School & District Management

Forbidding Remote Learning: Why Some Schools Won’t Offer a Virtual Option This Fall

By Catherine Gewertz — June 01, 2021 8 min read
Tanya Holyfield, a second grade teacher with Manchester Academic Charter School, teaches remote students from her classroom on March 4, 2021, in Pittsburgh.
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School districts across the country are planning a full return to face-to-face instruction next year, a major milestone that reflects a rosier coronavirus picture. But some districts—and entire states—are going a step further, eliminating remote learning altogether, or severely restricting its use.

Those decisions worry many advocates and experts. They fear that schools are squandering a chance to harness technology to make school work better for students and families. And they think schools are being shortsighted; without a robust remote option, they will be ill-prepared to respond if COVID-19 levels spike again.

“Everyone wants to get back to normal. But snapping back to normal when we know that didn’t work well for too many kids, that’s a real danger,” said Robin Lake, the CEO of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been monitoring schools’ responses to the pandemic. “Are districts really going to force families to bring their kids back? That’s a bad look.”

Few districts are taking that approach. Most are committed to providing some kind of online option, said Dan Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. He thinks that’s important: Having a remote option can help kids catch up, or let them move ahead when they’ve mastered material, he said. But other forces can push districts into an either/or stance.

“The politics of this thing have gotten to the point where remote learning is undesirable, and so [some districts feel] all kids need to be back in school in person,” Domenech said.

Districts and states eliminate or restrict remote-learning options

While some districts, like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Portland, Ore., are choosing to retain remote options for students, others are restricting them.

New York City, with more than 1 million students, announced last week that no remote learning would be available next year. Some districts, such as Chicago, the District of Columbia, and Northside Independent in Texas, will allow remote instruction only for students who meet certain eligibility criteria, such as a medical condition that requires a student to stay at home.

These districts, and states that have made similar moves, are in a distinct minority. Data collected by Education Week show that 16 states require or expect all students to return in person in the fall, but only a handful have taken the additional step of banning or severely restricting remote learning.

New Jersey is the most prominent example. Its governor, Phil Murphy, announced last month that all instruction will be in person in the fall. Massachusetts and Illinois have advised their districts that they can’t offer remote as a standard learning option, but can provide it in very limited circumstances. Minnesota schools can’t offer remote instruction unless legislation to enable it passes this summer.

In a few states, questions about funding remote learning are creating uncertainty for school districts. South Carolina and Kentucky are considering less per-pupil funding for remote learners. Texas has not decided whether and how it would fund districts for students who want to learn from home.

That uncertainty has prompted some districts, including Houston, to say they’d offer a remote option “as long as” their state fully funds it.

Parents want a remote-learning option. What happens if schools dump it?

Studies show a clear and strong demand for an ongoing remote-learning option. In a survey last month by the National Parents Union, 20 percent of parents said they want their children to attend school only remotely this fall. In another recent poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates for education and civil-rights groups including the American Federation of Teachers, more than one quarter of parents said they’re not yet comfortable sending their children to school in person.

Principals, too, see a role for remote instruction. In a recent survey by the RAND Corp., one-third said they would keep offering the remote option after the pandemic for any family that chooses it. More than half said they’d use it for special circumstances like student illness.

Tafshier Cosby, a New Jersey resident who is the National Parents Union’s director of national organizing, said Gov. Murphy did himself no favors with parents when he decided that schools could not offer distance learning.

“To just arbitrarily make a decision for a whole state without talking to the people closest to the issue? It’s doing parents a disservice,” said Cosby. “And frankly, it’s disrespectful.”

In Newark, N.J., Tameeka Walden is struggling with Gov. Murphy’s decision. She has a health condition that puts her at higher risk for COVID-19. She’d hoped that her 11-year-old daughter, Samaya, who will start 6th grade next year, could continue learning from home.

Walden is vaccinated, but she still worries that Samaya could pick up the virus at school, transmit it to her, and be saddled with guilt about it. (There are currently no vaccines approved for children younger than 12.) Walden is preparing herself to face her daughter’s return to school—and likely her own employer’s demand that she return to work in person—but she wishes she had other options.

In New York City, Laura Mourino is trying to figure out what she’ll do now that Mayor Bill DeBlasio has ruled out teaching from home. The 18-year math teacher donated a kidney to her husband, so they’re both immunocompromised. They’re vaccinated, but tests showed they didn’t develop COVID-19 antibodies. (There are still unknowns about the effectiveness of the vaccines for immunocompromised people.)

Mourino is talking with the administration at her school, Harvest Collegiate Academy, to see if she could take a sabbatical or perhaps early retirement.

“I love my job. I love my school. I don’t want to leave,” she said. “But there are going to be like 500 people crammed onto two floors. I don’t feel safe.”

Remote learning didn’t work well for most students

Some teachers welcomed their districts’ decisions to eliminate or restrict remote learning, saying it didn’t work well for students or teachers.

Jake Jacobs, a middle school art teacher in New York City, isn’t a big fan of remote learning. Too often, he said, kids fell asleep in front of their screens, or showed up only long enough to be counted, and then logged off. Even so, he worries what effect ending the remote option might have on the spread of coronavirus variants among unvaccinated children, and he noted that a large chunk of city parents are still hesitant about in-person learning.

“It’s been a nightmare year,” Jacobs said. “It’s fair to say all teachers want things to get back to normal. So really, the only question is, are we going to be safe?”

Meghan Hatch-Geary, a high school English teacher in Beacon Falls, Conn., and the state’s 2020 teacher of the year, said she fully supports her district’s decision to discontinue remote learning next year. She’s currently teaching two groups of students simultaneously: most are in the classroom, and a few are at home. The students who’ve struggled the most this year, she said, are those who stayed fully remote.

That’s true across the country. New data from the RAND Corp. shows that students who were fully remote this school year suffered academically and were more likely to be absent.

With case counts dropping in the area, and expanded vaccine availability for adolescents, Hatch-Geary thinks it’s reasonable for her district to ask students to return in person. Now that she’s been vaccinated, she feels safer coming into the building, too. The district is still working out how—or whether—students will keep learning if they have to quarantine next fall, Hatch-Geary said.

Texas’ Willis Independent School District won’t offer any remote options at all next year. The district’s been in hybrid mode since Labor Day, and a minority of students chose the district’s asynchronous at-home instruction. But they were the ones getting failing marks most often, said Superintendent Tim Harkrider.

Coronavirus levels are declining, vaccine rates are rising, and parents’ need their children to go to school—most work two or more jobs. All those dynamics made required in-person instruction the best choice for Willis, Harkrider said.

“It just went back to that question of the best fit for our community and the lack of success of our online learners,” he said. “We felt we needed to draw a pretty hard line, let’s get them back.”

Ditching remote-learning options could be a mistake

From a medical perspective, experts advise districts to be prepared.

Variants of the virus could still “overwhelm the immune response” of a population that’s gotten some protection from antibodies and vaccines, said Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of pediatrics and health research at Stanford University’s school of medicine. Another spike in the virus is “absolutely possible,” she said.

Districts should also consider the level of vaccination in their communities, she said, since uptake is much lower in some regions than in others. Another slice of risk: state and regional directives banning mask mandates.

“It’s a mistake not to have a plan B in your back pocket,” said Maldonado, the chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases.

Having a remote option is important for families that have found it works best for their children, or those with kids who are medically at risk, said Mike Magee, the CEO of Chiefs for Change, a superintendents’ group. But superintendents need to work closely with families to make sure fear isn’t the reason they’re choosing remote. Studies show schools, with the right strategies, aren’t places of high virus transmission.

It pains Susan Patrick to think schools would eliminate or restrict remote learning in their rush to resume normal operations. As the president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, she’s been a leading voice for using technology to improve learning.

“For districts, it should be an opportunity to find out what worked for students and families, to talk to teachers about why,” and design a more student-centered approach to learning, Patrick said. Those conversations “start to cause the education system to ask more and more difficult questions about how to improve, and that’s a good thing.”

Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as Some Schools to Ditch or Restrict Remote Learning

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