The state of New Jersey passed the word late last Thursday; schools should prepare for the possibility of being closed “preemptively or reactively,” including a plan “to provide home instruction” should such a closure occur. The state, for its part, said it was prepared to count those home instruction days toward the required 180 days of school. By Friday, school districts like that in Mount Olive were mobilizing to create the plan.
Similar reactions are unfolding across the state and local level across the country, and some schools are scrambling to put some sort of plan in place. Meanwhile, the confusion that has surrounded the coronavirus has been fed by everything from contradictory statements to Facebook hoaxes.
Schools have shut down in the face of pandemics before, but today there are tools that were not available in 1918. Learning management systems like Moodle or Blackboard, cyber-schooling, distance learning, or what one CDC official curiously called “telelearning,” represent a full range of technological solutions for a class of students who can’t gather together. If the school building has to be shut down, why can’t we just have the students and teachers hop on the computer and continue to keep education going.
There are several reasons to be cautious about this solution.
As New York City schools have noted, closing schools is a last resort because in many communities, schools double as a social service center. Ironically, for many poor students depend on schools for the kind of medical assistance that families may need during the spread of a disease (though there is other disturbing data on this front; as laid out in this post by education writer Mark Weber, about one in five schools in the US may have no school nurse at all).
For many students, learning via computer is not an option because they have no internet connection at home. According to an AP dive into census data, as many as three million students have no internet access at home.
Distance learning, particularly involving large numbers of students who didn’t choose it, comes with a variety of challenges. China, where millions of students and parents have been shifted to virtual learning, is grappling with many of these issues, from unreliable internet connections to teachers and students who are uncomfortable with the apps being used. Education in a classroom depends on real, immediate relationships, and the online realm remains a place that provides at best a second-hand human-ish touch. Doing distance learning well is harder than it looks.
But perhaps the biggest caveat to be aware of is that many of the providers of the internet tools needed for this learning all stand to profit by a stampede to the schoolhouse exit. Even the major providers of “free” education apps, like classroom computer giant Google, reap enormous harvests of data. Many companies stand to make a ton of money from a sudden massive increase in cyber-education. That doesn’t mean that some of their solutions aren’t good ones; it does mean that they have to be watched carefully, and school districts should be asking questions. Lots of questions, keeping in mind that they are not talking to philanthropists who just want to help out, but companies that are responding to a chance to profit from disaster.
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan famously said that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” to happen to education in New Orleans, but that turned out to mean that the disaster swept aside the public school system and opened up opprtunities for private operators to move in— an opportunity that many turned out to be unprepared to meet effectively. Katrina put the disaster in disaster capitalism, and now traditional public education is essentially non-existent in New Orleans. It would be unsurprising if some virtual schooling businesses don’t see pandemic-related school closdings as a chance to take over portions of the education sector permanently, whether they can actual provide quality education or not. It would also be unsurprising if, after this pandemic was over, some of those vendors did not pitch the ideas of staying in place to cut costs,
Schools are likely to be hit hard by the spread of coronavirus, and that will create real needs for real solutions, and virtual school may well be one of them. But while there will useful resources out there, school districts need to keep a wary eye out for opportunistic profiteers. Ed tech have a long track record of overpromising and underdelivering. School leaders have a responsibility to guard both the health of their students in the present and the health of their school systems for the future.