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Distance Learning Instruction Planning Guidance

Common Definitions | Instructional Time by Grade Level | Research-Based Distance Learning Principles | Initial Support for Distance Learning | Use of Common Tools | Success Criteria | References

Distance learning in the COVID-19 context provides a unique challenge in that, in many cases, neither families nor educators chose to engage in this model of instruction, it is an opportunity provided due to circumstances beyond our control. It is also important to acknowledge the understandably high levels of stress and anxiety these circumstances have created across the system in adults and children alike. During this time it is vitally important that we all give attention to and provide space for the emotional well-being of those within their organizations and communities. The guidance provided here is meant to offer suggestions for best practice in a distance learning setting through a lens of continuous improvement. As we all embark on a new learning journey successful outcomes will rely heavily on our collective ability to monitor the effectiveness of current practices, respond to feedback and changes in public health conditions, iterate or redesign, and repeat the improvement cycle. Each LEA is encouraged to work together with stakeholders at the local level to identify needs and determine the appropriate supports to address the local context. 

It is important to develop structures that continue to place students at the center of learning, understanding the varied contexts of at home supports. While nothing will replace the invaluable connection developed through in-person teaching, there are best practices LEAs may consider in order to maximize instructional time. It is important to consider utilizing the time educators spend directly interacting with students to be focused, planned, and designed to further student learning goals. Learners will need opportunities for guided learning with an educator, as well as opportunities to work with peers, families, and community members to apply their learning and practice their skills. On June 29, 2020, the Governor signed Senate Bill (SB) 98 External link opens in new window or tab. which reinforced these concepts providing required instructional minutes for grade-levels while emphasizing the necessity of teacher-student engagement. This document offers suggestions in four key areas 1) clear definitions of instructional models and language outlined in statute, 2) an overview of required daily minutes for the 2020-21 school year and considerations for synchronous and asynchronous instruction (California Education Code (EC) Sections 43501(a)(b)(c)(d)(e), 3) researched based principles for considerations for LEAs as they prepare to open school and 4) sample student learning blocks that provide a few ideas for how educators may structure learning. This guidance is not all-encompassing as instructional time can be a nuanced area. These suggestions are recommended best practices and do not constitute legal advice or a legal service. Any unique or specific instructional time questions should be referred to the California Department of Education (CDE) School Fiscal Services Division at Any specific unique distance learning program questions should be referred to

Common Definitions

The definitions below are designed to provide a common understanding of the various models of learning and their unique distinctions and to avoid the common misconception of applying terms interchangeably. It is important to note that not all distance learning requirements outlined in statute are included in this document. Readers should consider CDE Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and additional guidance documents as they plan for and engage in distance learning during the 2020-21 school year to ensure all requirements are met.

Distance Learning. Instruction in which the pupil and instructor are in different locations and pupils are under the general supervision of a certificated employee of the local educational agency. Distance learning may include but is not limited to all of the following:
  • Interaction, instruction, and check-in between teachers and pupils through the use of a computer or communications technology
  • Video or audio instruction in which the primary mode of communication between the pupil and certificated employee is online interaction, instructional television, video, telecourses, or other instruction that relies on computer or communications technology
  • The use of print materials incorporating assignments that are the subject or written or oral feedback (EC 43500(a))

Blended Learning. Combination of in-person and distance instruction.

Independent Study. Independent Study is provided as an alternative instructional strategy, not an alternative curriculum. Independent study students work independently, according to a written agreement, and under the general supervision of a credentialed teacher or teachers. Students enrolled in an independent study program for the 2020-21 school year must meet the additional requirements of distance learning. For more information regarding independent study requirements see:

Home School. In California, there are several ways that parents educate their children at home: through an existing private school, through a public charter or independent study program, and in many instances by opening their own private home-based school and submitting a Private School Affidavit to the CDE. However, it is important to note that (1) the CDE does not provide guidance on how to home school, and (2) California statutes do not explicitly authorize homeschooling or differentiate between private schools and home schools. Students enrolled in a home school program for the 2020-21 school year must meet the additional requirements of distance learning. For more information on schooling at home see:

The below terms are used throughout the document as we continue to discuss ways in which LEAs offer high-quality distance learning in accordance with EC Section 43503.

In-Person Instruction. Instruction under the immediate physical supervision and control of a certificated employee of the local educational agency while engaged in educational activities required of the pupil

Synchronous Learning. Synchronous learning takes place in real-time,” with delivery of instruction and/or interaction with participants such as a live whole-class, small group, or individual meeting via an online platform or in-person when possible.

Asynchronous Learning. Asynchronous learning occurs without direct, simultaneous interaction of participants such as videos featuring direct instruction of new content students watch on their own time.

Time Value. Instructional time for distance learning is calculated based on the time value of synchronous and/or asynchronous assignments made by and certified by a certificated employee of the LEA. Time value for distance learning is different than time value used previously in independent study programs which include an evaluation of the time value of work product.

Instructional Time by Grade Level

For the 2020-21 school year, instructional time offered through distance learning may include synchronous and/or asynchronous instruction and is calculated based on the time value of assignments made by a certificated employee of the LEA.

Grade Level Total Minimum Required Minutes per Education Code Section 45301*


180 minutes


230 minutes


240 minutes


240 minutes


240 minutes

* Total minimum required minutes per EC Section 45301 include in-person, distance-learning, or blended learning models. Distance learning can be delivered through synchronous and/or asynchronous instruction.

** 180 Instructional minutes for pupils in grades 11 and 12 that are also enrolled part-time in classes of the California State University or the University of California for which academic credit will be provided upon satisfactory completion of enrolled courses. 180 instructional minutes for any pupil who is also a special part-time student enrolled in a community college and who will receive academic credit upon satisfactory completion of enrolled courses. 180 instructional minutes for pupils enrolled in a continuation high school. (EC Section 43501 (a-f)).

In distance learning, instructional time is calculated based on the time value of assignments made and certified by a certificated employee of the LEA in which the student is enrolled. Those assignments can include assigned instruction or activities delivered through synchronous or asynchronous means. Synchronous opportunities may include full group instruction, peer interaction, and collaboration, two-way communication, small group breakouts, or individual office hours. The delivery method should match the purpose of the current learning outcome, corresponding task, and program placement (i.e. Language Acquisition Program). At times it may be appropriate for new content to be delivered asynchronously utilizing synchronous time for peer interaction, small group breakouts, or individual office hours. Inversely, at times content may require synchronous opportunities to include direct instruction on new content. All modes should provide students a means of checking for understanding and progressing based on that understanding. For English learners, this means of checking for understanding should include opportunities to have oral conversations to elaborate on the language necessary to articulate what is understood and ask questions for clarifying what is not fully comprehended. For students with disabilities, instructional time may be determined by the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, as instructional delivery should be appropriately adapted to the unique needs of the student. Additionally, instruction and activities should be aligned to learning objectives and goals specified in the IEP.

There is an opportunity for staff to develop integrated lessons to maximize instructional time. An example might include integrating science and math standards in a performance task. Educators will need to support the development of independent learning skills through modeling, scaffolding, student conferences, feedback, and reflection. Although family support is important, applied learning experiences should take into account that many families will not be able to provide extensive support. During time allotted for applied learning, it is important for an adult to be available for questions. Educators will need to be especially in tune with language needs and provide sufficient language scaffolds to ensure the student can participate fully in the development of content and the development of the necessary linguistic structures to meet the language demands of the lesson. Integrated ELD is critical for English learners’ access to the material and should be an integral part of the lesson planning and delivery process in all subjects. Structures may need to be in place to provide support for students that may not have an English speaking adult or family member to support applied learning. Consider using expanded learning staff or other staff from community-based organizations to support individual students or learning pods of students. Collaboration with families can be especially important when developing learning opportunities for students with disabilities, particularly students with extensive support needs. Gauging the needs of the family in supporting the student will be key to ensuring successful student outcomes. LEAs are encouraged to engage service providers and paraprofessionals in collaboratively supporting the students and family to ensure meaningful access to learning opportunities.

The ratio of synchronous and asynchronous and the sequence of these chunks of instructional time will depend on the course structure, instructional methods, access to technology tools, student needs, and whether learning is taking place entirely online or if the class is using a blended model. As such, it is important to emphasize that these two types of instructional time do not need to be chunked or sequenced in any particular way. For example, a teacher may choose to have students spend an estimated 30 minutes independently reading a text to prepare for a 20-minute, teacher-facilitated, synchronous discussion, followed by a 30-minute group research task, and then another 10-minute check-in discussion. Some English learners may need materials in the primary language to support their independent learning. Parents may need guidance as to how to support their child to enhance and support the student using these materials.

In the context of a multilingual program, instructional minutes in each language should be aligned to the percentage of minutes dedicated to that language based on the program design. For example, if 80 percent of the instructional minutes in a dual-language immersion program are dedicated to Spanish, then 80 percent of the 230 instructional minutes in a third-grade classroom should be dedicated to Spanish instruction and interaction.

Research-Based Distance Learning Principles

Research on effective distance and blended instruction can provide helpful principles for educators. It is useful to know that well-designed online or blended instruction can be as or more effective than in-classroom learning alone. While many worry that distance learning is necessarily less effective than in-person learning, many studies show that well-designed distance learning that has the features described below is often more effective than traditional in-classroom learning alone (US Department of Education, 2010; see also Policy Analysis for California Education, 2020). Key elements include:

  1. A strategic combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction: Combining synchronous activities where students meet regularly online (or in-person) with their classmates and teachers, with “asynchronous” activities where students think deeply and engage with the subject matter and other students independently are more effective than fully synchronous on-line courses.

    Synchronous time should be set for reasonable amounts of time, punctuated with other activities to avoid attention fatigue. It can be used for short mini-lectures and for many kinds of student to student and student to teacher interaction as described below. Many students also benefit from synchronous individual or small-group support in addition to whole-group distance instruction.

    Asynchronous time can provide an opportunity for students to gain exposure to concepts prior to engaging in synchronous time or as a follow up to dive more deeply into concepts that have been introduced through independent activities such as reading articles, watching videos or PowerPoint presentations with voiceover, or completing modules online. Teachers can also use these asynchronous modules to provide targeted scaffolding or essential background information for those students in need of extra support in a particular area.

  2. Student control over how they engage with asynchronous instruction: Research shows that students do better when they can go at their own pace, on their own time, when they have some choice over the learning materials to use and the learning strategies that work best for them, and when materials are set-up to enable them to engage deeply and critically with course content by managing how they use videos or print materials. As one successful on-line teacher explains:

    Rather than assigning only worksheets or reading questions that can often lead to frustration and disengagement, offer students approaches that are universally designed so they can build and apply knowledge based on their interests and readiness levels. For example, provide a recorded lecture, two or three videos, and two readings about the topic. The students can listen or watch the lecture and then choose to complete a combination of the remaining content options. Provide links to reading assignments at different reading levels so that all students find a path to comprehension, with tools like Newsela, Rewordify, News in Levels, and more. Give two or three choices for completing a task, such as writing, recording a video, building a slide deck, using Minecraft Education to demonstrate math concepts, or historical and literary events, through building. Allow students to upload their work onto the classroom learning platform to share with peers.

  3. Frequent, direct, and meaningful interaction. The more interaction students have with other students, with their teachers, and with interactive content, the stronger the learning gains. In online learning environments where there is little student-student, student-instructor, and student-content interaction, students often become disengaged. Activities such as experiments, debates, data analysis, and groups solving challenging applications together can serve to synthesize and extend student knowledge. Students can interact with peers and the teacher in multiple formats – whole group and small group discussion in synchronous instruction (for example in zoom breakout rooms), chat rooms and discussion boards that may be synchronous or asynchronous, quick polls and votes followed by debate and discussion are all means to improve engagement, and create positive effects on learning gains, as do interactive materials.

  4. Collaborative learning opportunities. Opportunities for students to engage in interdependent cooperative learning are important and improve achievement. Teachers can structure learning opportunities that encourage collaboration by accommodating flexible grouping options for completing work and by setting class norms for collaborative activities. This includes group engagement in shared projects and presentations as well as smaller daily activities. Small groups can work on tasks together during synchronous time in breakout rooms and then return to share their ideas. Asynchronous tasks can also be structured to offer opportunities for students to collaborate and build learning together, for example through discussion boards and by providing peer feedback. Students can pursue projects in asynchronous time by being taught to set up their own collaboration in on-line platforms.

  5. Interactive materials. High-quality distance learning incorporates the use of interactive multimedia materials, typically during asynchronous learning. For example, researchers found that 8th-grade students whose teachers integrated the use of the Pathways to Freedom Electronic Field Trips—an online collection of interactive activities designed by Maryland Public Television—in their teaching about slavery and the Underground Railroad, outperformed those who had the same unit without these materials. Fifth-grade science students who used a virtual Web-based science lab, which allowed them to conduct virtual experiments while teachers observed student work and corrected errors online, outperformed those who did an in-person manual science lab. Elementary special education students across 5 urban schools who used a Web-based program supporting writing in action by prompting attention to the topical organization and structure of ideas during the planning and composing phases of writing outperformed those who had the same materials in hardcopy in the classroom (US Department of Education, 2010).

  6. Assessment through formative feedback, reflection, and revision. Formative assessment is very important in online and blended learning, and it promotes stronger learning when it provides feedback that allows students to reflect on and revise their work. For example, researchers found that students performed better when they used a formative online self-assessment strategy that gave them resources to explore when they answered an item incorrectly. Similarly, students who received quizzes that allowed them the opportunity for additional practice on item types that had been answered incorrectly did better over time than those who received quizzes identifying only right and wrong answers. Studies have found positive effects of a variety of reflection tools during on-line learning, ranging from questions asking students to reflect on their problem-solving activities to prompts for students to provide explanations regarding their work, student reflection exercises during and after online learning activities, and learning guidance systems which ask questions as students design studies or conduct other activities that support students’ thinking processes without offering direct answers (US Department of Education, 2010).

  7. Explicit teaching of self-management strategies. Students who receive instruction in self-regulation learning strategies perform better in online learning. Teachers can help students with tools that help them schedule their time, set goals, and evaluate their own work. They can also provide checklists that are readily available to students and parents that break out the steps for task completion to help them understand the scope of the work and the milestones they’ll accomplish along the way. 

Initial Support for Distance Learning

As districts start the school year it is important they consider ways to: engage and support families and staff, the utilization of common tools, and the identification of success criteria. For students with disabilities, LEAs should plan for how IEPs can be executed in a distance learning environment. It is also important to establish the ELD program expectations, schedules, and guidance as to how to make sure both designated and integrated ELD is provided consistently throughout all subjects.

Preparing Families and Staff for Distance Learning

In order to ensure parents and staff (including community partners where applicable) feel comfortable and prepared to engage in distance learning, it is important to solicit feedback, understanding their experience over the spring as well as offering multiple opportunities to discuss expectations and engage with technology in a low stakes setting. It is important to engage with parents in the language which is spoken in the home.

Focus Considerations

Understanding context

  • Students Perspectives on DL [Survey (in multiple languages) or focus groups]
    • What did you like best about distance learning?
    • What part of distance learning was the most challenging?
    • If you could do one thing to improve DL what would it be?
  • Teacher Perspectives (Survey or focus groups)
    • What worked well in distance learning over the spring?
    • What were some of the biggest challenges?
    • What do you need to be successful in distance learning in the fall?
    • Were you able to support various types of student needs including English learners, students with disabilities, foster youth, socioeconomically disadvantaged youth, etc.?
    • What strategies did you use to provide integrated and designated English language development (ELD)? Where do you need additional assistance?
  • Parents (Survey or focus group with appropriate translations)
    • What worked well with distance learning?
    • What was the most difficult?
    • How would you improve distance learning to better support your child?
    • What support would you like/need as DL continues?
    • Was the information provided in a language and manner accessible to you and your family?

During the initial reopening

  • Considerations for Staff
    • Offer professional development on a common digital platform by site (See Common Tools Below).
    • Support a common use of platforms. Example: If using google classroom, are all teachers logging homework in the same place?
    • Ensure all staff are informed of SWDs current IEP and 504 accommodations and if concerned who to contact to discuss supports needed in DL
    • Provide professional learning on integrated and designated ELD in the distance learning context and ensure that all staff are aware of the requirement that both integrated and designated ELD are provided to English learners.
    • Provide professional learning on dual language instruction in the distance learning context and ensure that all staff are aware of the instructional minute requirements and plan for language use schedules to ensure language models continue as designed.
    • Plan for a schedule of agreed-upon times of IEP meetings to ensure all team members are available to be present.
    • Collaborate with the IEP team to schedule services for students within the agreed-upon instructional minutes schedule.
  • Considerations for Parents/Students

    Over the course of a week consider offering opportunities for 1:1 meetings or meetings in groups with parents and students. It may be helpful to offer evening options for parents that work full-time. Ensure that interpreters are available for parents who speak languages other than English to the extent possible.

    • Review the digital platform with the student and parent.
    • Discuss the rhythm of learning that will be established: Where and/when is work posted? How do they submit assignments?
    • Ask parents about the best form of communication and feedback loop.


  • Considerations for Staff
    • Offer tiered (ranging from beginning to mastering) professional development opportunities for staff to continue to build their capacity in areas to support distance learning such as learning platforms, engaging strategies, or tools and resources.
    • Utilize staff meeting time to review success criteria (see below), address emerging needs, celebrate successes and identify areas for ongoing professional development.
    • Establish a regular time for grade-level teams to collaborate in developing shared resources, review student work, and co-create lessons.
    • Provide ongoing professional learning on integrated and designated ELD in the distance learning context and time for teachers to collaborate on addressing the needs of English learners (successes and next steps).
    • Provide regular time for grade-level teams to collaborate with special education teams (SAI;SLP;OT;APE..) to discuss supports/challenges in DL model and GE curriculum
  • Considerations for Parents/Students
    • Establish a regular time for parents to receive support with technology. Explore platforms that are available in languages other than English to ensure that parents and students have access and that the home language is seen as an asset.
    • Establish regular office hours for students to connect with their teachers and peers.
    • Ensure that communications with parents are translated to the extent possible and that translators are available for teachers to contact parents who speak languages other than English.

Tips for Success

  • Consider other means of communication other than email. Survey data that shows 1 in 3 families of English Learners do not have an email address.
  • Google and several text messaging apps provide alternative phone numbers that link to your personal phone number so that it is kept private. Calling the alternative phone number will connect to you directly. These services are typically free of charge. Several text messaging apps provide translation services for two-way translation (from English to the parent’s preferred language and also translating their response back to English).
  • Consider creating videos regarding how to access the digital platform for future viewing.
  • Consider providing guidance in multiple languages including video, written material, digital material, and technology platforms, apps, etc.

Use of Common Tools

Consistency across grade-levels will support the success of students and families as they prepare to engage in distance learning. Consistency also provides opportunities for teachers to marshal resources. As an example, if teachers are all using the same high-quality curriculum, they might develop or curate videos for asynchronous learning and share with colleagues. Consistent use of platforms allows parents with multiple children to learn and offer support in a focused area. Similarly, students with multiple teachers will have space to focus on content as opposed to navigating multiple digital platforms for learning.

Focus Considerations

Common district-wide digital (learning management system) platform

  • Select one common digital platform for appropriate grade-spans, i.e. Kindergarten and first-grade may utilize a different platform than second-grade and above.
  • Ensure support is provided to teachers on how to use the platform in a consistent manner.
  • Ensure support is provided to parents on how to use the system and that this support is available in multiple languages.

Use of common high-quality instructional materials and resources

  • Identify the district adopted materials for each subject area.
  • Ensure every teacher has access to the required curriculum, including ELD and Special Education.
  • As a staff, use the mathematical frameworks to identify the major clusters, supporting clusters and additional clusters for focus and planning.
  • As a staff uses the ELA CCSS to identify the new content introduced in each grade-level for focus and planning.
  • As a staff, use the ELA/ELD Framework and the ELD standards to ensure that instructional materials include both integrated and designated ELD for English learners. Integrated ELD should be provided in all subject areas.
  • As a staff, discuss multilingual program needs.
  • Identify necessary supports to build staff, parent, and student capacity around the curriculum that will be used. (see Preparing Families and Staff for Distance Learning above)

Use of common diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments

  • Administer a common grade-appropriate diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the year to establish a baseline for student learning
  • Plan for the administration of common assessments to use for grade-level collaboration, including assessments in other languages for multilingual programs and the English language proficiency for ELD progress.
  • Provide timely, personalized feedback to students on formative and summative assessments including acknowledgment of the receipt of their work and a way for students to track their grades.
  • Communicate to parents and students progress in learning regularly ensuring translations when appropriate.

Success Criteria

It is important for districts to review the past and current local data in order to identify metrics for success in the distance learning setting. As an example, if an LEA previously saw high rates of chronic absenteeism with their students with disabilities, a clear improvement outcome should be established with a plan to monitor participation rates for that student group. Success criteria will clearly communicate the vision of the LEA regarding student performance and allow staff to monitor progress, to celebrate success, and identify needs early. 

Focus Considerations

Identify metrics to monitor progress in DL over time

  • Identify anticipated student needs based on previous data and on formative assessments within the first month of school.
  • Develop clear, consistent ways to solicit feedback from students, parents, and staff
  • Identify and develop common assessments at each grade level.
  • Identify local data to review regularly, including specific data for students subgroups traditionally underserved.

Data Commitments

  • Develop clear data commitments: when will assessments be given? Who will collect the information? Who will create data visuals that are easy to read?

Data Analysis

  • Review data on a regular basis with the Every Ed Team (comprised of representative staff to support general education including students with exceptional needs and English learners)
  • Communicate data at staff meetings including time to brainstorm the next steps.
  • Establish a relationship between data outcomes and practices or strategies that were implemented.


Policy Analysis for California Education (2020). Supporting Learning in the COVID-19 Context: Research to Guide Distance and Blended Instruction.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (2010.) Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C.

Questions:   California Department of Education |
Last Reviewed: Wednesday, January 24, 2024