Along with other sectors of society, education has been greatly affected by the coronavirus, with schools closed across America. Yet, as in other fields, innovators in education have responded with learning mechanisms and models that allow students to continue to learn while the country shuts down brick-and-mortar institutions.
As it has done in so many other areas, the Trump administration has been proactive in promoting practical solutions to the school-closure situation.
“This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues,” noted U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.”
In order to ensure that it promotes rather than hinders this needed flexibility to educate, the Department of Education recently issued clarifying information on the use of distance learning for students saying, “No one wants to have learning coming to a halt across America due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Education does not want to stand in the way of good faith efforts to educate students on-line.”
Specifically, the Trump administration does not want federal rules and regulations to prevent millions of students from being educated using new technological tools. So the Department of Education clarification says that federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and others “should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
As the Department points out, “Many disability-related modifications and services may be effectively provided online,” which “may include, for instance, extensions of time for assignments, videos with accurate captioning or embedded sign language interpreting, accessible reading materials, and many speech or language services through video conferencing.”
Addressing the equity concerns regarding students who may not have access to technological tools, the Department points out: “In instances where technology is not accessible or where educational materials are not available in an accessible format, educators may still meet their legal obligations by providing equally effective alternate access to the curriculum or services provided to other students.”
At the ground level, online learning is showing itself to be a powerful tool in keeping the learning process ongoing for students homebound by the coronavirus.
At Summit Shasta in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is part of a network of charter schools in California and Washington State, all students have access to the Summit Learning Platform, which is an online platform containing playlists of various resources.
According to the school, “Summit teachers curate these resources and organize them into online playlists that introduce each topic and link to videos, slideshows, websites, readings, and practice worksheets. Students engage with these resources and choose the best ones to help them learn both at school and at home.”
Overall, the Learning Platform is an online dashboard that allows students “to set goals, track their progress, and direct their own learning by accessing the resources that make up the Summit curriculum.” The Platform was developed in partnership with Facebook and is used every day by Summit students, teachers, and families.
And to address the equity issue, the school issues every student a Chromebook.
No surprise, the school announced that in the face of the coronavirus, March 17th was “the first day of virtual school for all Summit students,” and that school would start at the regular time, 8:20 a.m., for most schools in the Summit charter network.
Online learning has also begun seamlessly at other charter schools like Design Tech, a charter high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. The school switched to distance learning, which was an option because the school uses new learning technologies that “allow students to interact with content, get instant feedback on their work, and be ‘tutored’ by computer programs.”
When asked how the coronavirus outbreak had affected the learning of her two daughters, who are students at Design Tech, one mother said, “They are doing homeschool that is not much different because Design Tech is designed for online learning.”
In times of crisis, American ingenuity always comes to the fore. Educators and policymakers should ensure that, when this crisis is over, this ingenuity becomes part of the new normal for education in our country.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.