Little imagination is required to suggest that if President Trump were successful in forcing schools to reopen, more than a few students, teachers, administrators, and support personnel could die as a result. His directive, premised on the assumption that it will create a potent issue on which to run this fall, is reckless. It’s also beyond his authority—the President cannot force states and school districts to open or close schools.
Despite Trump being wrong about forcing schools to open, he is right that education at all levels is in crisis. Spring school closures effectively ended learning for many elementary and secondary school students. Regardless of how they continue their educations, they will have learning gaps that will create unique challenges for years to come. During this pandemic, some students successfully continued their studies online. But many others, probably, a majority, did not.
Studies suggest that online education creates unique demands on learners. Motivated, focused students can use remote learning tools successfully. Most other students require the presence of a skilled teacher to focus and sustain the attention needed to truly learn. Thus, education may be described as in crisis. If schools open this fall, students in many areas will be at serious risk of contracting the coronavirus. If schools remain closed, the risks associated with online education will continue.
So, what to do? First, let’s throw out the insane idea of forcing schools to open in locations where local authorities believe it is imprudent to do so. Let’s also listen to teachers and administrators. It they tell us they are uncomfortable with returning to pre-virus practices, we need to listen. A teacher who fears for his or her life, and those of their students, every day in the classroom is unlikely to be effective.
Second, let’s forget about cutting off funding for schools that refuse to open. If a state or school district decides to keep its schools closed, or to open partially, as proposed by Mayor De Blasio in New York City, they will need more, not less, money. Many communities suffer from the “digital divide,” including the Eastern Shore. If online learning is needed, all students must have access to the internet. This is a matter not only of ensuring students have the right equipment, but also that they can connect to the internet and know how to engage and benefit from instruction. That means schools also will need funds to train teachers in new pedagogies. They also will need funds to implement measures to minimize the risk of infection in preparing for partial or eventual complete reopening. Cutting funding not only punishes students; it would be counterproductive in many other ways.
Third, schools, teachers, and the Department of Education must be honest in assessing the effectiveness of alternative pedagogies. Existing research documents that most online education is not as effective as in-person learning. There are, of course, exceptions, such as synchronous remote learning, but if you accept that students have very different learning styles, it is clear that implementing online education involves choosing the right software and approach to meet the needs of individual learners. This is no small task. It involves measuring whether students are truly learning and reporting the results. Decisions on how to confront the educational crisis need to be based on facts, not political expediency.
Fourth, recognize that modern technology, including techniques such as easy-to-use video conferencing, creates opportunities to make distance learning more effective. Many educators, including education leaders in our area, appear to already be there. Our national leaders at the US Department of Education, however, may be another matter. President Trump’s (and Secretary DeVos’) assumption that online education is universally ineffective, can be dismissed as the nonsense that it is. And, of course, to put these new tools to work everywhere they are needed, we need leadership. Unfortunately, expecting that from Secretary DeVos is naive. Trump is more likely to quit both tweeting and lying than she is to support schools in finding the right tools to use to meet the crisis. Among the suggestions of the Secretary is to award parents of students whose schools do not reopen (or reopen fully) funds to support their children attending private schools. Remember “Leave No Child Behind?”
There is a lot of complexity on the issue of schools reopening. Not a great time to be a school superintendent. Many school leaders are frustrated that Washington is not doing enough to help them navigate the issues. One solution—really a small part of what is a huge issue—would be to bring the best minds to the table on the issue of how to implement remote learning. Because it now is clear that the pandemic is not going away any time soon, the fact that many schools will not be able to reopen fully, or, in many cases even partially, must be accepted as a given. For students attending these schools, if effective remote education is not available, learning will suffer.
Because the President and Secretary DeVos are taking a different approach, maybe former Vice President Biden could take the lead. Ideally, he would not convene a task force himself, something likely to (fairly or unfairly) taint whatever recommendations were made with politics. Instead, he should ask one of the nation’s education-focused foundations to convene a task force and produce recommendations, focused on remote learning, within 30 days. Biden could help publicize the report once it was complete.
Thirty days is a short time. It is doable, however, because many answers are already out there. A blue-ribbon panel produced report on best practices and how to implement them would be invaluable help to the many school districts struggling to implement distance education. Appropriate experts are likely to welcome such an initiative as a way of putting their knowledge to work to help students.
What might the foundation be? The foundation I chaired several years ago would be a candidate—KnowledgeWorks in Cincinnati. A much better known group, one with effectively unlimited financial resources and a larger team of experts already on board, is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There are, however, many other good choices. Maybe Biden could quickly pick one and set them to work. If his choice did not already have the financial resources needed to do the job, perhaps he could give the chosen foundation funds from his campaign. Just a thought.
The 30-day report would not decide the big issue of whether to open schools, completely or partially. That needs to be made on the state and local level Instead, the report would focus on what works in terms of tools needed for effective remote learning—the software, supporting pedagogies, teacher training, and the necessary infrastructure. The report would have as much specificity as possible, including implementation costs. It should outline immediate action steps and, where possible, identify challenges. Ideally, Congress could use the report to provide funding to implement the recommendations by those school districts that determine that prudence dictates not “returning to normal.”
The road ahead for America’s students at all levels is not an easy one. Failure to address the educational crisis is not an option. It’s time to get real. The virus is not going away any time soon. Either we get to work to do the best we can to meet our obligations to America’s students, or students, and the rest of us, will suffer the consequences.
And one more thing—addressing the issue of how best to make online/distance education work is only part of the problem that must be addressed. Just one example: During this period of severe economic hardship, schools play an important role in ensuring that students get adequate nutrition. More than 20.2 million students received free lunches from schools before the crisis. That number has no doubt increased. Another eight million students get reduced-price meals. President Trump’s threat to cut funding to schools that choose to remain closed because of the virus should be viewed with this in mind.
On June 29th, the Spy published an excellent article by Chestertown’s Al Hammond titled, Minding a Big Gap: Digital Divide Leaving Students Behind. The article includes a Spy video interview with Talbot Superintendent of Schools Kelly Griffith on Digital Divide Learning Students Behind. I highly recommend both.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy. He served on the Board of Directors of KnowledgeWorks Foundation from 2000-2016.