Sunday, May 10, 2020

Why We Are So Behind With Virtual Learning?

Young Kids on Screens Engaged in Remote Learning
Toltemara / Shutterstock

Despite the fact that any state or district can run their own virtual learning program, until now, many never offered this as a public school option to families. 

It didn't have to be this way. Some states have had virtual schools for many years

Florida opened their virtual school in 1997. K12 online school began offering their full-time virtual school to states in 1999. Today they serve 29 states.

But what about the rest? 

In districts across the United States, many families haven’t had the freedom to choose this option. In fact many families didn't even know it was an option.

The Coronavirus has forced districts to either
  • move to remote learning, or
  • stop learning altogether

Learning on pause

Sadly, some districts put a stop to remote learning early on with poorly thought out justifications.

They sighted accessibility concerns saying that remote learning couldn’t meet the needs of all students.  For example, Washington state banned virtual learning. As the pandemic reached Washington they had no plans to provide any instruction at all. Governor Jay Inslee, the superintendent of public instruction, advised schools not to offer online classes unless they can ensure that lessons are provided on an equitable basis.

They chose not to figure out ways to bridge the digital divide for the most vulnerable families and students. They chose not to think about how to serve students with special needs.. They choose to let strict guidelines in federal and state regulations be the reason to halt learning for everyone. 

They were not alone. 

In Philadelphia principals were sent a letter stating: “To ensure equity, remote instruction should not be provided to students, including through the internet, technology at home, by phone, or otherwise.”

US Department Of Education Guidance

Fortunately, the United States Department of education released new information clarifying that federal law should not be used to prevent schools from offering distance learning opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities. The United States Office of Civil Rights addressed the issue with this Supplemental Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Preschool, Elementary and Secondary Schools (PDF)

What next?

Prior to school building closures, no one was thinking strategically about big picture virtual learning models. This is despite the fact that guidance has been available for schools and schools of education for a long time. In fact, the NEA published a guide to teaching online courses more than a decade ago. Some states embraced this guidance. For those who have not, it is a good place to start now that most districts are being forced to implement some form of remote learning. 

Now that most districts across the United States have tossed everything aside that was in the way and are employing remote learning, some families and educators are discovering the benefits to this type of education. They’re also discovering how this can be done successfully and they’re learning more and more each day.

But before now, why did so many districts:
  • Block virtual learning? 
  • Keep districts stuck in the past?
  • Deny families from being able to make choices that could serve them best? 
Despite the fact that all along, legally any district “could” run their own virtual school or online learning program, many didn’t.

What was preventing virtual learning? 

It boils down to this philosophy: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Even though this option had been available for decades, it never came to many districts across the nation. If no one knew they could have it, why tell them? The status quo was working.

There was never any impetus to figure this out. Districts stood comfortable doing business as usual. As a result, those who didn’t figure it out, were left woefully unprepared for what we are facing today. 

When the Coronavirus hit, schools and districts fell in one of several categories: 
·       Some did nothing, just hoping for the best. 
·       Some scrambled, preparing for the worst. 
·       Some had been doing virtual learning all along and they didn’t miss a beat. 

We are the 12th wealthiest nation in the world, it didn’t have to be this way. Instead, we could have focused on:

  • Closing the digital divide.
  • Giving families options that served them best.
  • Providing the resources to support a digital education.

Doing so would have required unions, district leaders, and, in systems with mayoral control, the government, to come together and agree to allow it. 

If a state wanted to serve students statewide, it would require agreements with other districts. Each “home” district would have to be willing to accept the virtual courses and give credit. Funding models would need to be worked out. Teacher agreements would need to be considered.

Places like Florida where they have Florida Virtual School, figured out legislation two decades ago when they allowed virtual school programs to serve students statewide. They have provisions and policies that require school districts to accept course credit from Florida Virtual School and place the courses on their home school transcript. 

They were able pass legislation that put into place a new funding formula to pay for students to enroll in classes (usually from the state coffers). The other place a state could put legislation in place is if they run a statewide online charter school. That’s because you need a funding formula if a student outside your district enrolls.

This can be done. This has been done in many places, but it is not a freedom everyone is allowed to choose because many districts had nothing compelling them to figure it out.

Until now.

Now, like it or not, most districts across the nation have turned to remote learning with varying degrees of success. 

What does this mean for the future of your district? 

Districts can either decide to figure it out or pretend it never happened. What do you think will happen where you work?

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