On the relatively rare occasions when disaster forces K-12 schools to close for a prolonged period of time, e-learning has helped fill the gap in instruction.
Asian countries affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003 turned to virtual instruction. When Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005, Louisiana Virtual School expanded its capacity to welcome students who weren’t previously enrolled. Sixth to 12th graders who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 kept learning, thanks to New York state’s e-learning platform and donated e-learning program licenses from several companies.
The coronavirus outbreak has prompted similar action in China and Hong Kong, where schools are closed indefinitely amid concerns over a virus that has claimed more than 2,800 lives and infected more than 83,000 people worldwide. Several private companies have begun helping schools offer virtual instruction to students, China’s Ministry of Education has begun uploading K-12 courses to a national online database, and numerous American universities with Chinese campuses have transitioned to online courses.
Fifteen people in the U.S., plus 40 passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, have confirmed cases of the illness, for which typical symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. The agency is investigating a patient in California who may have the disease despite not having recently left the country or been in contact with someone who has. During a press conference last week, President Trump urged the public not to panic, while officials from his administration said they expect more cases of the disease in the U.S. The CDC website says the public health risk is “high” in the U.S. and globally, though the immediate risk to the average American remains low.
“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official, told reporters and lawmakers last week.
Hospitals have begun stockpiling resources in case the threat worsens, and K-12 schools are sending home letters to parents urging frequent hand-washing for themselves and their children and keeping sick children home from school. Several schools have also canceled trips to China, as well as Chinese exchange programs. As global officials ponder declaring a “pandemic,” the threat of school closures stateside inevitably looms.
Conducting ‘Online Practice’
Schools across the country use virtual learning for more common occurrences, such as spikes in flu-related absences or inclement weather. Twelve states currently have explicit policies for “e-learning days,” which means they’re prepared to take students online in the event of a snow day or other emergency, according to a report from the Digital Learning Collaborative. Districts in several other states without formal policies have also experimented with taking students online when circumstances necessitate, the collaborative report says. Schools that enroll students who do not have access to a computer at home, or that haven’t provided students with digital devices, might find this approach more difficult to pull off on a moment’s notice.
Students in Rensselaer Central schools in Indiana got an early preview of sorts for the district’s response to a potential widespread coronavirus outbreak. Flu sent absentee rates in the district’s middle and high schools soaring above 20 percent the week of Jan. 20. Before health officials could formally request a shutdown, the district closed Thursday and Friday of that week, said Curtis Craig, the superintendent.
The district had previously been deploying e-learning in the event of inclement weather.
Craig said the biggest key to success in unexpected e-learning situations is to have adequately prepared students and teachers prior to the emergency.
“If you can run the kids through some online practice while they’re here at school, it’s much, much better. If online isn’t completely different than what they’re doing in school, that’s even better,” Craig said. “If the kids are used to going to a student-management system to go online to submit their assignments, then it’s not a completely different experience for them.”
Getting the length right for an e-learning day assignment is critical, Craig said. It should be long enough to keep the students engaged but not so long that they tune out or get overwhelmed. Lessons with some built-in online components, like short YouTube clips, work particularly well, he added.
K12 Inc., one of the country’s largest for-profit online education providers for K-12 schools, has developed protocols for dealing with a sudden surge of e-learning needs during previous incidents, such as flooding in Baton Rouge, La., and Houston, according to Karen Ghidotti, the company’s senior vice president of customer experience.
Schools offering online education to students in a situation like a coronavirus outbreak need to keep in mind that students might be unusually distressed, Ghidotti said. A “very solid and consistent learning” experience is essential so that students who might have a sick family member or otherwise fear contracting the disease have a steady academic presence they can rely on.
Ghidotti’s team also urges schools to keep parents and students clearly informed of the e-learning options: how to access them, how they work, what’s expected from them. On the company’s end, an emergency situation generally prompts contact with local officials and sometimes involves lifting existing caps on the number of students who can “enroll” in an online-charter offering, she said.
Directions for Parents
Schools without built-in online protocols have options to quickly implement e-learning programs, too. Several schools in China and Hong Kong reached out in recent days to Century Tech, a U.K.-based company that offers a learning platform powered by artificial intelligence. The company’s customer-success teams worked quickly to enroll students and assign courses. “We can get schools up and running in about three hours,” said Charles Wood, the company’s head of international.
The Century Tech platform identifies topics students are struggling to grasp and offers them relevant lessons. Teachers can track students’ progress and intervene when necessary.
Schools that designate a single project leader to serve as an intermediary between the company and parents and students have been most successful, according to Wood.
He also recommends that teachers set aside specific times to interact via virtual conference with parents and students to address misconceptions about the platform and to suggest techniques students can use to break up their time in front of a screen.
“How many hours are you spending in front of a screen, reading a book, interacting with your siblings or parents?” Wood said. “It can come from the schools giving clear directions to parents. But it needs to come from the parents, too, in a way that’s empowering the students to think about self-regulation.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2020 edition of Education Week as Coronavirus Prompting E-Learning Strategies