School closures stemming from the novel coronavirus have begun escalating in the United States, with the 24,000-student Northshore district in Washington state announcing Thursday that it will close and shift to online learning for up to 14 days. It’s the first real test of prolonged distance learning to rise out of the arrival of COVID-19 in American communities.
E-learning has been touted as a potential tool for minimizing disruption and keeping instruction flowing during an extended break—but significant gaps in access and resources mean not all schools are prepared to offer virtual classes, and not all students are equipped to learn online.
Two districts in New York’s Westchester County are closed until at least Monday, and a smattering of other schools and districts have closed for a day or two over the past week or so.
Worldwide, the outbreak has already forced the temporary shutdown of schools in China, Japan, and Italy, affecting nearly 300 million students, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Many Districts Don’t Provide Devices
The virus, which has spread globally in the past two months after originating in China’s Wuhan province, has begun to take hold in the U.S. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 states have reported at least one case, and 11 people (10 in Washington, one in California) have died from the virus, with roughly 100 cases currently confirmed and more expected. News about the virus and its impacts are unspooling at a rapid rate, as are recommendations for frequent hand-washing and limiting contact with others when you’re sick.
Officials from the CDC last week began urging U.S. schools to make plans for a possible short- or long-term shutdown. Health officials have cautioned that closing school too early or for too long could cause harmful ripple effects, even though research of pandemics over the last century showed major benefits to preemptive closure of schools. District leaders across the country are huddling this week to determine how to proceed.
Many students across the country are equipped with tablets and computers provided by their schools. More than half of 300 school IT leaders who responded to a 2019 Consortium of School Networking (CoSN) survey said their districts have at least begun moving towards 1:1 programs in which each student has a device to complete assignments during the school day and at home.
But that leaves out many school districts where such devices aren’t provided, as well as many students, particularly in rural areas and from low-income backgrounds, for whom home access to the internet or a personal digital device is out of reach.
Some school leaders haven’t yet figured out how they would maintain the flow of learning if school needs to close for an extended period of time. Sal Pascarella, the superintendent of Danbury Public Schools in Connecticut, is resigned to accept that students won’t be able to access new concepts or learning materials if they’re stuck at home for more than a few days.
“Our school district would not be able to sustain in a meaningful way substantive teaching in the content area on a platform like teleteaching,” Pascarella said.
Of the district’s 12,000 students, 52 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, and school resources are tight, Pascarella said. Some of the district’s high schools have begun developing e-learning capabilities more generally, he said, but elementary and middle schools are further behind. Developing bilingual programs for the district’s substantial population of English-language learners has also been a challenge, he said.
“The teachers start looking at learning that they want to reinforce or extend their work, but not what I would call moving the curriculum forward, just reinforcing,” he said.
The Sitka School District in Alaska is in a similar situation, with a learning management system in place for secondary, but not elementary schools. An existing homeschool program could provide elementary resources, but Superintendent Mary Wegner said her team has “a lot of work to do to figure out what we would do if we had to close.”
She’d like to see the Federal Communications Commission expand broadband access to more households, perhaps through an expansion of its Lifeline program for low-income families. For now, her district remains focused on prevention efforts.
“Nobody’s thinking we’re going to be zero cases forever,” Wegner said. “We now have a window of time to prepare.”
Find Creative Workarounds
Having available resources for e-learning isn’t the same as being able to pull it off successfully, said Keith Krueger, the CEO of CoSN, a nonprofit membership organization for K-12 tech leaders.
“Those districts that are trying to do this on the fly, don’t have a ubiquitous environment, don’t have their staff trained, are not likely to be able to turn on a dime and do this,” he said.
He’s urging school districts to take this current period of time—with heightened concerns about potential shutdowns but relatively few actual closures—to get creative. “I would definitely call in the virtual learning experts in your community, in your school district, to think through what are the things that you’re already doing that will work, what do you need to beef up in terms of training,” Krueger said.
Leaders of larger districts “don’t have a really good sense of what they have in-house,” says John Watson, founder of the Evergreen Education Group, which runs the Digital Learning Collaborative. A state- or district-run online school can provide important elements like a learning management system and teachers with online teaching capabilities, he said.
As for devices, he recommends striking up partnerships with local libraries, coffee shops, and other businesses that can supplement schools’ device supply. The collaborative’s 2019 e-learning report offers additional resources, including insights from some of the 12 states that already have policies allowing e-learning days to count toward required instructional time.
Kevin Schwartz, the chief technology officer of the Austin Independent School District, in Texas, has been thinking about trying to enlist local businesses and community centers that have Wi-Fi and other resources, for students who lack reliable internet connectivity at home.
Schwartz said it’s likely the district could “quickly marshal the forces to solve the technical pieces” of delivering online work from teachers to students through Canvas, the 80,000-student district’s learning management system. The broader challenge, he said, would be building recognition that many of the lessons delivered in traditional classrooms would have to be completely rethought. When schools are forced to close, “everyone’s mind goes to, how do you still keep doing the same things you’re doing in the classroom, at home?” said Schwartz.
In fact, “the challenge is how do you practically do this in a different way?” he said. “Because you’re not going to get 25 kids together in a room and teach them. It’s going to be different. It’s rethinking the approach, not just from a tools perspective, but from a pedagogy perspective.”
Wegner, the superintendent of the Sitka School District in Alaska, doesn’t believe online learning is inherently inferior to in-class instruction. “We in public education have this concept that if you’re sitting in a chair in front of a teacher, learning is occurring,” she said. “But really learning is occurring when students are interacting with the content in a meaningful way. That can happen in an online environment.”
Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama started developing an emergency e-learning strategy while preparing for the H1N1 virus in 2009. Schools ended up not needing to close for that event, but the district still developed an “eDay program” and learned some valuable lessons, according to Donna Williamson, who retired last year as the district’s chief technology officer.
Online assignments need to be flexible enough to accommodate all operating systems—asking students to “open a word processor” or “type” an essay rather than instructing students to “open Microsoft Word,” which they might not have. Williamson said widely accessible or cloud-based resources, like Google Docs, work best.
Parents in Williamson’s school district are now fully aware of what would be expected from students during closure. But other districts that are further behind should remain flexible, she said. The first time Mountain Brook had an eDay, the district told parents “if you can’t do this because we were not fully prepared, students have two weeks to make up the work,” Williamson said.
Equity Is an Issue
Districts scrambling to develop e-learning resources won’t be alone in their efforts. The State Educational Technology Directors Association later this month plans to unveil a “Coalition of E-Learning” portal with “resources, policies and company support for states, districts, and schools,” according to Candice Dodson, the organization’s executive director. Several U.S. technology companies, including K12 Inc., have signaled willingness to partner with districts at a reduced rate or even for free; similar partnerships have been in effect in China for weeks.
Individual districts could lift each other up as well. After a particularly snowy winter closed schools for numerous days during the 2017-18 school year, South Windsor Public Schools in Connecticut began developing “Snow Day Scholars,” a distance learning program that includes online components but doesn’t require students to have internet access or a digital device at home.
Teachers worked together on developing stimulating activities—16 for each K-8 grade level—that students can complete independently, without teacher interaction. The assignments vary widely across all subjects, from writing prompts based on students’ chosen reading to more abstract to teaching someone in your household five words in a foreign language.
“Certainly we looked at this through an equity lens, and wanted to make sure that students and families who had limited access or no access to technology would not be excluded from participation,” said Kate Carter, superintendent of South Windsor Public Schools.
Carter thinks parents in her district are now well-prepared for the possibility of students doing work remotely, now that they’ve been kept abreast of the development of Snow Day Scholars. The district’s messaging has made clear that the program is not intended to lay the groundwork for replacing teachers. “We felt this could be presented to the state as a tool when there is an extreme situation,” she said.
The program was originally going to launch in pilot form on the fourth snow day of this school year, but the unusually dry season meant students haven’t been off school long enough yet for the program to kick in.
Still, Carter is hopeful that her district will be able to quickly adapt and make improvements: “My message is please take anything we’ve done to share and use and build upon.”
EdWeek Market Brief Managing Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.
An alternative version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as Coronavirus Shuts Down Some Schools