Opinion: Keep students learning during shutdowns

Jonathan Butcher

While school buildings are off-limits during the pandemic, learning should not be. Families, students and taxpayers should be astonished at how quickly — and why — some schools decided not to move at least some instruction online and offer classes virtually.

In Washington state, one school district cited a laundry list of obstacles, including “software licensing, curriculum, assessments and collective bargaining agreements.” In Oklahoma, schools are closed for the rest of the school year, and state officials told educators there will be no plans for schools to follow regarding instruction until April 6.

In Michigan, the Department of Education issued a confusing memo last week saying any schoolwork completed online is not official and would not be counted as “instructional time.” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer quickly responded with a statement of her own trying to clarify that schools can continue to try to teach students.

l-r, Joshua Kremer,teacher, and Michael Kjos, student/teacher, prepare their online classes and lessons for their strudents.**Educators preparing to teach students online due to coronavirus at West Bloomfield High School.We observe first hand how they are preparing for cloud learning. March,13, 2020, West Bloomfield, Mi. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./The Detroit News)

As research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University explains, online learning is hardly foreign to K-12 schools across the country. The U.S. Department of Education reports that in 2010, the latest figures available, more than half of public school districts enrolled distance education students, a statistic that is likely larger today. Currently, 23 state-based virtual schools enroll nearly 1 million students in one or more courses, while another 300,000 students attend virtual schools full-time.

Of course, while thousands of students are succeeding in virtual schools, full-time online learning is not the right fit for every child. And yes, moving all instruction online will be a challenge for brick-and-mortal schools. Even imperfect attempts to reach students will offer them some sense of continuity and stability during this challenging period. When the option for more than 55 million K-12 students is either some form of online instruction or nothing at all, why take it off the table entirely?

A teacher walks through an otherwise empty hallway at West Bloomfield High School on Friday, March 13, 2020. Students were asked to stay home, while educators used Friday to prepared to to teach students online due as a coronavirus precaution.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that 91% of students had some form of broadband internet access in 2017. This figure falls to 83% for “remote, rural” students on average and is even lower depending on a child’s race and location, but challenges such as these offer members of the public and private sectors the chance to be creative. In South Carolina, for example, officials are helping families in secluded areas by converting school buses into mobile internet hot spots.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some district leaders hesitated to consider innovative ideas, claiming federal rules regarding equity and instruction for children with special needs prevented them from using unique solutions. Observers wondered if federal officials would issue repercussions if schools’ attempts at virtual instruction were incomplete at the outset.

Fortunately, in a welcome display of common sense, the Education Department has issued a memo saying, “Some educators, however, have been reluctant to provide any distance instruction because they believe that federal disability law presents insurmountable barriers to remote education. This is simply not true.”

The department went on to say federal law “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”

Districts and state education agencies are now out of excuses.

Full-time virtual schools such as K12 Inc. and Connections Academy are offering free resources such as webinars and other tools for parents and teachers. The nation’s largest state virtual school, the Florida Virtual School, is prepared to increase its capacity and stagger student access to the school’s content, if necessary, to avoid overloading the servers.

Education technology used to be all the rage. Districts that collaborated with online education providers such as Khan Academy were considered cutting edge. Innovative learning providers headlined TED Talks and conferences across the globe. Yet when millions of students became quarantined at home, some districts and state agencies could only find reasons not to provide virtual instruction.

Students don’t need excuses. They need educators to innovate just as they did before the virus suddenly made new learning ideas unpopular.

Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).