Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, offered breakfast and lunch grab-and-go for children 2-18 years old on March 16, 2020. They gave away 144 lunches in an hour.

Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, offered breakfast and lunch grab-and-go for children 2-18 years old on March 16, 2020. They gave away 144 lunches in an hour.

For millions of students, this week was the beginning of an experience unlike any other. Not a snow day or a spring vacation, but a mandated shutdown happening everywhere from pre-K to college.

For some, particularly older students, the new normal is entirely online. For others — younger students and those lacking internet access — it’s paper packets. But with potentially months left to weather the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., what will a prolonged break from school mean for students who rely on school-provided meals, housing or work? How do parents balance their own working schedules along with childcare? And what lasting effects might COVID-19 have on kids’ academic outcomes?

We take a look at what “distance learning” can look like at all ages and what it takes to keep education alive in the midst of a global pandemic.

Produced by Julie Depenbrock


  • Debbie Truong Education Reporter, WAMU; @debbietruong
  • Natalie Milman Professor of Educational Technology and Director of the Educational Technology Leadership Program, George Washington University; @nataliebmilman
  • Terra Gargano Professorial Lecturer and Program Director for Online Programs, American University’s School of International Service

WAMU's Coronavirus Series

Series | WAMU

Our reporters are looking into your questions about coronavirus, from how local agencies are responding to the effects on our economy and how WMATA plans to keep riders safe.


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIFor millions of students, this week was the beginning of an experience unlike any other. Not a snow day or a spring vacation, but a mandated shutdown happening everywhere from pre-K to college. For some, particularly older students, the new normal is entirely online. For others -- younger students and those lacking internet access -- it's paper packets and a lot of unstructured time. But with possibly months left to weather the coronavirus crisis, what will a prolonged break mean for students who rely on school for meals, housing or work? How do parents balance their own work and schedules with childcare? And what lasting effects might COVID-19 have on kids' academic outcomes?

  • 12:32:43

    KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss keeping education alive in the midst of a global pandemic is Debbie Truong. Debbie Truong is WAMU's education reporter. Debbie Truong, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:32:54

    DEBBIE TRUONGThank you for having me.

  • 12:32:56

    NNAMDIDebbie, can you give us an update on where things stand with school closures across the region?

  • 12:33:01

    TRUONGYeah, sure. So, all public schools in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have been ordered closed for at least two weeks. Some school systems in northern Virginia have already decided to close through spring break, which means that some students won't be returning to school until mid-April, at the earliest. Still, I've heard from some educators who already have the sense that schools could be closed for much longer. The superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools sent a message to parents saying that schools could be closed for three months or more.

  • 12:33:34

    NNAMDIWhat about local universities? Has every school shifted to online teaching for the remainder of the semester?

  • 12:33:41

    TRUONGYeah. So, universities in D.C. have shifted to online learning for the remainder of the semester. At American University, initially, folks had planned to only do that for a couple of weeks, but that was, you know, extended for the rest of the semester.

  • 12:34:00

    NNAMDIAre any local college dorms remaining open to students who may be unable to return home?

  • 12:34:06

    TRUONGYeah. So, initially, when the school closures, the university closures first happened, several universities -- including American University and George Washington -- said that they would keep campuses open for students who could not return home. The rest of the guidance told students, many of whom were already on spring break, not to, you know, return to campus.

  • 12:34:31

    NNAMDIDebbie, what does all of this mean for families in the Washington region?

  • 12:34:36

    TRUONGYeah, so parents are having to do so much more during the closures. Many daycares are closed, and if they're not closed, then they're subject to social distancing guidelines, which could mean that, you know, students can't be grouped in groups larger than 10, which can be difficult if you're running a daycare.

  • 12:34:54

    TRUONGI talked with one mother in Montgomery County this morning who has a young son. She pays more than $1,800 a month on daycare tuition, but the facility that her son goes to is closed because of the coronavirus. So, now she's looking to hire a babysitter for about $20 an hour. But that's complicated by the social distancing guidelines. The mother shared with me that one person she had asked to watch her son cancelled, because they were afraid of leaving their home.

  • 12:35:23

    TRUONGAnd that, of course, you know, doesn't even being to cover the parents who are not able to work from home or can't afford added childcare expenses. In those situations, I've heard that older siblings are having to care for their younger ones.

  • 12:35:39

    NNAMDITough situations all around. Joining us now by phone is Natalie Milman, a professor of educational technology and director of the Educational Technology Leadership Program at George Washington University. Natalie Milman, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:53

    NATALIE MILMANThank you.

  • 12:35:54

    NNAMDISchools across the region have shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Can you remember anything like this happening, ever?

  • 12:36:03

    MILMANWell, certainly nothing ever like this. However, my first week at George Washington University was when 9/11 -- well, first semester at GW was when 9/11 happened. Then the following fall, we had the D.C. Metro sniper attacks. And then we've also been through H1N1 preparation, and years later, Hurricane Isabelle. So, we've had very -- oh, and, of course, Snowmageddon. No one can forget Snowmageddon, who was here at that time.

  • 12:36:34

    MILMANSo, we've experienced shorter disruptions, but in my lifetime, nothing like this. And as an experienced educational technology online education professor, I have to say, we're functioning in a situation where we're really under emergency conditions. You know, this is not normal. It's not just short-term. It's a very different situation than the ones that we've experienced before.

  • 12:37:09

    NNAMDIThere are a lot of parents who are balancing working from home with keeping kids occupied. What do you recommend for them, these early days?

  • 12:37:17

    MILMANI would suggest for these very early days to just kind of let the kids process and everyone process what we're going through. You know, to jump to strict schedules, you know, I don't know about that. But I would recommend coming together as a family and figuring out, what's a good schedule for all of us?

  • 12:37:41

    MILMANI've already heard from numerous friends, students, other teachers, other faculty, different approaches. I think what will work for one family may or may not work for another family. But I think having some sense of normalcy, some sense of, you know, like, getting up, still make your bed and getting dressed, so we're not all in our pajamas all day. Let's have lunchtime together. Or maybe there's, you know, fun time together. Whatever it is that families choose to do, I think -- at least, initially -- kind of being very, very flexible with one's approach and, as time goes on, building a little bit more structure.

  • 12:38:26

    NNAMDIDebbie Truong, how are local elementary, middle and high schools tackling this challenge? What does remote school look like at these various levels?

  • 12:38:36

    TRUONGYeah, so for the next two weeks or so, school systems are basically not grading work, and they're making work optional. You know, many students are being directed online. They're not learning any new material, and any work that is given by teachers is supposed to be review.

  • 12:38:57

    TRUONGTeachers are taking advantage of online tools like Zoom, which is a video conferencing platform. They're also uploading science experiments to Canvas or Google Classroom. Some teachers are also sending links to educational YouTube videos. That, of course, is easier to do with older children. One elementary school teacher I talked with yesterday said he's not sure how well younger students who need a lot of individual attention will be able to learn online.

  • 12:39:28

    TRUONGAnd, sort of broadly speaking, several states including Virginia have already asked federal officials to wave state tests that are required by the Department of Education. And they're exploring ways to make sure that students -- particularly high school students -- can graduate even without taking those tests.

  • 12:39:47

    NNAMDINatalie Milman, how can distance learning be done successfully? What do you recommend?

  • 12:39:54

    MILMANWell, the first distinction, I think, to be made with all of this is that we are not functioning under normal conditions. What we're functioning under is emergency remote teaching and learning. So, our expectations and many of the practices that we already know are well-established, well-researched for good online instruction, some of that -- I mean, certainly that should be applied. But we also have to understand that, emotionally, not everyone is going to be in a position to be learning.

  • 12:40:31

    MILMANSo, for example, one best practice that I would say would be engaging with ones' students. No matter the level, we all know that engagement is important, showing that you care, reaching out to your students, knowing that they can reach out to you, connecting them with other resources. Flexibility -- especially under these emergency remote teaching and learning conditions -- we have to design instruction so that it's flexible. I could go down a whole list, but I know we have lots of questions to get to.

  • 12:41:08

    NNAMDIAnd limited time. Debbie Truong, what about children who come from low-income households? What struggles might they face over the next few weeks, maybe even months?

  • 12:41:18

    TRUONGYeah. So, one issue that has come up already is the issue of accessing the technology, you know, for the teachers that are using online platforms. There's a question of whether or not all students have access to a laptop or even internet. Some wealthier school districts in the Washington region, including Arlington, Loudoun and Alexandria have issued laptops to students individually.

  • 12:41:45

    TRUONGBut educators in school systems with less technology, including the D.C. and Prince George's school system, are worried that students won't be able to get online and do some of the activities that teachers are providing. Students are, you know, being given hardcopies of materials, but, you know, throughout all of this I think educators are worried that those students who can't access the internet will fall behind.

  • 12:42:13

    TRUONGAnd, early on, even before schools closed, educators were worried about students who may rely on free breakfast and lunch at schools. School systems are still providing those meals during the closures. They're giving students bagged lunches outside school buildings. PTAs have also stepped up. I talked with a PTA in Arlington that prepared bags of nonperishable foods for families who may be struggling to afford additional groceries or who may lose work as a result of the pandemic.

  • 12:42:43

    NNAMDINatalie, what do you suggest for students who many not have access to the internet or a computer, or may be home alone during the day?

  • 12:42:52

    MILMANIt's my hope that school districts are figuring out a solution for them. It's my hope that they're partnering with local businesses, even families in the community who can donate or even give access. A number of internet service providers are providing access. So, that really is my hope, that they're doing it for the families.

  • 12:43:18

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation and hear a little bit more about what's happening at the college level. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:40

    NNAMDIWe're talking about the coronavirus and education. Welcome back. And joining us now is Terra Gargano, a professorial lecturer and program director for online programs at American University School of International Service. Terra Gargano, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:43:57

    TERRA GARGANOThank you.

  • 12:43:57

    NNAMDII should mention here, of course, that American University holds the license to WAMU. Colleges and universities across the country, including American University, are making the transition to online teaching for the rest of the semester. How prepared was AU to make this switch in a matter of days?

  • 12:44:14

    GARGANOI think American University -- like many other institutions of higher education throughout the United States -- are well-prepared to make that transition. At AU, we do have a center for teaching research and learning within the university campus that helps faculty across schools to rethink pedagogy, to become more familiar with the technological tools that they have access to, to help them think about how to transition assignments, or to transition entire classes online.

  • 12:44:43

    GARGANOSo, over the course of any given semester, our Center for Teaching Research and Learning will hold a dozen or two dozen different noontime conversations, chalk talks, six-week-long classes that actually help faculty to think about making a transition to a virtual online space. And like many other institutions around the country, I think AU is very well-poised to help support the faculty who need to make that transition now.

  • 12:45:08

    GARGANOAgain, the scale and the scope of that in the middle of the semester is something that we're dealing with in a condensed time period. But I feel as if most of our faculty are very well-equipped to make that transition. We have been able to develop some mentoring and partnership programs across campus that have really served our faculty well in questioning some of the ways that they can make this happen. But, again, online education, remote teaching -- as some people are now referring to it -- is something that has certainly been a topic of conversation and a topic of many trainings in higher education for quite some time.

  • 12:45:43

    NNAMDIHow aware are students when it comes to some of these online learning tools? Does being a digital native translate well, here?

  • 12:45:51

    GARGANOI think it does. I think that many students are very familiar with the LMS, or the learning management system, that the university supports. Many students already access much of the technology that our faculty are using to conduct classes online. And one of the things that we've tried to do at AU is meet faculty where they are, to help expand the toolkit of resources and technology that they are already utilizing, to some extent, considering the timeframe that we're working with. So, students are, I think, in a very good place to be able to jump online in order to have some of the constructive conversations, to continue the academic rigor and to cover the course objective outcomes that we intended to do from the beginning of the semester.

  • 12:46:37

    GARGANOI did hear from a student, however, that sometimes it might be challenging for them because not all faculty are perhaps using the same technology throughout the remainder of the semester. And so I think one of the challenges for students is being able to jump from one particular virtue learning environment to another. And, of course, it will be a testament to all of us with regards to time management. But I know our students will certainly be able to make that transition.

  • 12:47:03

    NNAMDINatalie Milman, care to weigh in, here?

  • 12:47:06

    MILMANYou know, I do believe students are pretty resilient, but I think this is where clear communication with one's students and what the expectations are, are very, very important. But, of course, streamlining of the use of whatever tools and technologies are used, I think that's important.

  • 12:47:27

    MILMANAnd at GW, what we've done -- we were already involved in instructional continuity planning before this even occurred thankfully. So, I think, you know, as far as having kind of the infrastructure at the higher level, that was certainly there. So what our university has recommended is for those who are making that transition, to focus on particular tools.

  • 12:47:54

    MILMANOne thing that I've heard, actually, from one of my own students in Westchester County is that there's so many tools available and so many options, it's really overwhelming. And I think, equally, that can be overwhelming to students. So, you know, if there's a program coming together and saying, hey, let's focus on these tools, try to make it simple. But, you know, some tools are unique to a particular content area, so students do need to become familiar with these different tools. And I'm confident they're resilient to do so.

  • 12:48:27

    NNAMDIHere's Imran, in Alexandria. Imran, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:33

    IMRANHi, Kojo. It's great to be here. I'm a longtime listener since high school, and I'm a senior at William and Mary.

  • 12:48:40

    NNAMDIThank you. Go ahead, what's your story?

  • 12:48:43

    IMRANSo, William and Mary recently shut down, like most colleges in the nation. And as a student from a low socioeconomic background, it was a really tough transition period. I lost my job on campus, and we're still waiting to hear back on what will happen in regards to that. I had to apply for Virginia unemployment. And in addition to that I have two younger siblings in Fairfax County Public Schools.

  • 12:49:08

    IMRANAnd like the speakers on the radio were talking about, this time is really challenging, because my stepmom is no longer able to go to work with my brother and sister having to stay home. And I live in a different house than them, and I'm not able to be there with them. And the challenges of them navigating all these new technologies and, you know, relying on reduced/free lunch has just been a challenge.

  • 12:49:35

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. I'd also like for Matthew in Georgetown to share his experience. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:44

    MATTHEWHi, Kojo. I'm a nontraditional student. I'm older and I have a couple of learning disabilities that I'm working with. And, because of that, being able to study from home at my own pace is actually an advantage for me, at this point. But, at the same time, I'm in a program that has a clinical component to it with clinical rotations in the medical field. And, currently, some of the students have been sent home from the clinical rotations, and there's a possibility that they may not be able to graduate on time. And I may not be able to start my clinical rotations on time, depending on how long this hiatus lasts.

  • 12:50:28

    NNAMDII see. That can be a difficult situation. Natalie and Terra, outside of academics, what challenges are students facing as the universities shutter? We just heard about Matthew's challenge. I'm thinking, though, in particular, international students, those who are far from home and those who perhaps need their campus job to help pay the bills. And I'll start with you, Terra.

  • 12:50:52

    GARGANOI would say that American University is poised to helping all of our students transition from campus to another environment, where they feel like they can sustain the same schedule, to some extent, that they have. I think that there are students in the D.C. area who have given up internships. There are students on our campus who are still moving out and returning home. There are international students who are on campus that are looking to transition back to their home country.

  • 12:51:20

    GARGANOSo, there's a lot that is taking place right now that creates uncertainty in the lives of students. I think the open line of communication, the flexibility that was previously mentioned and being able to engage with students on all of these topics -- whether they're academic, personal or professional -- is one way that, as a campus community and a higher education community, we continue to support the alternatives and the options that we can make available to students so that they can continue out the semester and continue to make academic progress in their programs, regardless of whether they're clinical programs or whether they're academic undergraduate degrees that they're trying to continue to complete through this academic semester.

  • 12:51:59


  • 12:52:00

    MILMANI would say GW is doing similar things. Yesterday, I was in a call with our dean and other leaders within my own school. And we were talking about, you know, what a variety of -- what to do with student workers, and so on. So, our school has telecommuting plans for all staff. And any student workers who can work at a distance can and will.

  • 12:52:27

    MILMANNow, I did want to get at the international students. And, you know, I think we also need to think about their social-emotional wellbeing. And thinking about, you know, they are thousands -- many of them thousands of miles away from their own families. And their own families might be in dangerous -- I mean, everyone's in social distancing, and so on. And just that being so far away, that has to be really, really hard on parents and families and the students themselves.

  • 12:53:00

    NNAMDIBefore we go, I'd like to hear from Haley, in Brookland, in D.C. Haley, we only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:53:07

    HALEYHi, Kojo. Thank you very much. So, yes, I think that students and families -- I'm thinking particularly of high school-aged students -- are facing the challenge of a lot of unstructured time, and perhaps also a lot of difficult emotions around learning and adapting to new smaller, physically-confined spaces. So, I think that students would really benefit, and also the community as a whole would benefit from more collaboration from local artists and creative professionals, hip-hop artists.

  • 12:53:40

    HALEYThere are wonderful organizations all throughout the area, Urban Artistry. Places where people can actually videoconference in and instruct students in hip hop or different artistic means of coping with reduced spaces. There are a lot of groups who have historical experience with confinement, but I think it'd be a huge resource, and also a way for students to learn in a structured way that's not academic and still immensely beneficial and give them lasting skills after the quarantine.

  • 12:54:13

    NNAMDIWell, you should know that one of the segments we're planning, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, is to talk about the effect it's having on arts and artists in the Washington region, and, as you pointed out, some of the contributions that arts and artists can make. But I think we're just about out of time. Terra Gargano is a professorial lecturer and program director for online programs at American University School of International Service. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:54:43

    GARGANOThank you for having me.

  • 12:54:43

    NNAMDINatalie Milman is a professor of educational technology and director of the Educational Technology Leadership Program at George Washington University. Natalie, is this going to be the biggest test of online learning, ever?

  • 12:54:56

    MILMANI would say it is a huge, international test. (laugh) It's a grand experiment, as well.

  • 12:55:04

    NNAMDIIndeed. And Debbie Truong is WAMU's education reporter. Debbie, thank you very much for joining us. Be careful out there.

  • 12:55:11

    TRUONGThanks, Kojo.

  • 12:55:12

    NNAMDIToday's show was produced by Julie Depenbrock. Coming up tomorrow, how are the Washington region's most vulnerable communities coping with coronavirus? We'll take a look at resources for community members most in need and find out how you can help. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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