After the Arizona State University Preparatory Academy announced on Friday, March 13, that it would shift its 11 schools to online learning because of the coronavirus crisis, teacher Theresa Ordell switched to high gear. The next Monday she was at her school, South Phoenix Primary and Intermediate, to get ready.

remote learning
Experts say teachers need weeks — if not months — of training to develop and implement an online class. Many districts provided teachers a crash course in using online platforms, as fears around the spread of COVID-19 shut down schools. In this file photo from 2014, veteran teachers attend a Blended Learning Institute workshop in Manhattan. Photo: Alexandria Neason for The Hechinger Report

The 51-year-old teacher racked up 14,000 steps that day assembling bags of books and worksheets for families of her third and fourth-grade students to pick up as they were let in, five at a time, to the public charter school in South Phoenix, Arizona. Families who needed devices for their kids also picked up Chromebooks. The rest of the day was devoted to reviewing the academy’s virtual learning plan and training teachers for the move from classroom to screen.

Ordell practiced using the video conferencing platform Zoom so she’d be ready to lead class online with her students the next day. Before leaving, she grabbed game buzzers, a bell that says “Ring for Coffee,” a whiteboard, and colorful dry-erase markers in a green basket and other items from her classroom.

“Anything that made their routine seem familiar, I snatched it up, loaded up the car, came home and next day we were life,” said Ordell, whose students laughed Tuesday morning when she played the classroom theme song, “Get Back Up Again,” from the movie Trolls. “I said, ‘Yeah, with COVID-19 we are going to get back up again.’ We made it work.”

Experts say teachers ideally should receive several days, weeks, or — better — months of in-depth preparation before launching an online learning program. Training should include strategies to make the instruction engaging and allow ample time to practice the technology before going live. But as more than 124,000 schools in the U.S. have closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, district leaders eager to keep students learning are pushing teachers to pivot quickly to online learning. Many teachers received a couple of days of training before being asked to overhaul nearly every facet of their job. The lucky ones had a couple of weeks.

“Anything that made their routine seem familiar, I snatched it up, loaded up the car, came home and next day we were live.”

Teacher Theresa Ordell, South Phoenix Primary and Intermediate School, part of the ASU Preparatory Academy in Arizona

Teachers are doing their best in an unprecedented and constantly changing situation, but the varying amount of training districts are providing has created a patchwork of quality and gaps inaccessibility. In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, teachers were given three days of training, after schools were closed, which included peer-to-peer sessions in which teachers shared with each other how to use Google Classroom and other platforms. Many teachers are improvising and counting on patience from parents and students as they transition to online learning on the fly.

“The biggest problem is there is not enough time to really do the training that a teacher needs to understand how to teach online,” said Jennifer Mathes, interim chief executive officer of the Boston-based Online Learning Consortium, a nonprofit that offers webinars and resources on online teaching and learning. “What we are doing right now is more of a Band-Aid to say these are tips and tricks to do remote learning now.”

While the consortium offers week-long workshops, teachers need about three months of courses to really become effective online, said Mathes. The International Society for Technology in Education, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia, requires teachers who want to be certified as online educators to receive 30 hours of face-to-face and online training that can take up to nine weeks, plus six months to curate a portfolio. Some colleges ask teachers to complete nine credits to receive a certificate in online teaching. Experts in the area say planning, designing and implementing a high-quality online course can take more than a year; the best training is customized to meet teachers where they are and build on their knowledge.