Wednesday, August 12, 2020
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Distance learning begins as Covid-19 thrives

The number of coronavirus cases in the US passed the 100,000 mark yesterday, and schools across America are joining those in Illinois and Maryland next week in order to make every effort to ensure students continue learning, even as they are not allowed back in school buildings.

A school in Kirkland, Wash. (Colleen Michaels/iStockPhoto)

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon announced last week that public schools would be closed through at least April 24.

The Illinois State Board of Education said students would not have to make up the days of instruction lost to Covid-19, declaring the still-spreading pandemic an “act of God,” but students are expected to begin “remote learning days” on Tuesday, a letter from Carmen Ayala, the state superintendent of education, said yesterday.

More than half the states have applied for some type of waiver from the US Education Department in response to the coronavirus worldwide pandemic. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was under instructions from the Trump administration to approve any requests from states for waivers from federally mandated testing or other accountability requirements.

But even as state departments of education rush to provide resources and other instructions for distance learning, I would be remiss not to add that kids who are isolated—at home, out of their usual routine, and out of touch with their teachers—are not going to learn to read as if nothing had happened.

The missing contact with friends and teachers, especially for adolescents, can be expected to produce behavioral issues, and teachers should keep trying to engage in personal contact with young people, through technology, which is as important as any other lesson they might teach. The Internet can help with content and lesson delivery, regardless of the subject, but nothing replaces a teacher who smiles and says ‘hi’ in the morning.

“Our goal is to keep students engaged as much as possible through a distance learning approach, while also recognizing and understanding the unique circumstances that our families and community members are currently facing,” wrote the superintendent and school board president for the public school district in Carroll County, Maryland.

“This past week, our principals and teaching staff held virtual meetings to train, plan, and prepare as best as possible to support this distance learning effort. Like many school systems in Maryland, CCPS will be providing varying methods to deliver learning opportunities that will include online learning and traditional pencil and paper.

“We fully recognize that a sudden shift of this magnitude is uncharted territory. Distance learning cannot be expected to simply replace our traditional face-to-face, in-school instructional delivery. That is not our expectation. There will certainly be challenges and obstacles to overcome, but we know that by being patient, working collaboratively, and continuing to communicate with each other, we will make the most of this difficult situation for our students and help ensure that they continue to have opportunities to learn during this unprecedented time.”

Editorial: Inadequacies & unfairness of online learning

I suspect we will learn a lot from this pandemic, and certainly our students, when they’re 60, will talk about what happened this year. Most likely, we’ll realize that standardized testing has done little to help us teach students and that real, lifelong learning just doesn’t happen in the absence of real teachers. Personalized learning, that is, can’t happen without constructive interactions between persons.

Online learning programs are tedious as a rule, full of bells and whistles but delivering too little thought-provoking content to engage minds that grow hungrier with each piece of information consumed. But the pandemic gives us an opportunity to measure just how inadequate they are for real students. Social learning—an active class discussion, for example—is what’s best in the end, although computers are useful tools, especially when they transport students to places they could never go without the technology. But the sheer tediousness of online learning tends to kill the creative spirit alive in young people.

Education as a social process, where we “learn how to learn” and how to “learn and work with others,” surpasses even the ultimate goal of distance learning, in which hashtags replace a light in a student’s eye, emojis replace a teacher’s caring patience, and rote memorization replaces thoughtful learning.

Furthermore, in terms of equity, computer availability and Internet accessibility differences in our school communities reinforce opportunity gaps that already exist. How can a teacher, school, or state give some students a learning opportunity while that same access to opportunity is inaccessible to even one student?

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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