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Preparing for distance learning due to school closures

The Newsela Team
Mar 10, 2020

UPDATE: 3/13/20

Things have evolved rapidly since this blog post was originally posted, including Newsela’s commitment to helping teachers embrace distance learning through school closures.

From now until the end of the school year, any teacher that needs it can freely access Newsela’s full suite of products to assist with their learning continuity plans. We’re also offering frequent professional learning resources to help them develop their mastery of distance learning techniques. Read more about our resources and get instant access.


In the event of potential school closures due to the presence of coronavirus or other unforeseen circumstances, students and teachers may be presented with opportunities for remote teaching and distance learning. Distance learning allows students to continue to follow the guiding instruction of their teacher outside of the physical classroom and away from their peers. When internet access is available, leveraging digital content allows teachers to be responsive to student learning needs, and allows students to connect to global and community issues from home.

We asked some former educators at Newsela and our Newsela Certified Educators (NCEs):
“If your school was forced to close, how would you support distance learning and keep students engaged remotely? How could you use Newsela to help?”

Here are some of their recommendations for both online and offline learning:

1. Keep students updated with new information

Use the articles curated by our Editorial team in the text set Coronavirus: Resources for Students. Students will learn about the COVID-19 virus from trustworthy, reliable sources in language they can understand. They can also learn some simple tools to keep themselves and their community safe and calm.

This Text Set will get regularly updated with new resources as they’re published to help students feel empowered and informed while their school remains closed. Instructional Designers at Newsela also shared some instructional strategies to employ to engage students in discussion. If you would rather not have your students view content that you feel is too sensitive, you can always “Hide” the article so it will not be visible when they are reading on Newsela.

Click here to see the free text set

2. Think mobile - make connections that are cellphone friendly

Students are already using their cellphones to communicate with family and friends, so empower them with the devices in their hands. Think: “How can I leverage these personal devices to share new information and continue learning pathways?” 

Consider having students use the Newsela iOS and Android app for personal, high-interest reading. Our Product Manager Christina Pirzada recommends having students create their own “Sets” in the iOS app to build collections of articles that match their personal interests and earn badges for continued reading. 

3. Print and Package - not everyone has WiFi 

We heard from numerous teachers to remember that not all students have reliable WiFi access. Distance learning, like the classroom, should be accessible for all. Several NCEs recommended printing out 1-2 weeks worth of instructional content to have on hand so students can access materials to continue their learning at home. And, if you have a class library and are able, try sending a few books home for students to have on hand during their time away from the classroom.

“Many of my students had such limited access to tech outside of school, when we had time to plan, we would assign physical packets of work that students would carry home. Those included printed Newsela articles, a writing assignment, and reading logs for student choice reading.”

- Leigh Marwick, Newsela

4. Guided Research - let your students manage their learning and their time 

Newsela staff member and former teacher Ellen Perez suggests giving students guided practice with their own research and project-based initiatives. 

“I would outline a 2-week virtual, self-directed mini-course. I’d have my students choose a topic they care about, find content to study it from Newsela (and elsewhere), then develop a presentation, video, or other method to demonstrate their learning.  Something like a virtual passion project with elements of research and inquiry.”

- Ellen Perez, Newsela

Heather Witcher taught lower elementary grades, and said she would use different rooms inside (and outside) the house to correlate with lessons and subject areas.

“In the kitchen, I would recommend students explore measuring cups and spoons to double or half items like dry beans, rice or water, and use small items such as paper clips or clothespins to practice math problems and counting. Outside, I would have students keep a weather and moon journal by writing down what they see and feel outside each day, noticing changes and thinking through science prompts. I would send a sticky note pad home and have parents and students write and attach labels for items in the living room or bedrooms, to practice spelling those words and using them in sentences.”

- Heather Witcher, Newsela

5. Leverage your LMS - this is what they were built for 

Whether you use Google Classroom, Schoology or Canvas, these platforms allow you to manage and keep track of student work beyond the classroom. Your LMS can host temporary lessons or units for students to work independently or at a guided pace, and you can even communicate with students and provide them feedback in real time. 

6. Prioritize family communication and support 

Communicating with families is always essential - even more so during a time when routines are different. Think: “How can I enable families to be aware of new important information and learning goals when students are not in the classroom?” Texting platforms like Remind can be helpful for quick family updates and ideas to keep students learning at home. Newsela Fellow Kristen Rafferty shared: 

“I would encourage kids to read anything they could get their hands on, to put their curiosity to work by exploring the world around them, practice math skills using practical applications like following a recipe or helping make a budget for grocery shopping, and to make sure to enjoy some extra time with their family.”  

- Kristen Rafferty, Newsela Certified Educator

7. Embrace opportunities to modify your scope and sequence

Keeping on pace with your curriculum may be a challenge. Reflect on your current scope and sequence, and try to seek new learning opportunities during a time of distance learning. Consider leveraging your other tech tools and school resources to support your modifications. 

With Newsela ELA, Newsela Social Studies and Newsela Science you can explore lots of mapped content to key units of study in popular curricula found in many schools, complete with suggested lesson plans and content assessments to check for understanding. Teachers that use these curricula can employ Newsela to stay on pace remotely and save planning time.

These Newsela products contain content units that can be used in a standalone way. For example, in the History Comes to Life collection available with Newsela Social Studies, we’ve brought together a unit on Past and Present Global Pandemics. The primary sources and articles in this unit are strategically linked to support these compelling and supporting questions: 

  • Do certain countries have a greater responsibility to address global issues than others? 

  • What impact do pandemics have on society? 

  • What impact do they have on relations between groups of people?  

Our Editorial team has configured this Text Set as a free resource for teachers to preview and discuss global pandemics with students. Click here to explore the preview unit.

Science teachers can preview this free Newsela Science Text Set “Are Viruses Alive?” with linked STEM activities such as modeling viral reproduction. 

8. Mix it up - blend the strategies that work for you 

Of course, you know your students best, and are best equipped to guide them through a period of remote learning.  NCE Brook Sharpnack shares how he would assemble a mix of tools to support sustained at-home engagement. 

“If school were closed for 2 weeks or more, I can think of a variety of tools that would help keep students engaged at home. First, I would use Flipgrid to stay in touch with my students and allow students to post videos to one another. Since I’m a 6th grade reading teacher, I would assign high-interest articles and text sets on Newsela, and have students annotate, complete the activities, and even have discussions about the Newsela articles on Flipgrid. Nearpod and Flocabulary are two other tools I could utilize by assigning student-paced lessons and allowing students to work in the Lyric Lab for specific topics. The beauty of it all is that the students can access all of the links and activities through Schoology. It’s important to remember that students may be having a difficult time, depending on the reason for the closure, so keeping the assignment fun, light, and engaging is key.”

- Brook Sharpnack, Newsela Certified Educator

Do you have any other suggestions for engaging students during periods of distance learning? Any suggestions for how to use Newsela to keep the learning going outside of the classroom? Share your ideas with us on Twitter by tagging @Newsela  

Additional Reading: 

‘Students Are Lonely:’ What Happens When Coronavirus Forces Schools Online

Closing The Schools: Lessons From The 1918–19 U.S. Influenza Pandemic

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