(CNN)When Kim Reeder started teaching in Parker, Colorado, 14 years ago, she found that managing the classroom environment took way more time and energy than actually teaching kids, and she couldn't reach as many of them as she wanted.
This is what distance learning should look like in the fall
"I knew there were kids being left behind or not being pushed hard enough, because due to time constraints and class sizes, I had to teach the middle," she said.
Then Reeder discovered virtual school. As a middle school social studies teacher at Colorado Connections Academy for the past 13 years, she found "there's really no classroom management." Online teaching at the academy, a public K through 12 school, gives her time, freedom and energy to "give every student what they need."
Many schools around the world abruptly transitioned to distance learning in March, when Covid-19 forced brick-and-mortar schools to shutter. But much of what students experienced didn't represent real online school, in which teachers are trained to teach remotely and online.
Online education done deliberately isn't as simple as sending home packets or directing students toward which YouTube videos to watch.
And when done right, it's just as rewarding as in-person teaching, said Eric Sheninger, a distance learning expert and associate partner with the International Center for Leadership in Education, which provides professional development services for educators. "It really is about using technology in meaningful ways that engage kids to think and apply their thinking in relevant ways."
Online teaching requires a different set of skills, not just from teachers and school administrators, but from students and their families, too.
Remote or distance education refers to learning outside of school, which doesn't have to be online (think correspondence courses). Starting in the spring, most US students were trying to learn remotely and online, and that requires technology.
Yet some 18.1% of US households don't have internet access, and over 10% don't have a computer at home. Some families must park outside restaurants or Wi-Fi-enabled school buses to access signals. Others share a single device among multiple kids, which means only one child can "attend" school at a time.
"There are millions and millions of kids in this county who still don't have access to Wi-Fi and technology," Sheninger said.
Solving that problem requires creative thinking, budgeting and intervention at all levels of government and school.
"We have to deal with the digital equity issue. We're sending a lot of work to unequal homes and unequal environments," said Stephanie DeMichele, an Ohio-based digital learning designer and distance learning expert.
One suggestion: "It would be nice to see our wealthy districts collaborating with their rural, less wealthy neighbors: How can we help you and share resources?" DeMichele said.
Mary Gifford, president of StrongMind, a company which provides curriculum, technology and education services to grades K through 12 schools, said that teachers should start by considering the needs of the least-served students. "As a teacher, I should think of what I could do to serve the most vulnerable students, who have a harder time engaging."
Prior to the pandemic, very few teachers received training in how to teach online.
"The more traditionally an educator has been teaching, the less likely they would have been to consider taking an online class," DeMichele said; they wouldn't have learned to teach one, or experienced one themselves.
Yet students have evolved in their technological mastery. "We are teaching teachers to teach students who no longer exist," she said.
Engagement, and keeping kids motivated, looks different online. Many digital learning environments operate on a "flipped classroom" model. Students learn the material on their own first, remotely via videos or other technology, then come together with their teacher to work through it and seek help.
"When you're in a traditional setting, the crowd management is a little different," Tillie Elvrum, president of the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families, said. "In an online setting, teachers are able to turn the blackboard over to a student."
Material has to be adapted for different grades, not just matching the content to the age but the content delivery, based on technological aptitude.