Corona Virus Curriculum: Remote Learning, Free Tools, & Understanding the Illness

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Welcome to the apocalypse…is something that we, I hope, can all agree is blowing this way out of proportion. And while all the people saying stay calm are right, I wonder how much that is helping. Of course, you should stay calm in almost every situation even when the situation is a crisis like a robbery or bear attack which still requires rational thinking. We are, however, officially in a pandemic due to the Corona Virus (COVID-19) which is sure to quicken the pulse of many. I say that knowing how intense it is. I got even playing the Pandemic board game (not recently) with students and friends. But, as with anything important, let us base our decisions on reliable evidence at hand and not speculation, hearsay, or even genuinely entertaining and educational games. Living in New York City, there are parallels I easily draw to September 11th, even though that was localized to a few areas. It still affected the nation and it was the last time Disneyland shut down. It is easy to get overcome by fear when there is so much unknown, so let’s try to know what we can.

I know this is not the source for that data and you should check out genuine scientific data on prevention, symptoms, and transmission and have experts answer your questions. I will put forth a few caveats to dispel some of the common misconceptions that I’ve heard.

  • ORIGINS: First, though the origins of the disease are from the Wuhan province of China, it is not a Chinese illness and perpetuating that idea has led to irrational bias and genuine hate crimes.
  • ENDING: There is no real evidence that the outbreak will end because of the summer or that it won’t return even if it decreases. In affected ares, there is a high likelihood you will get it, but it won’t be life threatening. Even now hard working doctors and researchers and working hard to find treatments even using the blood of survivors. It is hard to say though when this will finish its cycle now while we’re in the middle of it.
  • RISK: Yes, most people who get the illness will recover and it has, thankfully, not permanently harmed many children. That doesn’t mean it isn’t serious though. More people, especially the elderly and infirm are at greater risk and even children have died, but getting it even if you’re an 89 year-old man is not a death sentence.
  • SEVERITY: Yes, most cases will be “mild”, but mild in the initial studies refers to anything that is not severe or critical which means needing a ventilator. That means getting it is not like getting a mild cold or flu. It can hit, even a young person hard and put them on bed rest for several days or weeks. Much of this is dependent on a variety of personal and mitigating factors. And in the severe cases, even the survivors may need to be on a ventilator for weeks. And while most will recover, a few people will have permanent lung damage.
  • PERSPECTIVE: No, you will probably die from a car accident or a heart attack long before this or the next inevitable pandemic. AIDS has killed more than 30 million, but there are now almost as many people living with it and some have even been cured. Some experts have compared COVID-19 to the Spanish Flu, which killed 50 million, in terms of its morbidity, mortality rate, and spread. But those comparisons, while reasonable, don’t account for our vast improvement in medical treatment and efforts at expedient adaptation for prevention.
  • SHORTCOMINGS: I apologize for the math that’s about to happen, but as a STEM guy, it’s in my nature. While all of the above should help alleviate most individual fears, this is a collective problem. For example, if preventative recommendations aren’t followed, spread can occur quickly and hospitals can become overwhelmed despite most people eventually recovering. The U.S., in a severe case could need more than 700,00 ventilators. We have 160,000. We also have fewer than a million hospital beds and many of them are already filled with patients with other ailments. So our nation could, very quickly, face difficult decisions over managing treatment and quarantine.
  • EXAMPLES: Italy can serve as an example as they have a decent national health system and more hospital beds per person than the U.S, but they have quickly become overwhelmed with hundreds of daily deaths and hospitals making critical decisions about who receives health care. They didn’t take it as seriously at first and now the country is in lock-down. In Iran they are digging mass graves. Alternatively, South Korea has had a number of cases and deaths, but has responded vigilantly and the numbers are now decreasing.
worker in mask and protective gear on stone street
A municipal worker sprays disinfectant in St. Mark’s Square in Venice
-courtesy of Getty Images

Making It Worse

More people will get sick and die, as is always true, but if we spread it out over time we can limit the tragedy. We should be taking this seriously in areas that are affected. Does that mean that the cancelling of major events across the U.S was necessary? That is a question that won’t be answerable until afterwards and the sad part is if it is proven necessary it will mean we needed to do more sooner, and if it, in retrospect, seems like overreach it means it was successful in limiting the spread. Closing Broadway, museums, ending sporting events, and closing schools may be an over-abundance of caution but the alternative is not doing enough.

Federal Shortcomings

The truth remains though that there are those who seem to be making this worse. Of course there are the scammers and spies, who are simply the digital looters after a storm. But even government officials and tv personalities who call the World Health Organization data “fake” or blaming concern of a particular political party or the media even at conventions where outbreaks of the virus have occurred. The problem remains though that unreliable information even from government officials even as they attempt to allay fears and a lack of competency regarding testing, at least in the U.S., is sure to stoke fears. I get wanting to stockpile water (though unnecessary in areas where where power and water treatment plants remain fine), but some of them make little sense to me like the toilet paper urgency given that cleaning with water is a preferred method across the world (too specific?). Or the rush to buy guns as though you could shoot away the virus or threaten anyone who may come for your super-essential toilet paper. But that’s the nature of fear of the unknown. The fact that it is unknown means anything may be possible, however unlikely.

Trying to make it better

At the risk of sounding overly judgmental, there are steps that can and are being taken by some state and local (and some national) officials to mitigate the challenges like free and available testing especially for those without insurance (which is a whole separate issue), paid sick leave, halting foreclosures and evictions, halting utility stops, and food assistance. Or maybe even just focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable humans more than the markets, which don’t fully represent the actual economy that only serve those 50% that can afford to be in it. Or while payroll tax cuts may be mildly helpful if targeted towards small businesses, it won’t help those who lose their jobs in the midst of the crisis. Okay, now down from my very high horse.

There are also the issues of personal health which America hasn’t long been great at with our high rates of heart disease, diabetes, smoking, and cancer deaths. These will only be further exacerbated in the current situation. We are quick to cast aspersions on the dietary habits in eastern nations, but the ridiculous levels of sugar and corn syrup in America is not better and has long been deadly. But that goes towards much larger cultural issues and the food and pharmaceutical industries. But that is all just background

My Situation

So in the midst of this teachers, who are public servants who are in environments that, while certainly less than doctors and nurses, are still highly likely to encounter the virus. Many are told to purchase wipes and sanitizer with their own money all while educating students. That is especially true in large cities like New York here where a school like Brooklyn Tech, where I have friends, has more than 5,000 students and 300+ staff members. My district, District 75 citywide special education, has about 25,000 students with the city having more than a million total.

Public Transportation

We’ve been told to ride our bikes to work, and I did that after Hurricane Sandy and continued for a while. Now though I work in different borough than I live which is by no means practical. Let us not forget I am a poor teacher, so I could either pay for expensive car services, drive myself and pay exorbitant Manhattan parking rates, or take public transportation. So I’ve still been riding the subway as it becomes much more empty and the number of masks increases and tensions are on edge where everyone is trying desperately not to cough or sneeze. And when someone does, the whole car turns and gives death stares. I actually travel through heavily Asian neighborhoods and I have seen those stores vacant and the workers, who are normally NYC curt now overly kind. And I have seen others be exceptionally rude to older Chinese gentleman who come anywhere near them. But I’m still riding the train, and I’m beginning to see interesting announcements that I know are about illness despite my inability to read Korean.

NYC Schools

While several cities and states have decided to shut down public schools and several private schools have closed, NYC public schools remain open as we have our first related deaths in the state. The mayor and chancellor have again confirmed that decision in the face of mounting pressure from teachers, their Union, and some local news. The rationale for their remaining open has to do with continuing child care and food for some of the city’s neediest students. Some would argue that is not the role of a school, others would say it’s a necessity to allow other city workers to stay on the job. I will say I am glad to not be responsible for that decision. Individual schools have closed for days at a time when there were suspected cases, but the rest remain open. Is that wise?

It is certainly a calculated risk. So things continue semi-normal here. I take the train to work and I’m just as anti-handshake and fastidious about hand washing as I have long been. Some after-school events are cancelled. We sadly had to modify our big LEGO League event that students were excited about and make it an online event through Flipgrid. I, for example, was told to still hold the 2 professional learning experiences that were scheduled on Thursday and Friday though. About 90 teachers from around the city were scheduled over those days, but, understandably, only about 30 came. Some sent emails saying they regretted not coming, but they didn’t want to make others nervous with their allergies.

So it was a little smaller scale, but the teachers all said they had an amazing and informative time playing to learn about digital tools for math and music respectively. The tables and community iPads are all scrubbed down before and after, but, one pale coughing woman remained sitting alone despite my admonition that anyone who was not feeling well should go home. The coughing did stop after a bit and for all I know she was just a smoker. And so if I cough at all, even though it was from spicy food or start sweating a lot even if it’s because the heat was left on in a 67 degree day, I fret a little as is my nature. Despite the frequent Corona virus jokes we’re certainly all on edge a bit. Some teacher friends kids are home with coughs and their negative flu test does little to allay fears when they’re told the child is ineligible for COVID-19 testing. So in the midst of mounting evidence that there are possibly many mildly or asymptomatic carriers, should those meetings have happened?

I know some NYC teachers have discussed instigating a sick-out, but I plan to continue to work unless I feel ill. I know some parents who are able to, including my wife’s employers, have selectively chosen to keep their children home. But my two healthy sons continue to go to class with the older one taking the public bus. I don’t say that as an indication for what others should do. It only illustrates my case.

There may be valid instructional and societal reasons for keeping schools open not the least of which is an unpreparedness for how that might exacerbate other issues of inequity. So I’ll let someone with a higher pay scale and authority take the flack for closing/not closing NYC Schools. But I want to speak of a special case. My district is all special education students with IEPs which includes schools in hospitals.

Long before this I would have to put on gloves, a mask, and a gown to work with some students with compromised immunity including wiping down all devices and manipulatives we might use. We’re capable of that. We also have medically fragile 12:1:4 students in regular schools who are medically fragile, some with respiratory issues. Can we not at least address that?

I’m aware it’s easy to say those parents should keep their kids home. Some have, but I’m not aware enough of their situations to judge them. And I say that having had students who were kept at home for days because of issues before still tragically die. Perhaps there is a compromise where students. NYC has already agreed not to count student absences against them. And considering all other public servants (doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, utility employees, and transit workers) continue to work unless ill, teachers can continue to show up in a few select schools along with students who have little other alternative. That is unless we are also deciding to shut down the subway which would really grind the city to a halt. It’s happened to a limited degree before in the midst of major storms. And people are stockpiling like that, but that could genuinely lead to panic if those other public workers also had to stay home. And those schools can be heavily quarantined and disinfected regularly. And in the event of a suspected case, those can be shut down as well. Or there is the full online alternative.

Online, Other Options, & new challenges

Ben Cogswell, a kindergarten teacher in Salinas, Calif., in a still of a Flipgrid video he made for his students

Many schools have cancelled classes and have incorporated mobile/distance learning. And while I know as well as anyone the shortcomings of many of the city’s schools on that front and the reticence of some teachers to utilize technology, there are already systems in place to help make that happen somewhat. I have been advocating for more online learning for students and teachers and an expanded professional learning network. My friend, Ben Cogswell, a fellow Google Innovator and a new kindergarten teacher is as capable and confident in this transition as anyone. In the interim it will be teachers like him who carry the load of training others, and those teachers are least easily reached by email and phone, when they check it. So they can be sent resources and webinar trainings to get up and running even if it’s a bit chaotic at first.

My worry though is the students, especially since many special education students and early learners require more hands-on help and will benefit less from online learning. It may go alright with high school and college students who already have devices. There are many students who don’t have new enough devices or fast enough internet to run a lot of the software necessary to successfully transition to online learning. And that is assuming those measures were already being used and the students are familiar with logging in and accessing the information, and I know there are many schools where that is not the case. This is only further exacerbating the digital divide.

There are some options to address that mentioned in the free resources section below. In NYC, though many schools choose their own platforms, we use Microsoft and their newer Teams platform collectively. The problem is though that very few students even have accounts or login information. So this is left to individual schools. This shows our unpreparedness, in general, both for the illness and for modern instruction. But below I am sharing a number of resources to help.

Remote Learning Platforms

Even though most schools are unprepared for virtual learning and only a handful have taken my advice on it in my city, everyone is now getting a crash course and I am getting a lot of attention. So here are some tools for you to get started with remote learning if you haven’t yet.

The Big 3+1

Teams & SKYPE ⭐️

skype in the classroom

Organizations, including the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) have found Microsoft Teams to be an invaluable way to communicate and share materials across organizations and begin creating professional learning networks. In my district, 811X even uses it for silent bussing which reduces stress for our students with autism and has decreased the process by 15 minutes which leaves more time for instruction. It even has a version of Skype for video conferencing and screen sharing built in I will say that for class-to-class connections Skype has the most opportunities and resources available.  In addition to training resources, Skype offers a global community of educators to connect and collaborate on learning projects. Microsoft provides a platform to connect based on interest, specialty, project, or location. Pairing the setup of classrooms, the accessibility and flexibility of OneNote, translation tools for multi-lingual learners, and videos create a full-fledged space to continue learning. They have guides available including a getting started page and further training on the Microsoft Education site.


  • Virtual Field Trips – Students can visit national parks, historical sites, or stroll with penguins.
  • Collaborate – Connect with other classes for a cultural exchange, a read-aloud, joint writing projects, or holiday celebration
  • Skype Lessons – Take on live learning activities given by experts around a specific theme like hurricane safety, being safe online,
  • Guest Speakers – Become a guest speaker or speak with other experts in literature, science, and education.
  • Mystery Skype – This is a guessing game where students will be learning about cultures and lands far across the globe. It’s a fun way to expand your student’s horizons.
  • Skype-a-Thon – This year on November 28th and 29th Skype will be holding it’s annual Skype-a-Thon. This is a global learning event that allows teachers to connect with other classes and virtually travel all over the globe. Check the quick-start guide for more information.

Flipgrid ⭐️

I know we’re trying to avoid illness, but catching the Flipgrid Fever will only serve to help you even when school resumes. I add Flipgrid here separately, a tool available in Microsoft Teams and independently that I have shared about frequently before, because they are capable of carrying video and assessment content for students entirely on their own. And their team is incredibly supportive of educators. We are actually using this to enable a virtual LEGO League where students demonstrate and discuss their various Boomtown Build projects. They have provided a one-page start-up guide to get you rolling with remote learning and further explanation when you’re ready to dig deeper. They also have a training webinars, a family guide and a Disco Library playlist filled with at-home learning ideas.

Google Classroom, Meet, & JamBoard ⭐️

Classroom watching interactive display showing a Google Hangout with another class

Google Classroom has long been the hub for connecting students online and it already integrates with nearly every other ed tech platforms. I’m not going to go into the depth of all it can do here, but check their guides and training modules to get up to speed. Add to that Google Meet (the professional version of Google Hangouts) and you have now enabled video conferencing, screen sharing, and an additional chat zone. While the chat is not as versatile and as extensive as Teams or even Classroom, it serves well for all those schools that are already fully Google integrated. So students can still collaborate remotely on Docs, communicate with Meet (that is also integrated in Mail) and coordinate it all in Classroom. And it’s easy to add a virtual meeting with a simple calendar invite where you can schedule school “office hours”. Jamboard, available in the Play Store or the Apple App Store has a lot of the features teachers similar to other whiteboard software with the easy built-in drive-sharing and collaboration features you’d expect with any Google tool. It’s like whiteboard functionality at each desk. You can also find their recommendations for the first day of Jamboard or solve your issues through the Jamboard Help Center.

And while some government officials are wrong about Google providing a COVID-19 screening website, they are giving free access to their advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing to all G Suite for Education organizations which allows for massive calls including hundreds of participants and 100,000 viewers. That would work even in my massive district. It will also allow you to record sessions for asynchronous learning. For further training, check out their distance learning resources and blog posts.

Apple Classroom, Schoolwork, & FaceTime

While Apple’s main systems for Classroom are set up for managing student iPads in the room with you, Schoolwork will monitor student work as its completed at home (assuming they brought the iPads with them). Facetime is more of a social app, but it will allow for limited face to face communication with students. They used to have a platform for organizing whole courses through iTunes which was used by some universities , but it has since gone away.

Other Video Conferencing



Zoom is one of my favorite’s for group video chats. It is the platform my district has chosen to stream events like our STEM Fair and communicate around the city. Like many others I’ll mention, it works with multiple web and mobile platforms. Their free model allows up to 100 participants, unlimited 1 to 1 meetings, HD video & voice, multiple views, telephone call-in, local recording, host and participant controls, screen sharing, computer control, white-boarding, and breakout rooms. Group meetings are limited to 40 minutes though. For more, you’ll normally pay a monthly fee except Zoom is now offering free premium features for affected schools. That makes it the only other platform really deserving of current attention though a few others are below. And now you can use Zoom inside of Microsoft Teams for the best of both worlds.

  • ClickMeeting is both user-friendly and versatile with several plans at reasonable prices. They also provide a statistical overview of all your meetings. The only downside is the lack of phone support, but you can try it free.
  • Join.Me has one of the most generous free plans and displays up to 10 streams at once. It has a slick modern interface with plenty of helpful features including its compatibility with Slack, HipChat, and Trello. It also doesn’t require any plug-ins to run.
  • MyLiveDistrict is a streaming service marketed and created specifically for schools. They will customize a live streaming webpage for your school, provide video archiving, offer discounted recording equipment, and have 24/7 support. Those features come at a higher price though
  • Citrix’s GoToMeeting is the service most people know and remains one of the easiest to use. It’s now HD video conferencing and updated features keep it relevant. It does have a free trial to test it out.

Other Learning Management & Communication Systems

There are so many of LMS systems at this stage, but many have lost their luster as Google Classroom began to reign supreme. Here are a few notable ones.

  • Slack: Speaking of communication and collaboration, Slack is an app used by teams here in New York City and around the world for business sharing and discussions. It offers a lot of possibilities, but I tend to check it less regularly than I do other platforms. The free version offers searchable message archives, built-in channels, direct messages, voice and video calling, and file sharing with 5GB of storage. It also allows for screen sharing and group calls in their subscription plans. There are native apps for iOS, Android, Mac, and Windows.⭐️
  • ⭐️Parlay: I’ve only recently begun using Parlay, but I really like it as a hub for student communication. Yes it allows for prompts and responses, but their live discussion socratic seminars are pretty cool. And, in light of school closures, they are currently offering it for free.
  • ⭐️Seesaw: I really like Seesaw for student portfolios and younger students with its built-in annotation tools to and no need for email access. Seesaw allows users to have up to 3 classes for free. You can access their guide for remote learning resources.
  • Buncee: This is a communication tool for creating and share visual representations of content. They have a full overview of remote learning.
  • Canvas: Canvas is a popular Google Classroom that provides enhancements to many of Classroom’s basic features including more interactive features and feedback options available to them via SpeedGrader and Peer Reviews. The also offer a library fo pre-made activities, lessons, and courses in Canvas Commons which saves teachers time. Check out their classroom closures guide to get started with a free trial.
  • Edmodo: One more LMS with it’s own variety of options. they created a distance learning toolkit as well as a group to share best practices.
  • Blackboard: This LMS is fairly simple and has long been popular with universities, but having used it both as a student and a professor, I’m not a huge fan as mobile access is finicky, but you can test drive it for free.

Free Resources for Closed Schools

Out of beneficence there are a number of ed-tech sites that require a paid subscription (at least for premium features) that are now offering their services for free to schools that are closed due to COVID-19. This list below is by no means exhaustive, but it should help you and your school ease the transition.

Hardware & Network

If your students have older laptops at home, Neverware is offering their free CloudReady Home Edition which can turn them into quick and reliable Chromebooks. And while there are free wifi hotspots around including through the public libraries and LinkNYC, Comcast is offering Xfinity Wifi for free to help low-income families .

Teacher Training

During school closings, Teq is making OTIS for educators, their online learning platform for educators, free for all teachers during this time, and also allows schools to create school-based accounts. You can find all of their remote learning resources with training on G-Suite for Education, Microsoft, SMART, and other Platforms. You can even ask direct questions of OTIS.

There are a number of other resources as well


BrainPOP Tools Overview

You can find many more from Amazing Educational Resources and the Wakelet School Closing Resources.

Learn About COVID-19

Students (and everyone else) are bound to have a variety of questions about the current situation. And while it may seem dark or morbid, one of the key jobs of a teacher is meeting students where they are and adapting instruction to real-world situations. Knowledge is also one of the best ways to combat hysteria and false information. Here are some places you can guide your students towards learning more.

Flattening the curph graph illustrating the benefit of protective measures

Overall Tips

Okay, so now there is this ridiculously long list of options, but given how overwhelmed students, teachers, and parents are already likely to feel in these situations, I’m torn between my regularly advocating better teaching practices or just showing, here’s how to send kids boring worksheets. I think this letter to educators speaks well of this moment, so maybe we can grow slowly as teachers adapt. Here are some key things to keep in mind.

  1. Prioritize seeing students: Schedule time for visual check-ins early and late in the day just so teachers can use the assessment skills they’ve learned already.
  2. Reintroduce yourself: If your class is unaccustomed to the new format, introducing expectations and procedures in this environment are a must.
  3. Make time for mindfulness: I say this as someone who chooses to spend a lot of time on screens. It’s hard with that much digital interaction. Platforms like GoNoodle and Brain Breaks provide valuable respite along with breathing exercises like the 7-11 breath. There are also other non-screen activities for home learning you can try. Also check your own well being with the WE Well-being playbook.
  4. Keep it simple: Now is not the time to try out several new ideas despite the vast number of freebies. There’ll be enough new at first if your students aren’t used to a flipped classroom or blended learning. As they get accustomed though, feel free to incorporate more slowly.
  5. Allow for creation: I won’t assume what different groups have in their home. BrainPOP has a variety of digital creation tools or students can be creating and solving 3-Act Math videos. Just because we’re online doesn’t mean we should shift to students as receivers of information rather than creators. In fact, the lack of interaction makes creation more necessary.
  6. Continue to assess and get feedback: Now more than ever you need to regularly check in on what was understood. There are several tools above to help with that.
  7. Have synchronous and asynchronous tasks: This might also be a wonderful time for teachers to allow more independence in student activities and methods for how they demonstrate mastery. There are moments for doing things together, but too may classrooms overdo that. Now using some tools like Flipgrid, WeVideo, or EdPuzzle students can work at a different pace. Hey we’re learning differentiation in a pandemic.
  8. Dig into digital citizenship: You should have already done this, but since you are spending a great deal of time online, it’s worth a review. And if you hadn’t started it’s the perfect time to begin.
  9. Provide support resources: This is a great opportunity to allow for exploration of students and teachers. Set up webquests and have students explore with more freedom resources that you’ve shared. Then come back and having a discussion using one of the learning platforms above. The same is true of allowing exploration amongst pre-made resources for teachers.
  10. Manage your own well-being: You can’t help any student well if you are overwhelmed. Here are ten strategies to handle your well-being.

Overall Resources & Activities

NYCDOE RTOL: Rapid Transition to Online Learning

Here are some of the guides we’ll be relying on in New York City in the event of student quarantine, school closures, or citywide closings. You will likely, if you’re new to a flipped classroom or blended learning, start with the Rapid Transition to Online Learning Course.

In the end let us not forget that always, but especially in times like these, our greatest job as teachers is making sure students leave feeling safe and cared for. Only then will they be open to genuine learning.

Sean Arnold

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