Remote learning has moved to the top of the school agenda with a vengeance since March of last year. Without it, tens of millions of American students would have been without formal instruction during the pandemic. It’s a big topic moving forward as we think about what schools will look like come September.
A few policymakers are big fans. Take, for example, Eric Adams, one of the front-runners in the race to become New York City’s newest mayor. This February, the former policeman opined at a meeting of the Citizens Budget Commission, “If you do a full-year school year by using the new technology of remote learning, you don’t need children to be in a school building with a number of teachers. It’s just the opposite. You could have one great teacher that’s in one of our specialized high schools to teach three to 400 students.”
But Adams and those who share his view are pushing upstream against a growing consensus that remote learning contributes to “learning loss” and to teacher burnout, while being detrimental to student learning. Increasingly, school districts, as well as state leaders and elected officials, lean toward eliminating remote learning as an educational option for students come September—the current New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, among them.
Extreme pro- and anti-positions are misbegotten. Advocates need to take care. Ham-fisted mandates banning or requiring remote learning are likely to throw the baby out with the bath water.
This entire discussion lacks the proper consideration of the overall benefits and drawbacks of remote learning.
Remote learning has been used in educational settings for many years. There are traditional and virtual schools across the country that do amazing work with their students in fully virtual and hybrid settings. There are also, to be clear, fly-by-night e-operators consuming public dollars with very little public benefit to show for it.
But why are people so interested in removing or banning remote learning from the options we can offer students? Like so many things these days, remote learning feels like a politically charged topic. That’s an unfortunate reality given the benefits that some students find in remote settings.
Without remote learning this past year, schooling options for students in Joliet Public Schools District 86—which I lead—would have been embarrassingly threadbare. We were largely fully remote for most of the year. We were not fully one-to-one with our devices when the pandemic first shut down schools in March 2020. However, by the middle of May that same year, nearly every student had a device for instruction. The remaining students were provided a device in time to start the 2020-21 school year in August.
We remained fully remote at the beginning of the school year based on our local COVID-19 realities. As we monitored the data, it was necessary for us to remain fully remote until February. We invited small groups of special education students to return to their school buildings one or two days each week. However, many parents declined this opportunity. We invited groups of general education students to return to their school buildings one or two days each week in March. Only about 15 percent of our total student population participated in person, while the remainder continued fully remote. By the end of the year, we had increased our percentage of in-person students to approximately 25 percent.
Mandated in-person state assessments also added to the dilemma of planning for instruction in the spring. Thirty-five percent of our English-language learners participated in their mandated assessment, and approximately 42 percent of students in grades 3-8 participated in the state-mandated assessments. Unfortunately, the time spent ensuring mandated assessments were managed and monitored appropriately took time away from instruction—for students attending in-person and those still fully remote.
Was everyone successful in our fully virtual learning environment? No. Some students thrived while others struggled. As an educator, I realize that not every instructional model or strategy works for every student. Therefore, I want options in my toolbox so that I can assist students to be successful.
As a district superintendent, it is essential that I have options to offer families that help place their children in the best learning environments for them. Allowing parents a choice among fully online, hybrid, and in-person learning is the right thing to do as we move into a postpandemic world. Why would we go backward when we can augment our options for students to better ensure their success?
We’ve doubtless made mistakes, but using these experiences as a lever for change offers a strategic way forward.
There have been several lessons learned during the past terrible 16 months. The public’s eyes have been opened about how difficult it is to provide a quality education to diverse student populations. We’ve gained some hard-won insights into the challenges and benefits associated with different approaches to helping students succeed. We’ve doubtless made mistakes, but using these experiences as a lever for change offers a strategic way forward.
Let’s be honest. As Gloria Ladson-Billings, a retired tenured faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a former president of the American Educational Research Association, likes to point out, we don’t really want to return to normal because “normal is the place where the problems were.” We need a new vision that offers parents and students new options. Returning to traditional school settings that look exactly the way they were before would be a waste of everything we’ve learned since COVID-19 shut our school buildings down.
It is time for school leaders to stand up and insist that we cannot let the system revert to the status quo ante. It is time for us to stand up for our students and their families by providing them with as many options as we can so that they can be as successful as they want to be and we want them to be. It is time, too, that we stand up for our staff by providing them with all the resources needed to meet the needs of their students.
Above all, it is time my colleagues leading districts large and small across the country work to ensure that every single student in our schools has the learning environment that best fits their individual learning styles. That’s how to get rid of the bath water while protecting the baby.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Why Are We Turning Our Backs On Remote Learning?