School & District Management

Rising Wave of Districts Sticking With Full-Time Remote Learning

By Mark Lieberman — July 15, 2020 8 min read
Austin Beutner, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, takes questions at a news conference in March. The district, the second largest in the country, recently announced it would start the school year with full-time remote learning.

The Desert Sands school district in California plans to start the academic year with full-time remote learning because district leaders were worried it would not be able to have adequate social distancing measures in place by Aug. 19, the first day of school.

Jesse Welsh, the superintendent of the Paradise Valley schools in Arizona, said his district was concerned about establishing some stability during very uncertain times, prompting it to also start this school year with remote learning, rather than wait for another order from the governor.

And in the Canutillo school district in Texas, superintendent Pedro Galaviz had to balance opposing views about reopening when his district decided to go all-remote at the beginning of this school year due to health worries about the spreading coronavirus.

A growing number of school districts across the country have recently announced plans to return to full-time remote learning when the 2020-21 school year starts, defying nationwide pressure from federal leaders and some parents to at least partially reopen school buildings. It is an excruciating decision for school district leaders to make because of strong feelings on both sides of the reopening debate. And they are struggling to make those decisions with often conflicting messages from state and federal leaders.

Some districts—including those in Milwaukee, Austin, Texas., and Nashville, Tenn.—have committed to full-time remote learning only for the first few weeks of the school year, leaving room to reopen in September.

But the Los Angeles and San Diego Unified school districts in California, DeKalb schools in Georgia, and the Washington Township district in Indiana are proceeding with full-time remote learning plans that could extend well into the school year. In Prince George’s County, Md., students will be learning online at least through the rest of 2020. (For a broad snapshot of school reopening plans, check out Education Week’s tracker.)

The recent decisions to shift back to full-time virtual education came as district leaders weighed the risks of students and staff getting infected with COVID-19 if buildings reopen against the possibility of learning loss, mental health challenges, and inequitable access to digital learning opportunities if all students are forced to remain at home. Many, but not all, of the schools sticking with full-time remote learning are in states currently experiencing massive COVID-19 surges, including Arizona, California, and Texas.

Competing Pressures

The Trump administration has been urging schools to fully reopen, citing concerns about the long-term effects of social isolation on child development. The push is part of a bid to revive the sagging U.S. economy, assure Americans that the ongoing coronavirus crisis is stabilizing, and boost the president’s re-election prospects.

President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have threatened to pull federal funding from schools that don’t fully reopen this fall, though the administration would need to collaborate with Congress to follow through on that threat. DeVos, meanwhile, has criticized districts that announced plans for only part-time in-person learning this fall, pressuring them to reopen completely.

Several governors, including Ron DeSantis in Florida and Henry McMaster in South Carolina, have in recent days mandated that school buildings reopen at least part-time, though some superintendents in those states have pushed back. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last week threatened to pull state funding from districts that kept school buildings closed longer than three weeks into the school year, but he said this week that he’ll extend the amount of time districts can stay remote full-time.

Public health experts and pediatricians have urged caution, suggesting that school leaders weigh the risk factors in their communities and develop remote learning capabilities regardless of whether school buildings reopen this fall. Many school leaders have said it would be impossible to fully reopen buildings without a massive influx of federal funds to pay for implementing safety equipment and procedures. Even then, many parents might keep their children at home.

Investment in Tech ‘Unprecedented’

Many students suffered in the rapid pivot to remote learning that took place around the country this spring as states ordered school shutdowns to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Some schools lacked comprehensive remote learning plans, and many teachers had minimal experiences working with students outside the physical classroom. Millions of students lack access to Wi-Fi and computing devices at home, and many schools reported difficulties reaching students or maintaining their engagement as the unconventional school year drew to a close.

Schools had no choice but to quickly learn lessons and address gaps. They ordered hordes of digital devices and mobile hotspots to help students get connected; convened professional development sessions for teachers to help them adjust to remote learning; and employed creative techniques to reach students on an emotional level and attempt to keep them learning under difficult circumstances.

These ongoing efforts are putting schools in a position to improve the remote learning experience for families this fall.

The Canutillo school district in El Paso County, Texas, will start the school year on Aug. 3 with full-time remote learning through Sept. 8, when some school buildings may reopen if public health conditions allow. The school district will spend the fully remote period fine-tuning that experience so parents and students who stick with it for the full school year will get a high-quality education.

Surveys of parents in the district showed a wide range of views on whether students should return to school buildings. “Some felt very strongly about staying remote; others want their kids to come back. They felt the socialization was key,” said Galaviz, the district’s superintendent.

The district is trying to ensure that every student—not just every household with at least one student—has a digital device they can use for learning, and it’s working with the city of El Paso to expand local broadband infrastructure. Building remote learning capabilities will also serve the school well in the likely event that the virus forces school buildings to close even after they reopen, Galaviz said.

The pace of the district’s investment in high-quality remote learning is unprecedented, said Oscar Rico, the district’s director of technology.

“If you told us in December to move to online learning, we would have probably asked for five years,” Rico said. “This is not a system that moves quick.”

Complex Calculations

But long-term school building closures have financial implications. And district leaders are factoring those implications into their reopening decisions.

The Paradise Valley school district in Arizona will continue to provide meals for students who need them while school buildings are otherwise closed until at least Sept. 8. But “when you’re not open, you’re not able to collect revenues from students that are purchasing lunches. So you have additional costs as well as losses in revenue,” said Jesse Welsh, the district’s superintendent.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has prohibited school buildings from reopening until at least Aug. 17, and Welsh suspects those restrictions might be extended as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state. The district’s school year will begin on Aug. 5.

Welsh’s district has been planning for the possibility of continuing remote learning in the fall ever since the last school year ended. Still, the district had to pause plans to reopen school buildings once Ducey’s order came down.

“We really felt like waiting [to start the school year] until the 17th or whatever that date might be didn’t make a lot of sense,” Welsh said. “We wanted to provide stability for our staff and for our families.”

No plan is going to satisfy all parties, but the district has been updating parents regularly with a weekly email dispatch on Wednesdays, as well as other communications throughout the week. “I’ve had many conversations with families over the last several months. While they don’t always necessarily agree with the decisions being made, they do understand the rationale behind it,” Welsh said.

‘Polarization of Opinion’

Serving families with a wide range of needs and priorities isn’t new for school districts. But “the polarization of opinion” among parents is particularly challenging now, said Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands district in California. Half of the district’s parents said they want school buildings to reopen at least part-time, while the other half prefers to continue with remote learning.

Many parents who can’t work from home are worried about child care if their children are learning from home, while others worry that students will catch the virus at school or spread it to their older, more vulnerable family members.

A full reopening wouldn’t be possible given the requirements for space between desks and social distancing in classrooms, Bailey said. A hybrid model might be feasible after Labor Day, but for now, students will start school from home.

To ease the transition, the district is setting up daily class schedules that will remain fairly consistent for students who eventually return to school buildings, said Kelly May-Vollmar, the district’s assistant superintendent.

“The schedules look very, very similar. It’s just where students and teachers are at during the day that is different,” she said.

Nationwide, political debates haven’t been the main decision-making factors for district leaders, who are trying to examine the situations in their communities and follow the advice of medical experts.

“We have had to shift and say, it’s got to be safety first and learning second,” Welsh said. “You can’t be teaching folks if they’re not safe.”

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