Last March, when so much of our lives moved from in-person work and learning to digital spaces, one group of students and teachers experienced continuity: Full-time online public school students. In the midst of so much upheaval, plus the struggles traditional brick-and-mortar schools went through trying to deliver instruction, online-school families maintained an important degree of normalcy and learning. When it came to education, their children didn’t miss a beat.
Every day, these children were able to learn from live instructors as well as carry out independent projects. Teachers specially trained for online instruction gave live, meaningful lessons. Teachers also recorded their lessons for parents and students to watch as their schedules permitted. (No need to interrupt work to set the kids up for their virtual meeting.)
Online students learned new material, not just review. Their lessons were well-aligned with standards, since their teachers weren’t scrambling. Students continued to take their regular classes in core subjects and electives, including art, music and physical education. Most importantly, they and their families received instruction, assignments and communications from just one user-friendly platform that integrated all the tools needed to learn well online.
What a contrast to the experience of families in the traditional public system. There, the rollout of remote learning was uneven and chaotic. Census data suggests students spent just 4.1 hours a week in virtual contact with their teachers, and only 13.1 household hours per week were spent participating in teaching activities. While we cannot fault traditional systems for not being prepared to deliver distance learning in the first few weeks of a pandemic, this level of remote learning is unacceptable for the long haul.
As states and school systems consider reopening schools, they face another season of social distancing and remote learning due to the resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Our students cannot go through another haphazard version of remote crisis schooling. We must provide more support to families juggling work, home and their children’s day-to-day education. Parents are telling us this already. According to surveys, parents will not be satisfied if their school districts maintained the same level of distance learning they received in the spring.
Yet, I fear many students and teachers may only undergo a slightly improved version of the remote crisis schooling they survived in the spring. In the absence of direction from state leadership and public health officials, school leaders spent considerable time thinking through social distancing protocols for transportation, meals and in-person classrooms. It’s unclear how much time, if any, they invested to improve online learning. While districts are discussing three options for reopening schools—in-person, hybrid and remote learning—what remote learning will actually look like in the fall remains a mystery in most places.
Parents are facing monumental education decisions, decisions they will have to commit to for entire grading periods, without having all the information they need to determine whether remote learning will have improved from what they experienced last spring. Lacking real information on how remote learning will be improved, it’s no surprise that families who were unsatisfied with their children’s experiences during the initial school closures now have little confidence this school year will be better.
With the new school year almost upon us, it’s time to get serious about remote learning. School districts should partner with experienced online practitioners to support their remote learning efforts. Districts facing strained resources and budget cuts could save money by partnering with proven online providers. Established online providers could provide the user-friendly learning platforms families need, eliminating the frustrations of managing multiple passwords, tech issues and incredibly long days at the computer due to tech issues.
By partnering with experienced online providers, districts could more quickly bring teachers up to speed on the unique skill sets they need to teach virtually. Teachers could learn not just the technical skills, but how to engage students online, provide meaningful feedback on their work and create offline learning opportunities that complement the lessons delivered on screen.
District partnerships with experienced distance-learning providers would enable schools and teachers to focus on the central challenge they face: How to deliver in-person learning to their most vulnerable students until all students can return to the classroom.
Online schools have been an effective tool during challenging times for two decades, and it only makes sense to partner with them now.
Another season of a patchwork of learning technology, hastily digitized content and “paper packet” learning for those without tech access is not enough. While we must contain the virus, we should never again accept months of interrupted learning. We can and must improve our remote learning strategies. Our teachers, students and families deserve nothing less.
Tillie Elvrum is a school choice advocate and education consultant specializing in parent engagement and online learning. She served as president of the National Coalition for Public School Options, currently serves as board president of the Colorado Coalition of Cyberschool Families, she is the School Community Director for StrongMind, and leads the Parent Support for Online Learning initiative. ...