The Scramble to Move America's Schools Online
America’s sprawling K-12 public education system is scrambling to move online, almost overnight, with little time to plan and even less clarity about what happens next. Undertaken in response to the spiraling coronavirus crisis, the massive and scattershot transition has shifted much of the burden of schooling onto overwhelmed parents and caregivers, highlighting both the enormous potential and profound limitations of classroom technology.
Like everyone else, educators were caught unprepared for the scope and speed of the disruptions caused by a global pandemic. In little more than two weeks, the coronavirus led to the mass closure of at least 124,000 school buildings, leaving more than 55 million children without access to in-person classroom instruction, counseling, and other services.
Thrust into emergency triage, schools focused first on how to provide food and other basics. In recent days, they’ve pivoted to the far more difficult task of teaching children from afar. With minimal training, often while stuck at home and juggling their own family responsibilities, the country’s teachers and principals have sprung into action, distributing Chromebooks to students and sending Wi-Fi enabled school buses into their communities, teaching on Instagram Live and hosting virtual class discussions on Zoom—and calling students and parents on the telephone to make sure they’re OK.
Nearly three-fourths of teachers in schools closed due to the coronavirus say they are still providing some instruction to their students, according to a nationally representative survey administered online by the Education Week Research Center on March 24 and 25. Sixty percent say they are assigning and collecting student work online, and more than a third are using digital tools to teach live classes.
Still, at a national level, the effort has been chaotic and uneven, with schools running into enormous barriers as they attempt to use technology to keep the country’s public education system up and running. Messages from state and federal authorities—about how long the closures may last, whether schools can require online classwork, and what will become of state requirements around instructional time—have often been contradictory and quick to change, and emergency financial relief has been slow to come.
Huge gaps in the nation’s broadband infrastructure have also left millions of rural and poor families without reliable internet access. Many schools don’t have enough computers or tablets for all their students, or an adequate plan to distribute the devices on hand. English-language learners and students with disabilities are often being left behind. Concerns about student data privacy and screen time are rising as the nation’s children turn en masse to digital learning tools.
Continuity vs. Flexibility
“The first question is how do we survive between now and the end of June,” said Michael K. Barbour, an education professor at Touro University California and an expert on virtual learning. “But we really need to start talking about what this looks like a year from now.”
In the short term, the coronavirus pandemic has left school systems across the country navigating an unprecedented dilemma, said Earl Aguilera, an assistant education professor at California State University, Fresno, who studies the role of technology in schools and society.
Should districts seek to maintain continuity and offer structure, by moving as much of the normal school day as possible online? Or should they embrace uncertainty and prioritize flexibility, by being as responsive as they can to the ever-shifting demands of an escalating emergency?
The 356,000-student Miami-Dade County Public Schools has taken the former approach, leveraging its existing ed-tech infrastructure and invoking its emergency “instructional continuity plan,” originally developed with an eye toward maintaining operations in the wake of a hurricane or other natural disaster. The district is planning to distribute tens of thousands of Chromebooks. Homebound children are already accessing the district’s core curriculum via online learning programs such as iReady and Edgenuity. Teachers are expected to monitor their students’ performance and communicate with them daily.
“M-DCPS is committed to ensuring the highest level of academic excellence, no matter the circumstances,” the district announced in a March 20 press release.
In the Boston suburbs, meanwhile, the 7,200-student Lexington, Mass., school district has taken the opposite tack. Last week, superintendent Julie Hackett rolled out a remote learning plan that stressed scaled-back expectations. Until school buildings re-open, Hackett urged Lexington families to anticipate that structured learning time will be reduced by half. Teachers will scale their workdays back significantly. Students will receive feedback, not grades. The district’s academic focus will be on reinforcing what’s already been taught, then providing students with opportunities for independent work that doesn’t require their parents to magically learn how to teach a child to read, or understand algebra, or pass the AP Physics exam.
“The traditional school day as we once knew it has completely changed,” the superintendent wrote in an open letter to the Lexington community on March 23. “We are in the midst of a global health crisis, necessitating a shift in our teaching and learning priorities.”
In between those poles, thousands of other school systems have adopted a hodgepodge of strategies.
According to the Education Week Research Center survey, 37 percent of teachers said they had interacted with students at least once per day since their school was closed due to the coronavirus, while 16 percent said they had not interacted with their students at all. In the same survey, the vast majority of district leaders said that at least some of their students are able to access digital content via an online learning e system. But more than half of those same leaders said they were not able to provide online learning opportunities to all students.
On the ground, remote learning in some communities has been limited to photocopied worksheets. In at least seven states, teachers are delivering lessons on public television via school district partnerships with local PBS affiliates. Other districts have focused on curating and distributing links to free online learning sites such as Khan Academy. In some schools, teachers are posting lessons and homework assignments to learning platforms such as Canvas or Google Classroom, where students can also upload their work. Elsewhere, schools are focused on maintaining social connections among staff and students, encouraging them to meet during virtual office hours or share photos on Seesaw.
The variety of approaches is staggering. But a common thread runs throughout.
No matter what districts are doing, many of the nation’s children are currently attending school in their beds and on their sofas and at their kitchen tables, alongside siblings and pets, with laptops and tablets and textbooks that offer only a partial connection to the rest of the world. That means that parents and caregivers, often juggling work-from-home obligations and money worries of their own, are now also responsible for shaping the day-to-day education of the country’s children.
“It’s been an incredible shock for families,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and advocacy organization that has been tracking districts’ responses to the coronavirus crisis.
Huge, Complex Tech Equity Issues
Federal and state officials haven’t made things any easier.
A massive coronavirus relief package—likely to include billions of dollars for public schools, including a substantial chunk that could be used to support remote learning—was expected to be signed by the president. But school technology advocates have voiced disappointment that the plan apparently won’t include new funding for the federal E-rate program, which supports connectivity for schools and libraries.
There have also been conflicting messages around when schools should plan to re-open. Many public health experts suggest that coronavirus-related infections have yet to peak, meaning that the social-distancing protocols, shelter-in-place orders, and mass school closures could remain in effect for weeks or months. If that proves to be the case, schools would be wise to devote scarce resources to planning for remote learning over the long haul.
President Donald Trump, however, has been emphatic in his desire to “re-open” the country—presumably including schools—by Easter, potentially putting the White House at odds with many of the nation’s governors, who will ultimately make the decision.
And the most confusing, highest-stakes question around schools’ rush to mass online- and remote instruction has revolved around equity. Even before the pandemic, advocates decried schools’ lack of digital resources for English-language learners and students with disabilities, as well as a nationwide “homework gap” that leaves an estimated 12 million American children without a reliable high-speed internet connection at home.
Many districts are in the midst of major efforts to address such concerns, and many superintendents and school boards are fearful of any misstep that could result in lawsuits or the loss of federal funding. So when the U.S. Department of Education advised on March 17 that online learning opportunities offered in response to coronavirus closures must be either accessible to all students or paired with “equally effective alternate access,” some districts immediately froze efforts they were just getting off the ground.
“To ensure equity, remote instruction should not be provided to students, including through the internet, technology at home, by phone, or otherwise,” William Hite, the superintendent of the 130,000-student School District of Philadelphia, wrote to the city’s principals that same night.
Four days later, the federal education department released a fact sheet clarifying its earlier stance. By then, however, Philadelphia had already switched gears, moving to offer supplemental, nonmandatory online learning materials while getting as many digital devices, mobile hot-spots, and paper packets out to students as possible.
Absent clear direction or guidance, thousands of districts across the country have pursued similar equity-related approaches. The 600-student Reardon-Edwall School District in northern Washington started sending its school buses along their regular routes to deliver paper lessons to students. The 82,000-student Austin Independent School District in Texas began adding Wi-Fi connectivity on more than 500 school buses, so that they can be used as roving hot spots to help students get online. In Boulder, Colo., school administrators rushed to translate online materials into multiple languages. In New York City, teachers worked quickly to make online lessons more accessible, through accommodations such as audio-recorded instructions.
Still, every such effort seemed to create a new worry.
The lessons from a decade of poorly planned device deployments seemed to go unheeded in places such as Orange County, Calif., where a hurried effort by the 47,000-student Capistrano Unified School District to distribute Chromebooks led hundreds of families to wait in close proximity in blocks-long lines that snaked around local schools, only to find there weren’t nearly enough devices to go around.
Just as millions of students across the country were being asked to log on, the researchers behind a massive new study of children’s screen time warned that overall time on computers, tablets, and televisions each day is linked to diminished language development—regardless of the quality of the content kids are seeing.
Cybersecurity experts cautioned that if students, teachers, and school information-technology professionals are forced to work remotely for an extended period of time, the country could see a significant spike in data breaches and cyberattacks involving public schools.
And those live lessons on Facebook and Instagram, or those class discussions teachers are hosting via the free Zoom accounts they just signed up for?
They’re almost certainly violating state and federal privacy laws, and they are exposing children to widespread collection of their location data, browsing histories, and other sensitive personal information, said Amelia Vance, the director of Youth & Education Privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, who urged teachers to avoid commercial applications that aren’t intended for educational use.
“Honestly, at this point, I’d be thrilled if teachers would limit themselves to ed-tech products right now,” Vance said.
Take a Deep Breath
Still, virtual learning experts said, now is the time to take a deep breath, despite the confusion and false starts and glaring inequities.
The country is in a crisis unlike any other in its modern history. When the emergency bells rang, America’s public schools stepped up, quickly taking the lead on dramatic new efforts to stabilize and take care of their communities. The massive and ad hoc move online is only a week or two old in most places. Those realities shouldn’t be overlooked, said Barbour, the Touro University California professor.
And even amid the press of immediate demands, Barbour said, educators desperately need a moment to assess the situation and consider what might be coming over the uncertain horizon. Most districts have not yet announced any hard plans to re-open. Those that have expect the dates and details to change. Alarmingly, if not surprisingly, 44 percent of district leaders say they haven’t yet figured out how to make up instructional time lost to the coronavirus.
That means the hard part is yet to come. Accomplish what you can during the remainder of this school year, Barbour advised. But find a way to look beyond tomorrow. Even if schools open again in May, or September, millions of students will re-enter buildings academically behind and having endured considerable trauma. How will schools support them?
And what if the remote learning strategies being developed now have to remain in place well into the 2020-21 school year? Two decades of experimentation with online education models—from full-time virtual schools to online coursework and credit recovery classes, and from distance-learning programs to snow-day emergency plans—have yielded mostly flaccid results. Can districts use this time to develop something better, creating new routines and processes and pedagogical strategies that could make remote and online education more successful if it becomes necessary for an extended time?
The good news, said Aguilera, the Fresno State professor, is that the technology schools are struggling to deploy at the moment is secondary to what will matter most in the months ahead. The compassion, empathy, kindness, and commitment that the nation’s educators have already shown is the best reason for optimism that America’s public-education system can weather what’s to come.
“Teachers have spent years cultivating the most important tools they need to address this crisis,” Aguilera said. “The biggest challenge now is taking those qualities and translating them at a distance."
Vol. 39, Issue 28, Pages 14-15Published in Print: April 1, 2020, as The Scramble to Move America's Schools Online