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40 Million Students In 4 Days. How Is The Shift To Learning At Home Going?

Learning at home

Stacey Childress

Learning at home

Students are learning all the time — in school, at home, and in their extracurricular activities, clubs and churches. But for more than 100 years, the center of formal learning has been the public school classroom. Over four days in March, that changed for 80 percent of America’s children due to the coronavirus. Education Week put it this way: “It can be difficult to visualize the sheer scale of this wave, affecting tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of students.”

Sheer scale indeed. And speed to boot.

Questions and concerns abound: how to best support kids and their parents for at home learning; how to provide instruction to students without access to WiFi and devices; and how to ensure children with special needs are appropriately supported.

But in the midst of this messy transition, the ingenuity of educators is on full, glorious display.

When school closures began rolling from both coasts into the middle of the country, teachers sprang into action. They began selecting and printing materials, working together to source activities and online resources appropriate for their students, and communicating with parents about options for structuring learning at home. Most teachers know which students lack devices or WiFi and have been on the front lines of elevating these needs to administrators while also devising alternatives for those students in the meantime.

All of this in less than a week.

The consensus advice to parents and caregivers seems to be: create a bit of structure, make a little time for formal learning and more time for play and exploration, and help kids feel safe and secure. Above all, keep it simple and make it work for your family — there is no one best way.

In reality, this unprecedented shift to learning at home cannot be standardized. And yet, some school districts and state agencies are trying to rein in the early efforts of teachers and principals until a unified plan is developed from the top. One district in California issued guidance to schools earlier this week to stop all remote instruction— not just digital learning — immediately. The reason? District leaders believed state and federal guidelines required them to do the same thing for everyone or to do nothing at all. Similar stories are emerging from other states.

Insisting that teachers do nothing until a district office team figures out how to do the same thing for everyone is a bad match for the moment we are in. This approach rarely works well when kids and teachers are together in 100,000 classrooms around the country. It is simply unworkable with young people spread out across millions of homes while teachers and parents figure out how to support them effectively in an intense, uncertain time.

As Rick Hess wrote here at Forbes on March 19, the federal Department of Education should clarify or update its guidance to break these logjams where they exist, and loosen and lighten reporting and compliance requirements.

State education departments and school districts should recast their role, seeing themselves as resource mobilizers and roadblock busters for schools and educators. Instructive examples are already emerging.

South Carolina decided to re-purpose a familiar icon: the humble yellow school bus. In a March 16 letter to school districts, a state official encouraged local leaders to use their Wi-Fi enabled buses to tackle three key needs: deliver meals, distribute instructional materials, and provide connectivity to families by parking in neighborhoods and rural areas where internet access is sparse. In order to better match resources with needs, the letter also encouraged districts to indicate if they need more buses or if they might have extra vehicles other towns could use.

Other states and districts should take inspiration from this example. Rather than doubling down on compliance and control in this time of crisis, ask schools and teachers what they need and do everything possible to provide it. What are they trying to accomplish? How can the concentrated power and resources at various levels of the public system be deployed to ease the path for educators and parents who are working creatively and diligently in support of their students?

More schools are closing every day, and early indications suggest the majority of America’s students will be learning remotely for at least a few more weeks, maybe longer. Soon the energy generated by the pace of the transition will give way to a clearer understanding of how to support students well and a starker view of the problems and inequities that need attention.

Let’s listen to educators and families, highlight promising examples, and revise policies and practices in our formal education system that no longer make sense in this massive shift to learning at home.