Amidst COVID-19, America’s Schools Don’t Need A Hall Pass

While the impact of the pandemic on education doesn’t have an official start date in the United States, by March 11th, many of Washington state’s schools, including in Seattle, were closed for business. Meanwhile in neighboring Northshore, Washington, whose schools had closed a week earlier out of precaution, 23,000 homebound students were notified they would be continuing their education remotely.

The initiative was short-lived. Northshore was told to halt its remote program a mere week later by the state, and instructed to make any work done by students supplemental, arguing that if they couldn’t reach or guarantee learning for everyone, they shouldn’t expect it of anyone.

In that one week test drive, “attendance” in school increased dramatically. Northshore Superintendent Michelle Reid reports that on a normal week in school, more than 7,000 are absent. When she opened up online learning, fewer than 500 students were “absent.”

Despite positive signs that both students and parents want to continue their education in whatever way it can be delivered, in just 3 short weeks, the country has witnessed states and districts actively banning “school” even where online platforms are readily accessible for use, and where educators are vocally up for the task.

Oregon closed school for all students – even those already enrolled in virtual schools, with their Department of Education categorizing any form of remote learning as just supplemental and not counted for grading – though pressure from the public has caused officials there to reconsider.

Michigan says online instruction will not count toward traditional “seat time” requirements, meaning if students don’t finish the year as, say, a fourth grader, not only will their status be up in the air, but more importantly they will lack the continuity in learning needed to progress.

Oregon and Michigan join the rousing chorus of district officials who argue that equity is at stake, that children with special needs or limited English proficiency are not capable of learning on their own (another subject I will cover in the future) – and that some parents cannot be expected to expect their children to learn, and moreover, to guide their progress in doing so.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, New Jersey’s State Board of Education voted unanimously on April 1 “to approve emergency changes in the state administrative code to allow students with disabilities to receive their special education services remotely while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic….”

Said Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, “without this increased flexibility,students with disabilities will not receive the special education and related services they are entitled to as determined by each student’s individual educational plan.”

“I’m not going to make you repeat the year if you do all your school work. This is school,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo. “This isn’t vacation. This is real school. Work as hard and as serious as you would in real school.”

These promising signs by state officers in key roles reinforce that students should be “entitled” to learning no matter what the circumstance, should be the rule, not the exception.

In all of this discussion and delay, however, there are some voices that are making these difficult decisions more about their own existence than the welfare of children.

The leader of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators said he was worried that online learning would draw students away from traditional schools when this is all over.

“You have got to give the school districts time to make some decisions, make plans, and put alternative learning delivery systems together,” said DiRocco, arguing it is not fair to “allow the charter schools to say, ‘Well we are open for business now.’” “How can we prevent mass numbers of students from enrolling in cyber schools,” a union leader in the Keystone state went so far as to ask his members.

These actions and attitudes are but a microcosm of what is the norm among traditionalists in education.

Outside times of crisis, nearly every facet of society has continued to evolve through ambitious innovation and technological advancements, but education has always dragged its feet.

Could it be that this crisis will trigger a critical demand of the typically sleepy U.S. education system; a demand that pushes for more advances, and for a wholly different kind of delivery method?

The big issue for many is, however, what to do about the limited access to technology and internet that is an issue in pockets of every state. Or the needs of children in special education who some fear will be left behind because teachers and specially-trained professionals are not physically present to ensure the success of their individualized education plans. This equity gap is at the core of the well-intentioned but flawed decisions that some states have made to limit education or to tell teachers to assure parents that work going home should not count, which anyone who has children knows will result in very little being done.

Just consider the dramatic change in students “attending school” in that Washington state district. That more went online than went to school regularly underscores the reality of today’s students, who are digital natives. They have grown up with a menu of technology, and are handed phones and ipads almost at the same time as their first sippy cups. Many students already have access to the devices they would need to continue their learning online straight away. Others would only need access.

Take Miami, where the school district figured out a way to get 56,000 devices to families in under one week.

Or New York City’s Success Academy, the largest and most successful charter school network in the Big Apple, whose majority low-income student population had a remote learning program and computers in hand in just four days, ready for students and teachers to get to work at their new ‘schools’ – their homes, where the only expectation was that learning would continue.

In Bridgeport, Connectiuct, school leaders regularly converse with their parents and teachers, inspiring them with the expectation that they continue to work, to study, and to learn – as learning during this time will count, and their time spent won’t be wasted.

In Chicago, the LEARN Charter Network noted, “[We] have been in constant communication, by phone and email, with each of their families to answer questions and help with any challenge a child or family may be facing.” 

That’s the attitude we all need right now as we are increasingly confined to our homes and endure weeks more of this virus and daily devastating news. And as cases spike in major cities like Chicago, the network’s early responsiveness to connectivity between teachers and families will prove to be a game-changer, should the virus continue to keep students at home, learning.

Experts like Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Education at the University of Washington agree that while we must address these unprecedented challenges, you don’t stop, because not all can’t benefit. “Doing nothing guarantees certain inequities and hardships. Students with disabilities, for example, receive no services and no social interaction,” said Lake. “Doing something produces unknown inequities that can be addressed with enough will, creativity and innovation.”

The reality is undeniable – we can do something. And many will choose to.

The private sector, and particularly ed tech companies, are delivering to Americans’ doorsteps a plethora of products, tools and services, many free, that make learning remotely not only possible, but trackable, leaving no room for categorization of remote learning as solely supplemental.

There is no rulebook for how to take care of the education of our most precious resource, our children, during COVID-19. And if there is no rule book, the old rules must  be abandoned.

Innovation requires risk. It’s time to throw caution to the wind, and provide the tools necessary to allow parents and educators to take control – everywhere. Hopefully, if they can do that until their eventual return to school, our kids will be prepared for what the future holds.

We can do this. After all, we’re Americans.

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