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School & District Management

Remote Learning Isn’t Going Away. Will It Create Separate—and Unequal—School Systems?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 04, 2021 9 min read
Veronica Esquivel, 10, finishes her homework after her virtual school hours while her brother Isias Esquivel sits in front of his computer on Feb. 10, 2021, at their residence in Chicago's predominantly Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood. Her mother, Rosa, worries that her diabetes and her husband's high blood pressure could put their lives at risk if their kids brought the coronavirus home from school.

Schools are stumbling out of the pandemic’s shadow transfigured, cleaved in two as they teach some children in classrooms and others at home, remotely. Originally imagined as a time-limited response, that duality is reshaping schools for next year, and possibly longer, prompting new questions about how separate—and how equal—remote learners’ educational experiences will be.

If even 20 percent of students learn virtually next year, that would create “a whole new parallel track for schools,” said Heather Schwartz, a RAND Corp. researcher who led a recent study showing that 1 in 5 districts were planning or considering a fully remote learning option for 2021-22. Before the pandemic, less than half of 1 percent of U.S. K-12 students studied virtually, according to 2018-19 federal data.

A February survey by the EdWeek Research Center found that 7 in 10 districts plan to offer a “much wider array” of remote options. And polls of parents show strong interest in remote-learning options next year.

“If they were of equal quality, offering equal services, maybe that’s neutral or even potentially positive,” Schwartz said. But given the uneven instructional quality documented in some online schools, “it’s a big red flag.”

Parents are keeping their children home for a variety of reasons. Some, particularly in working-class Black and brown communities hit hard by COVID-19, don’t yet trust their children will be safe in school. Others have found remote learning to be a haven for students who are harassed or bullied, who suffer social anxiety, struggle with school’s endless distractions, or simply learn better via their computers.

Tiffany Newton won’t send her two daughters back to their charter schools in Newark, N.J., this spring or next fall. Laid off from her job at a nonprofit, she’s home to support her 3rd and 6th graders, and they’re thriving, she said. Newton doesn’t trust that their schools’ aging, poorly ventilated buildings will protect them sufficiently against COVID-19. And she doesn’t trust the brand-new vaccines enough to get herself or her daughters inoculated.

“My children will not be used as guinea pigs,” she said. “I’m not willing to put my children in jeopardy.”
Newton does worry about the social interactions and enrichment her daughters will miss out on. But she’s confident she can provide those experiences through other channels.

Across the country in Berkeley, Calif., Brett Cook says his 15-year-old son has found his happy place learning via computer screen at home. He’s a good student and a “homebody” who loves the quiet—and the snacks—at home, and he stays connected with his friends through digital tools like Discord. If his high school offers a remote option next fall, Cook would let his son opt in. “For him, it’s been successful,” Cook said.

Demand for virtual learning likely to remain strong

School districts are seeing the writing on the wall. Parent surveys and emerging patterns in how families have opted to return to school this spring suggest that hefty proportions of students—tilting toward students of color and those from low-income families—could choose to stay remote next fall.

In a national poll of 1,150 parents in April, 58 percent said schools should offer both remote and in-person options next year and let parents choose. Another 12 percent said schools should be remote-only. In the Los Angeles Unified School District this spring, more than half of the parents in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods like West Los Angeles chose to send their kids back to school, while in neighborhoods with large numbers of lower-income Latino and Black families, that number was as low as 30 percent.

When the Chicago district polled its parents in December about spring semester, only 37 percent said they were ready to bring their kids back to school. Nearly half the parents in the District of Columbia schools and two-thirds of those in Shelby County, Tenn., said the same.

But that was when COVID-19 case counts were much higher. With the public health picture improving in most places, parents might feel more comfortable opting for face-to-face instruction next fall. But few districts have started polling parents about that yet, and virus patterns could shift. New variants are gaining ground, and though vaccines for children ages 12 to 15 may be approved soon, it’s not clear how widespread the uptake for inoculating children will be.

Districts are figuring out their options. With more confidence that schools can operate safely and the conviction that there’s no substitute for face-to-face school, some districts are shutting down their remote-learning options next fall.

The superintendent of schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, N.C., told families in April that the district has no plans to offer remote or hybrid options if coronavirus case trends remain positive. But it’s surveying high school students to see if there is enough interest for a virtual academy.

The superintendent of the South Washington school district in Cottage Grove, Minn., said the district wouldn’t offer virtual learning options this fall due to “low interest.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has barred districts from offering remote learning next fall.

Will quality of curricula, teaching, and social opportunities be as rich in remote programs?

But districts want to hang onto their students and the funding that goes with them. From Riverside, Calif., to Bibb County, Ga., they’re figuring out how they can provide what many parents want: a virtual option.

Some districts will have their own teachers teach remote-learning students, but others, like the Albemarle County, Va., school system, are creating virtual academies with separate teaching and administrative staffs. Still others, like the Dayton, Ohio, public schools, have outsourced their entire remote-learning operation, turning over instruction to outside companies.

Activists and scholars who follow what happens when school districts create separate tracks for some children are watching these developments with cautious eyes. They wonder about the quality of curriculum and teachers that remote learners will get, and how they’ll fare without the socialization schools offer. Will children get equal access to sports, music, counselors, reading specialists?

History shows that there’s good reason to fear someone will end up with a “watered down” version of education when there are separate tracks for students, said Pedro Noguera, who has studied equity in education for decades, and is now the dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

Because low-income families and families of color disproportionately chose remote learning during the pandemic, “there is a huge question about whether we’ll have two different school systems,” said Bree Dusseault, an educator who has been tracking school districts’ responses to the pandemic as part of a project by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. “There is a real potential for segregative learning environments.”

The large proportion of students still opting for remote learning and the likely overrepresentation of historically marginalized students in that world make it more important than ever for districts to provide strong instruction and high-quality curriculum designed for online learning, experts said. Without them, the children most harmed by the pandemic risk being set back even further.

“So much online learning has not been working well, particularly for underserved students,” said John Bailey, an educational technology expert and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The fear is that the longer those students stay in online learning, the further behind they will fall. It’s important to make sure online learning is a much better experience than what we put kids through this year.”

Who opts for online school could become an equity issue

The superintendents in Albemarle County and Dayton are grappling with these and other questions as they look ahead to their virtual options for the fall. The answers aren’t entirely clear yet.

Matthew Haas, who runs the Albemarle County district, said that 8 percent of his 14,000 students want a remote option for next fall, so he and his team are creating a new, full-time virtual school to serve them. The district will hire a principal, who will then hire staff to work at the new school, he said. Students will follow a regular school schedule, with their cameras on all day for synchronous learning, and will follow the state curriculum like other schools in the district do, Haas said.

In addition to providing an instructional mode that families want, Haas said, the new school will also eliminate a hardship many students endure in this 726-square-mile, largely rural district: long bus rides.

But he is keeping his eye on a pattern that concerns him this spring: Families opting for remote learning right now are disproportionately Black and Latino. He doesn’t see that disproportionality based on income level; the proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals is about the same in remote and in-person modes. But racially, he sees the disparity, and wonders if it will hold true next fall.

“I’d like to see the same representation of all groups across the board,” he said. “It’s a measure of equity.”

In the current remote mode, his schools are trying to provide the same kinds of access to academics, including math, reading, and ESOL specialists, that in-person students get. But it pains him that remote learners get less access to “specials” like art, music, and physical education. He’s working on how to improve that access next year.

In Dayton, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli isn’t quite sure yet what remote-learning option, if any, she will offer in the fall. The district contracted with two outside companies, SchoolsPLP and Apex Learning, to serve its remote learners this spring. About one-quarter of Dayton’s 12,500 students made that choice.

Since Dayton teachers are all teaching in person now, they don’t work with remote students. Instead, those students follow self-paced lessons based on Ohio’s state curriculum, checking in weekly with coaches from SchoolsPLP in K-8 and Apex Learning in high school, Lolli said. They can also request help from teachers at their brick-and-mortar schools.

As a group, the remote learners mirror the Dayton student demographics, Lolli said, except for English-learners, who opted disproportionately for in-person instruction.

The district is surveying families now to see how many want a remote option in the fall, and few, so far, have raised their hands. But the district also restricted who’s eligible. It extended the option only to those with health conditions that put them at higher risk for COVID-19.

Even still, Lolli worries about the students who will opt for a fully remote experience next year.

“Will they really have the math and literacy they need?” she asked. “In some cases, like at good charter schools or in good home schooling, they will. In others, they won’t. It hurts my heart. And the interaction with their peers, the arts, phys ed, having access to counselors and social workers. All the guest speakers, the field trips, the concerts, that whole experience of understanding the world and what’s outside their backyards. That’s what’s missing. It concerns me.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as Remote Learning: Will It Create Separate—And Unequal—School Systems?

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