Sorry, par­ents: Kids likely to re­main home

US ed­u­ca­tors know lit­tle about mak­ing re­mote learn­ing effec­tive

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Erin Richards

In his subur­ban New Jersey home- turned- class­room this spring, par­ent Don Sea­man quickly found him­self in the role of house­hold vice prin­ci­pal.

While his wife holed up in the bed­room to work each day, Sea­man, a me­dia and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional, worked from the fam­ily room where he could su­per­vise his chil­dren’s vir­tual learn­ing. A sim­i­lar scene played out in mil­lions of Amer­i­can homes after schools shut­tered and moved classes on­line to con­tain the coro­n­avirus out­break.

Now that the year’s over, Sea­man has strong feel­ings about the ex­pe­ri­ence: De­spite the best efforts of teach­ers, vir­tual learn­ing didn’t work. At least not uni­formly, if his three chil­dren in ele­men­tary, mid­dle and high school are any in­di­ca­tion.

“The older kids were say­ing ‘ This is hell,’ ” Sea­man said. “My kids feel iso­lated, and they can’t keep up, and they’re strug­gling with it.”

But like it or not, re­mote in­struc­tion and vir­tual learn­ing are likely to con­tinue for mil­lions of chil­dren this fall. That’s be­cause most dis­tricts can’t ob­serve phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing with all stu­dents at­tend­ing class to­gether in- per­son.

Many re­open­ing plans rely on hy­brid learn­ing sched­ules, in which stu­dents at­tend school on al­ter­nat­ing days or weeks and learn from home on the other days, on a com­puter when fea­si­ble.

Yet Amer­ica’s ed­u­ca­tors know lit­tle about how to im­prove the on­line learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – and many dis­tricts are spend­ing al­most no time try­ing to figure it out be­fore the fall term starts.

The stakes are high. If there is a spike in in­fec­tions – a real pos­si­bil­ity, as mount­ing cases in states such

as Texas and Florida in­di­cate – dis­tance learn­ing in affected re­gions likely will be­come uni­ver­sal again. And stu­dents can’t afford to lose more ground, as many did this spring. Mil­lions sim­ply dis­ap­peared or logged on but didn’t par­tic­i­pate.

Na­tion­wide, only one in three dis­tricts ex­pected teach­ers to pro­vide re­mote in­struc­tion and mon­i­tor stu­dents’ aca­demic en­gage­ment this spring, ac­cord­ing to a study that tracked 477 dis­tricts.

“There wasn’t a lot in the way of in­ter­ven­tions for kids who were fall­ing off,” said Robin Lake, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Rein­vent­ing Ed­u­ca­tion, a non­par­ti­san re­search group in Wash­ing­ton state that con­ducted the study.

“That’s a huge prob­lem in dis­tance learn­ing.”

District lead­ers are un­der­stand­ably pre­oc­cu­pied with lo­gis­ti­cal plan­ning for re­open­ing schools while also keep­ing the coro­n­avirus at bay.

Some par­ents who are wor­ried about their kids’ emo­tional health and their own abil­ity to work are pres­sur­ing schools for a re­turn to in- per­son classes. And face- to- face in­struc­tion could pro­vide stronger sup­port for vul­ner­a­ble stu­dents who fell the fur­thest be­hind this spring.

The Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pe­di­atrics is urg­ing schools to pri­or­i­tize in- per­son classes be­cause of the neg­a­tive so­cial, emo­tional and aca­demic ef­fects of school clo­sures. “Poli­cies to mit­i­gate the spread of COVID- 19 within schools must be bal­anced with the known harms to chil­dren, ado­les­cents, fam­i­lies, and the com­mu­nity by keep­ing chil­dren at home,” says new guid­ance from the or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing about 67,000 pe­di­a­tri­cians.

Na­tion­wide, par­ents are split on send­ing their chil­dren back to class­rooms. A slight ma­jor­ity – 56% – said they want their chil­dren to at­tend schools full time this fall, ac­cord­ing to a Gallup poll this month. But in a USA TO­DAY poll in late May, 6 in 10 par­ents said they were more likely to pur­sue ath­ome learn­ing op­tions.

Some ed­u­ca­tion ex­perts be­lieve dis­tricts should dou­ble down on im­prov­ing re­mote and vir­tual in­struc­tion rather than figure out new ways to have stu­dents at­tend school part- time.

“There’s a risk that teach­ers will be over­whelmed, and the re­sult­ing hy­brid could be of lower qual­ity than a strong early com­mit­ment to re­mote in­struc­tion,” said Aaron Pal­las, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy and ed­u­ca­tion at Columbia Univer­sity’s Teach­ers Col­lege.

The vir­tual- learn­ing curve

As mil­lions of teach­ers and fam­i­lies dis­cov­ered this fall, learn­ing vir­tu­ally is hard. For many stu­dents, it’s difficult to en­gage with class­mates and par­tic­i­pate in class. For many teach­ers, it’s difficult to help strug­gling stu­dents and form solid re­la­tion­ships with only video, chat and email. Ex­hausted par­ents- turned- tu­tors, es­pe­cially those try­ing also to work from home, say it’s not sus­tain­able.

Un­for­tu­nately, so­lu­tions are not read­ily at hand.

“There is a sur­pris­ing lack of re­search into what tech­niques make for high- qual­ity vir­tual in­struc­tion,” said Brian Fitz­patrick, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame and for­mer mid­dle school teacher. “The COVID pan­demic has cer­tainly drawn at­ten­tion to the need to iden­tify best prac­tices.”

It’s tempt­ing to turn for help to Amer­ica’s long­est- run­ning ex­per­i­ment with on­line school­ing: vir­tual char­ter schools, which have been around since the 1990s and can be run by dis­tricts or pri­vate man­age­ment com­pa­nies. About 300,000 stu­dents na­tion­wide were en­rolled in full- time vir­tual schools in the 2017- 18 school year, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy Cen­ter, a left- learn­ing ed­u­ca­tion think tank in Colorado.

On av­er­age, their aca­demic out­comes are over­whelm­ingly low. When stu­dents switch to vir­tual char­ter schools from brick- and- mor­tar schools, their achieve­ment drops, re­cent stud­ies show.

“We find the im­pact of at­tend­ing a vir­tual char­ter on stu­dent achieve­ment is uni­formly and pro­foundly neg­a­tive,” Fitz­patrick and his col­leagues wrote this month in a post for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, a lib­eral think tank.

Still, busi­ness is up at vir­tual char­ters amid the pan­demic, said com­pany lead­ers at Con­nec­tions Acad­emy and K12 Inc., which power a ma­jor­ity of vir­tual char­ters in Amer­ica.

They at­trib­uted low achieve­ment and grad­u­a­tion rates over the years to low- achiev­ing stu­dents trans­fer­ring in from tra­di­tional schools. “Less than 20% of stu­dents who come to us are learn­ing at the grade level they en­tered,” said Nate Davis, CEO of K12.

For other stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly those with a com­mit­ted par­ent in the home, vir­tual school­ing can be highly tai­lored and effec­tive, said Mickey Reve­naugh, co- founder of Con­nec­tions.

“There’s a crit­i­cal role the fam­ily plays,” she said. “When kids are lit­tle, you need that adult pres­ence. And they need to be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with that child’s teacher on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.”

Ex­pe­ri­ence is cru­cial

Lead­ers in dis­tricts with more ex­pe­ri­ence us­ing blended or on­line learn­ing plat­forms feel they’re fur­ther along in pre­par­ing for fall.

Broward County, Florida’s sixth­largest district, has hosted its own vir­tual school since 2001. When school moved on­line this spring, the district offered work­shops for teach­ers in tra­di­tional schools to get started with Can­vas, the district’s on­line learn­ing plat­form, said Daryl Di­a­mond, di­rec­tor of in­no­va­tive learn­ing. The district also trained teach­ers to use web con­fer­enc­ing tools for teach­ing, he said.

Be­fore spring break, only about half the district’s teach­ers had pub­lished cour­ses on Can­vas, Di­a­mond said. After spring break, that figure ex­ploded to 98% of teach­ers.

Other ed­u­ca­tors, how­ever, felt far less pre­pared.

Karen Reyes teaches chil­dren who are deaf or hard of hear­ing at Lin­der Ele­men­tary School in Austin, Texas.

Her days be­came an end­less loop of record­ing her­self do­ing videos for stu­dents, as well as for their par­ents. Her youngest learners had trou­ble us­ing the tech­nol­ogy. Read­ing to her stu­dents vir­tu­ally was difficult. In per­son, they’d ask ques­tions or make com­ments; on­line they watched silently.

“It’s hard to be by our­selves,” said Reyes, 31. “I didn’t get into teach­ing to teach to the screen.”

Unions have a say

In Florida’s Pasco County School District, par­ents can choose from sev­eral op­tions for fall. They can re­turn their kids to school full time or have them stay at home and learn vir­tu­ally from teach­ers at their reg­u­lar school build­ing. A third op­tion al­lows kids to trans­fer into the district’s long- run­ning vir­tual school, Pasco e- School.

For stu­dents who learn at home through a vir­tual pro­gram at their school, “there will be a lot more in­ter­ac­tion with a teacher, with a very pre­scribed, very stan­dard, tra­di­tional sched­ule,” said Steve He­garty, Pasco’s district spokesman.

Train­ing teach­ers how to do that will be­gin officially on Aug. 3 – a week be­fore stu­dents re­turn Aug. 10. Be­cause of the schools’ union con­tract, that’s all the district can re­quire. The district has train­ing avail­able over the sum­mer, but it’s op­tional. Still, He­garty said, thou­sands are par­tic­i­pat­ing.

Many dis­tricts are al­ready con­sumed with ad­just­ing la­bor agree­ments to take into ac­count all of the other nu­ances of a rad­i­cally differ­ent school da. They must de­ter­mine which staff mem­bers come back to class and which stay home, or al­low teach­ers to de­cide for them­selves. They also have to figure out how to keep staff safe. “This is not a light un­der­tak­ing,” said Stacy Davis Gates, vice pres­i­dent of the Chicago Teach­ers Union.

Even if teach­ers could be trained to do it bet­ter, vir­tual learn­ing would still have a glar­ing ac­ces­si­bil­ity prob­lem. The house­holds least likely to have the two things nec­es­sary for qual­ity vir­tual learn­ing to take place – a com­puter and high- speed in­ter­net ac­cess – are low­in­come house­holds.

At least 15 mil­lion out of Amer­ica’s more than 50 mil­lion schoolchil­dren live in homes with­out ac­cess to a com­puter, or with­out ac­cess to high- speed in­ter­net, ac­cord­ing to a na­tional re­port re­leased Mon­day that tries to quan­tify the ex­tent of the “home­work gap.”

And 300,000 to 400,000 teach­ers lacked ac­cess to com­put­ers or high­speed in­ter­net, the study es­ti­mated.

The study, by Com­mon Sense Me­dia, may slightly over­state the lack of tech­nol­ogy be­cause it re­lied on in­for­ma­tion house­holds re­ported from the most re­cent cen­sus. That means it didn’t cap­ture the thou­sands of de­vices and Wi- Fi hot spots schools dis­trib­uted to fam­i­lies in the wake of the pan­demic.

Still, ad­vo­cates say there’s plenty of ev­i­dence to pres­sure Congress to al­lo­cate more money to help close the dig­i­tal di­vide. The price tag to do so for stu­dents? At least $ 6 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the new re­port.

The al­ter­na­tive, should vir­tual learn­ing con­tinue, are thou­sands more lost hours of in­struc­tion.

Some par­ents fed up with vir­tual learn­ing are pres­sur­ing dis­tricts to re­turn kids to school full time, even if it means not phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing.

They say it’s nec­es­sary for chil­dren’s so­cial and emo­tional well- be­ing, as well as for the san­ity of their par­ents and the sake of the econ­omy.

Some health ex­perts back them up, say­ing that other pre­ven­tive mea­sures, such as uni­ver­sal mask- wear­ing, can help limit the spread of the virus in schools.

“If our chil­dren do not re­turn to school full time in full ca­pac­ity, the achieve­ment gap be­tween differ­ent dis­tricts is go­ing to widen,” said Kim Collins, a par­ent who lives near Bos­ton. She’s part of a grass­roots group, Bring Kids Back MA, that is push­ing law­mak­ers and district lead­ers to send more chil­dren back to school.

Collins said re­mote learn­ing in her home this spring was barely learn­ing at all. Her son in high school used to have 77- minute daily blocks of in­struc­tion in his core sub­jects. Once school went vir­tual, that teach­ing block was re­stricted to 50 min­utes twice a week, Collins said.

Some su­per­in­ten­dents are try­ing to make in- per­son learn­ing hap­pen for ev­ery stu­dent whose fam­ily wants it.

In ru­ral north­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia, about 2,000 stu­dents spread out over 342 square miles at­tend the St. Marys Area School District.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Brian Toth said he’s plan­ning for all of them to at­tend schools from Day One this fall, with ev­ery­one wear­ing masks. If there’s an­other out­break, all chil­dren will learn at home vir­tu­ally. There won’t be any mod­ifications or hy­brids.

“Can we do the 6- foot sug­ges­tion? No,” Toth says. “And any school district that says they can, can­not.”

Some switch to vir­tual char­ters

Still, other par­ents worry about the un­pre­dictabil­ity of fall classes, or the health of their stu­dents in­side a school amid a pan­demic.

Anna Huf, a par­ent in subur­ban Mil­wau­kee, has switched her two schoolage chil­dren to a vir­tual char­ter school, eAchieve Acad­emy. It’s run by the Wauke­sha School District.

Huf said her fam­ily loves their reg­u­lar pub­lic school in Mer­ton, Wis­con­sin, but she felt teach­ers be­came dis­en­gaged when school­ing moved on­line.

“I started notic­ing gaps in my chil­dren’s learn­ing, just by be­ing home with them,” she said. “Noth­ing was be­ing ad­dressed by the school, so at the end of the year we were kind of at a cross­roads.”

It’s al­most in­evitable that brickand- mor­tar schools will have to re­turn to on­line in­struc­tion at some point in the next year as the pan­demic con­tin­ues, Huf said. She works for an IT staffing com­pany and can con­tinue work­ing from home. That way, she can over­see her chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion.

Huf said she didn’t look at the aca­demic per­for­mance of any of the vir­tual char­ter schools she con­sid­ered. And some of her fam­ily mem­bers ques­tioned whether she was mak­ing the right choice.

But the cer­tainty of know­ing what to ex­pect come fall is im­por­tant to her.

“This isn’t just me putting them in front of a com­puter,” Huf said. “I hope to be their in­struc­tor and mo­ti­va­tor along the way.”

Ed­u­ca­tion coverage at USA TO­DAY is made pos­si­ble in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion. The Gates Foun­da­tion does not pro­vide ed­i­to­rial in­put.

JAY JANNER/ USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

Mil­lions of teach­ers like Tamra Franklin in Austin, Texas, have held on­line classes since March. Many find stu­dents strug­gle to en­gage with class­mates and par­tic­i­pate. “There is a sur­pris­ing lack of re­search into what tech­niques make for high- qual­ity vir­tual in­struc­tion,” a so­ci­ol­o­gist says.

Anna Huf of Mer­ton, Wis., is trans­fer­ring her two sons, Carter, 13, and Chris­tian, 8, into a full- time vir­tual char­ter school this fall. She feared that teach­ers at pub­lic schools be­came dis­en­gaged when classes moved on­line: “I started notic­ing gaps in my chil­dren’s learn­ing.” ANNA HUF

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