

    Brian Backstrom  22:51

    And one of the things that Leigh touched on earlier was to, for parents to talk to their teachers, to get that information to talk to your teachers, ask your kids what worked well for you today, what worked not so well for you today, and then relay that back to the teachers. And this is going to evolve into something that’s going to work well for everybody.

    Alexander Morse  23:09

    So it’s really going to be a collaborative effort moving forward, making sure that we’re learning best practices, what works for the students, as Leigh mentioned, children, the parents, the educators and administrators and policymakers.

    Leigh Wedenoja  23:20


    Brian Backstrom  23:21

    That’s the plan.

    Alexander Morse  23:23

    Well, hopefully you make a good plan and see it through. Brian, Leigh, thank you for joining me today.

    Leigh Wedenoja  23:29

    Thank you for having us.

    Brian Backstrom  23:30

    Thanks very much, Alex.

    Alexander Morse  23:37

    Thanks again to Brian Backstrom and Leigh Wedenoja of the Rockefeller Institute. You can check out both of their work by visiting our website at and both the Rockefeller Institute and Policy Outsider have been covering other angles of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affects public policy, from education, to climate policy, to gun policy, and to future trends in labor. You can check it all out by visiting our website or by searching Policy Outsider on, or your preferred streaming platform. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time. Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting-edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea, email us at mailto:[email protected].

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