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School & District Management Opinion

The Pandemic Could Have Unlocked Remote Schooling. It Hasn’t

Despite the hopes of education leaders, online learning options aren’t meeting families’ needs
By Robin J. Lake — October 25, 2021 5 min read
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In a rush to return to normal and leave last year’s remote learning debacles in the rearview mirror, states and school systems have thrown away a potential pandemic breakthrough: the ability to shift quickly and seamlessly to remote learning whenever they need.

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, school and system leaders hoped sick days and snow days could soon be a thing of the past. If future weather events or disease outbreaks forced children to stay home, schools could easily shift to remote learning.

“We have a flexible model where students can learn synchronously from home or from school,” one district leader told researchers. “We will continue to expand this process to make anywhere learning a reality.”

But as we transition from a summer of California wildfires and devastating hurricanes to an academic year disrupted by quarantines and staffing shortages, “anywhere learning” seems all too futuristic. The important possibilities the pandemic experience offers for helping schools overcome disruptions beyond COVID-19 aren’t being fulfilled.

In our research tracking the 2021-22 reopening in states and school systems across the country, we’re seeing that, unfortunately, anywhere learning is not most students’ reality.

Take, for instance, how districts are handling learning during quarantines. In our review of a mix of 100 large and urban school districts, we find students exposed to the virus could be asked to quarantine from as little as two days to 14 or more. How much instruction these students can expect to receive is similarly all over the map, but for most students, the amount of synchronous teaching time would be scant.

Among the districts we track, 71 say they plan to support learning for students who have to quarantine. Nineteen districts—fewer than 2 in 5—guarantee students will have any real-time contact with a teacher. The continued disruptions promised by these figures threaten to exacerbate the pandemic’s toll on students’ learning and emotional well-being.

Parents should not have to accept their children being sent home for days or weeks with nothing but paper packets plus the expectation that they will be able to pick up right where they left off when back in the physical classroom. Teachers already coping with burnout should not have to revive last year’s practice of livestreaming their classrooms to students at home. Nor did most educators think that worked well for student learning.

Enrollment caps, summer application deadlines, and staff shortages have shut families out of online schools.

At the start of the 2021-22 school year, only 55 percent of the large or urban districts we track offered a remote option to all students. Eight states—some red, some blue—have contributed to this problem with policies that limit the kinds of remote learning many districts offered during the past school year. Some policies, like New Jersey’s ban on virtual learning options except for quarantining students, were enacted earlier this year, when parent frustrations with school closures were boiling over but before the Delta variant posed new and even scarier health threats.

Even in places where online learning isn’t legally restricted, enrollment caps, summer application deadlines, and staff shortages have shut families out of online schools.

When school began, California’s Sacramento City Unified school district only had enough teachers for a quarter of its registered virtual learners. The Hawaii education department was forced to turn to out-of-state teachers to satisfy increased demand for its online option, lengthening its waitlist. In fact, hundreds of families are on virtual school waitlists in cities across the country, including Minneapolis; Savannah, Ga.; and Charlotte, N.C.

Parents interested in remote learning may also discover their choices are all or nothing: Either they can pull their child out of their traditional school to enroll for the whole year in an online option or they can remain in a brick-and-mortar building and hope for the best.

To truly make sick days or snow days a thing of the past, traditional schools will need more flexible options that allow students to move seamlessly from the classroom to the cloud. Some organizations are creating such options, allowing schools to better respond to student and families’ needs.

ASU Prep Digital, a K-12 program affiliated with Arizona State University, is helping a charter school network in Cleveland provide every student who needs to quarantine two hours a day of live, one-on-one or small-group instruction from a teacher, plus a tailored set of assignments that ensures they will still be on track when they return to the classroom. The ASU online program is rolling out similar Learning Under Quarantine partnerships with other school districts across the country.

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Remote learning isn’t the only need. Pandemic pods and learning hubs have shown the power of small, individualized spaces where community organizations—whose staff often have the trust of students and families in their neighborhoods—to help students discover a sense of belonging and connect them to essential services like tutoring or mental-health support.

States need to help school districts build systems that keep students safe, learning, and connected to one another all year.

They should repeal rules that prevent school systems from offering online learning options for families who need them. They should use federal COVID-19-relief funding to help school systems develop better approaches to online learning providers and work with community groups to support students outside school walls. And they should ensure all parents have online learning options, like statewide online schools, if their local districts won’t offer them.

These investments will pay off in the long run. Interruptions to learning, whether because of disease, natural disasters, extreme weather, or for other reasons, will continue this year and perhaps well into the future. As one district official told us, the critical question ahead for district leaders is, “How do we build a system that can withstand those disruptions?”

The need for an education system capable of keeping students safe and learning, no matter what, has never been more urgent given the high likelihood of continued disruptions. It’s also never been more achievable—if policymakers act now.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Pandemic Could Have Unlocked Remote Schooling. It Hasn’t

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