The kitchen table will once again serve as a makeshift desk for millions of students when they head “back to school” in the next few weeks. Seventeen of the nation’s 20 largest school districts have said that they’ll reopen with zero in-person instruction. Nationally, only about 40 percent of schools have announced plans to reopen in-person (with another ten percent planning for a hybrid model that includes some in-person instruction).
Moreover, there’s little evidence that school systems worked out the kinks of virtual learning over the summer. Consider New York City’s dismal experience with summer learning. In the nation’s biggest and biggest-spending school district, despite New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza’s pledge that the city’s summer learning plan would get kids “ready to hit the ground running come September,” the program was plagued by the same problems that befell schools last spring — from technical glitches to poor curricula to sky-high truancy rates.
Less than half of districts offered any sort of professional development to their teachers over the summer, and just 20 percent have plans to provide support to teachers in a remote-learning setting. Parents have expressed frustration about the dearth of communication or guidance from their schools, and educators themselves have fretted that they’re not sure, after a lost spring, how they’ll convince students that this fall’s remote learning should suddenly be taken seriously. And, however tough it was for teachers to connect with students this spring, they’d already had six months of in-person instruction to build from; things are going to be exponentially tougher this fall for those teachers who know their students only as pixels and email addresses.
Meanwhile, teacher unions have served as another impediment. Even when the concerns sometimes seem exaggerated, one can appreciate why teachers may be hesitant about in-person schooling. Extraordinarily troubling, however, is that — once schools have gone fully virtual — more than a few union locals seem to be intent on pursuing provisions designed to hinder remote teaching and allow teachers paid as full-time educators to operate as part-time employees.
In Los Angeles, the “tentative agreement” between the district and the union stipulates that teachers will only need to deliver one to three hours of live instruction a day, with the exact amount determined by a complicated distance-learning schedule that incorporates grade level and, weirdly, the day of the week. In San Diego, the tentative agreement between the union and the district calls for three hours of live instruction a day, one “office hour” a day, and two hours of prep time for teachers (during which students are supposed to be doing “asynchronous” work, i.e. watching videos or filling out worksheets).
All of this leaves parents in a tough spot as they contemplate another lost semester, knowing their kids need more than the two hours of Zoom calls and busywork that many schools are offering. Some parents have been found a solution in “learning pods,” small, parent-organized classrooms led by a tutor or teacher that deliver a lot of the benefits of in-person schooling while minimizing risk. Others have turned to virtual charter schools with more purposeful, robust online programs. Still others have sought to transfer to smaller private schools offering some form of in-person learning.
Yet far from celebrating these attempts to do what many schools won’t, the nation’s scolds have apparently decided this a good time to upbraid and obstruct parents who dare to do more than sit and fret. Parents who form learning pods have been lambasted in the New York Times for choosing “to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy” and criticized in the Washington Post for “weakening the public education system they leave behind.” Those trying to move their kids to virtual charter schools have been fought by union leaders who, in Oregon, pressured state officials to block such transfers. And in Montgomery County, Md., parents who’d turned to private schools found local officials striving to shutter these options just weeks before the start of school.
When the public-health situation warrants it, remote learning is better than nothing. But, even before we turn to the crushing impacts on working parents and children’s mental health, it’s crucial to appreciate just what a dismal substitute today’s remote learning really is. And, while it’s far from clear that district and union leaders are focused on putting in place the measures that might help, a disconcerting amount of energy has been devoted to battling parents who are trying to solve the problem that’s been dumped on their doorstep.
The takeaway is pretty straightforward. In most places, remote learning is going to be a mess this fall. School and system leaders should be doing all they can to reopen schools as rapidly and thoughtfully as their local health context permits. And, in the meantime, educators, community leaders, and policymakers should do all they can to help families find solutions that will work for them.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Rice is a research assistant at AEI.
Matthew Rice is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.