K-12 Distance Learning Challenges

Students tutoring each other during online distance learning sessions while trying to social distance. "DSCN6961" by matýsek is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Students helping each other while online.


In the last segment, I covered the opportunities of distance learning in K-12 schools. In this segment, I cover some of the K-12 distance learning challenges I faced. I came in at the beginning of the spring semester as a long-term sub. My classes were already a month behind in math. 10 students had failed the first semester of math. How would I go about getting these classes caught up and ready for next year’s math?

To better understand K-12 distance learning challenges, I first look at the challenges the students face not being in the classroom. I then examine the challenges teachers face as they adapt existing classroom curricula to fit a distance learning model.

Student Challenges

Learning from home brings on a number of new challenges, both academic and social. One of the more obvious challenges is staying focused and doing the work. This is not much different than adults working remotely. Getting distracted is all too easy on the computer and not doing much work. Shopping and social media sites detract many adults trying to concentrate. Students fritter away playing video games and chatting with friends on social media. Given these challenges, students are resilient and adapt quickly.

Students Adapt Quickly

Most students in K-12 schools are very comfortable and adept with computer technology. They are digital natives and learn new technology easily. Many schools use Google Classroom or websites to make curriculum materials accessible and encourage interactive project-based team learning in the classroom. Using resources like Google Classroom as a true Learning Management System (LMS) is new experience for many students. Most of my students quickly adapted to using it. To help them adjust to a full distance model, I used the lesson titles from the sections in the textbook for the lessons posted on the LMS. I created 3-5 minute videos of each lesson. I was able to produce each video in about two hours. Then, I added the lab resources (if any). Finally, I provided a homework assignment for reinforcement of the concepts. The structure was a typical asynchronous learning model:

  1. View the video
  2. Do the lab either online with a partner(s) or with a parent
  3. Do the homework and turn it in.

The model is efficient and used in college-level online courses for years. Most of my students adapted to it quickly and were turning satisfactory quality or better work. However, there were a number of students that found this model challenging. About five of my students needed close monitoring to ensure they got their work done. Among them:

  • English Language Learners (ELL)
  • Special Education students (SpEd)

However, the most challenges were, as expected, among those with special needs.

ELL and SpEd Students Had Most Challenges

K-12 distance learning challenges are exacerbated for ELL and SpEd students. ELL students completed their work on time or a day late. They often needed clarification on some of the assignment expectations. Sometimes, they did not understand the assignment directions. For answers to their questions, they had to:

  • email me
  • come in during drop-in online office hours
  • schedule private online meeting time with me.

As a result, work quality varied more greatly online than in the classroom. I think this was due to delays caused by the asynchronous nature of most online learning. In addition to the videos and labs, synchronous instruction sessions helped mitigate this challenge. However, the challenge persisted.

SpEd students have the most challenges because of individual needs and challenges related to their specific learning disabilities. For example, students with Attention Deficit Disorders (ADD) often have challenges staying focused in the classroom. Three of my students needed access to dedicated paraprofessionals to work one-on-one with them. Paraprofessionals help students better understand what they were learning. They also help students focus and stay on task. However, ADD wasn’t the only SpEd challenge to deal with. Many SpEd students have difficulty mastering math and language arts concepts critical to grasping age-level concepts in these fields. Comprehending textbooks, writing answers to questions on readings, and solving math problems come with difficulty. As a result, special needs students need more support and monitoring online.

Special Needs Students Need More Monitoring Online

To mitigate K-12 distance learning challenges, special needs students need monitoring. This increases their success. These students, due to their special needs, tended to turn in late work—often as late as 3-4 weeks! However, they learned how to quickly:

  • Navigate the LMS
  • Listen to their videos
  • Submit their work

They submitted work either by:

  • photographing their work and uploading it to the LMS
  • uploading word processor files.

If they did the work, they had no more difficulty than the rest of the student population. Either way gave me an efficient way to review student work.The issue was work quality and gauging comprehension of the subject matter. Some would write the answers only with no work—a no-no in math.

The step-by-step written solution to math problems is the only way to gauge comprehension and coach students. This is especially true when you cannot do any summative assessments. Under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, students only received formative assessments. Formative assessments occurred only during lab or synchronous review sessions. SpEd students were also more likely to miss mandatory live instruction meetings. They missed out on additional clarifications and hints that would allow them to do better quality work on their assignments.

Finally, most students mentioned they missed being with their peers and having social interaction during the learning process. Live and asynchronous discussion opportunities were available. However, not all students felt comfortable participating in discussions. However, participation was higher in asynchronous discussion board assignments than live discussions.

Teacher Challenges

Distance learning was not only challenging for students. Teachers had their own unique challenges. My colleagues never had the experience of teaching online. K-12 education theory holds true for both online and classroom education. Curriculum design differs to make up for less student/teacher interaction, and the limitations of online media.

Teachers had to figure out how to adapt their existing curricula on the fly to fit the distance learning paradigm. Add to that the challenges of learning how to produce content for consumption on LMS systems. One can understand how an already stressful job gets even more stressful. Interactive labs did not adapt well to online usage. It was necessary to eliminate many of the math labs. Lack of availability of specialized science equipment required elimination of all labs in science classes.

Most students were able to turn their work in on time or perhaps a day late. Thus the LMS systems made it easier in many cases for teachers grade work more quickly. They could provide more timely feedback to their students. The restrictions to formative assessment only made it more difficult to gauge student comprehension and mastery of the material.

ELL and SpEd Support Challenges

ELL and SpEd student challenges take up the bulk of teacher time in the classroom. Distance learning did not mitigate these challenges. Paraprofessional staff tasked with supporting these students also had to learn how to help kids effectively online, further increasing the challenges. Some of these students needed extra support in the classroom. They would also need it in the online environment. SpEd students often would not show up for meetings and not turn in work for several weeks. This created the need for extra meetings with:

  • Parents
  • SpEd team
  • Other members of the teaching team

The biggest challenge, I think, was the social interaction. The kids missed hanging out with their friends. This is an important component of K-12 education. Teachers, myself included, tried many solutions to mitigate these issues. I mentioned discussion boards and live discussions. Kids also need unstructured social time to unwind before going on to the next task.

For unstructured social time, I used the last 10 minutes of live meetings. This provided students some unstructured chat time and conversation. I needed to be in the meetings while this was going on. You can’t leave kids unsupervised on campus nor online. Perhaps of all the challenges social interaction was the most difficult to mitigate. This is the major reason for allowing some re-opening of schools in the midst of the pandemic. Without the social element, students are at further risk of falling behind, especially ELL and SpEd students.

In the final segment, I cover what I learned while teaching to a K-12 audience in an online environment.


Farmer, T. and West, R. (2019). Exploring the Concerns of Online K-12 Teachers. J. of Online Learning Research, 5(1), 97-118

California Virtual Academies. (2020) Potential Advantages and Challenges of Online Schooling

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