Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Thoughts on schooling in the era of COVID-19

Well, a whole lot has changed since I returned to blogging a month and half ago. In case you didn't notice, and I'm sure everyone reading this did, there's a global pandemic. I also am going to suspend my new "brief post" practice for this one, so hang with me.

First, I will share some twitter threads I wrote at different stages of this.

1. This came before and during Virginia Governor Northam ordered all Virginia public schools closed for minimum two weeks, dated March 13th, and presented some rudimentary thoughts on Virginia school divisions' response to/navigation of COVID-19:

2. This one was written for anyone trying to navigate learning at home who has children in Virginia public schools, dated March 17th:
3. This one came on March 20th, at the end of the first week of the initial 2-week school closure and discusses what local school districts should keep in mind to prepare and discussed differences between "precaution" and "last resort":

Of course, by now, Governor Northam has ordered all Virginia public schools closed through the end of the academic school year. This has not been easy news for schools and families to process and it will have devastating consequences for Virginia's families and children, but as I explained in this thread, this is a measure of last resort focused on saving lives, meaning more people will die if the schools aren't closed:

As I explained in this thread, school districts were given guidance by the Virginia Department of Education to come up with food services and continuation of instruction plans during extended school closures. In terms of the continuation of instruction plans, we have been told and are being told to put together sets of activities that will last 10 days each through some point in April. As far as I understand, these activities cannot be graded, they cannot present new material, and they cannot require the internet, and they should be project-based and not worksheets. I teach US & Virginia Government to seniors so it's not so hard to put such a set of activities together. I am also pretty creative so it's not hard for me to think of projects (and in fact, I am looking forward to using some of these whenever I teach face-to-face again). But it is tough assuming no access to the internet. At some point, starting some time in April, as far as I understand, we will be able to present new content and to use internet resources and forums to do so.

Second, there's a great deal of discussion of out there about COVID-19 related school closures and the lack of equity given deep disparities in access to internet and other resources at home. This is especially true for many students with disabilities. Indeed, this situation brings up all kinds of ethical questions and thorny issues. Not all students have access to the internet, no matter where they live. Not all students have access to devices even if they have access to the internet. Not all teachers have school-district issued laptops, or access to devices. Not all teachers have access to the internet.

I and other Richmond-area teachers spoke to a Richmond-Times Dispatch reporter about this:
Rachel Levy, a Hanover County resident and Caroline County teacher, said she has also been putting extra resources online for students and sending daily emails to try to stay in touch.

Levy said that even in a district like hers where all teachers and middle and high school students have school-issued laptops, there isn’t a magical switch to flip when it comes to moving instruction online.
She called the requirements of teachers and students in this situation “uncharted waters” because teachers cannot introduce new material without leaving some behind.

“There’s going to be students left behind by this optional remote instruction and do you say, ‘We do the best we can for who we can reach,’ or do you say, ‘Hey this isn’t fair,’” Levy said.
Do you provide what you can and hope a few can and will access it? Or do you say, what you can not provide for all, you will not provide for some. This undoubtedly is a privileged versus not-privileged dynamic. But, there's another way of looking at it. Assuming access to the internet, kids who are home while parents are out working or whose parents can't be available to them for whatever reason,  may actually benefit more from the extras being provided. Privileged parents who can stay home with their kids can do their own activities with them.

Even when the policy or guidance makers air on the side of equity, as I always explain to my students, policies are just words on a page--they are not necessarily neutral in how they're worded and they are certainly not neutral when subject to differences in interpretation and implementation. I have witnessed it between and within school districts and individual schools--educators with the same guidance are doing very different things with it in terms of distance education.

Third, along with the the deepening of opportunity gaps comes the deepening of ed tech and unethical data collection creep. While many stakeholders are realizing more than ever how valuable and vital our face-to-face public schools are (and I hope they will consider that people who are food insecure should not have to be dependent on schools to not be), ed tech is excited to show us how valuable they are. Educators, administrators, and school district leaders, are being inundated with offers of "help" and free trials. There are great ed tech tools and digital resources--I use many of them. However, there are also a lot of bad materials out there (Have I talked to you about the materials that go with my digital textbook? Hint: They are really crappy) and there is a rush to use any and all materials without much vetting in the era of COVID-19 school closures. School districts, individual teachers, and students are casting aside privacy concerns and are already getting locked into online platforms and learning systems. Furthermore, as Richmond, Virginia, community activist and 20-year teacher of first- and second-year college students Kristin Reed, brought up in this facebook post, 1. Online teaching is a real pedagogy and a skill that can't be learned overnight and 2. Doing a needs assessment of school districts' communities may not show that hasty investments in ed tech are should be prioritized in a crisis where people are going to lose their jobs, homes, and lives.

Next, we must beware of (and there is some overlap with the ed tech creep here), the push for privatization. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has been talking about the possibility of giving grants to individual teachers and families during closures to go towards online learning:
"U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Friday that she would encourage Congress to provide "microgrants" to help teachers with online learning during coronavirus-related school closures and to help "the most disadvantaged students in states or communities where their school system has simply shut down."

"I've always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident," DeVos said, echoing an argument she has used to promote a federal tax-credit scholarship plan that would fund private school tuition and other educational materials.
Gee, that sounds a lot like vouchers, doesn't it?

Finally, from my experiences and conversation, some educators and educational leaders don't seem to realize that we aren't just living new lives and offering the same education as we were, but just physically distant and from home. Lots and lots of Virginians have lost or are are going to lose their jobs and their housing. Lots and lots of Virginians are going to get very sick and that lots are going to die. This isn't homeschooling or online education; this is massive crisis schooling. Grades, test scores, and completing activity packets are going to become unimportant to a lot of people very soon. We should have transitioned a long time ago to schools that would shift operations to serve families of essential workers (grocery stores, people who have to work/can't work from home, medical services people) and students with severe disabilities whose parents cannot serve them at home, and we need to do what we can to get ready for an uncertain and pandemic-continued future.

This denialism is not just about the near future but about the more distant future. During this COVID-19 townhall hosted by Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan, Richmond parent, School Board candidate, and Henrico teacher Deanna Fierro asked about SOL testing. Well, it turns out that the Virginia Department of Education is considering granting school districts the option of administering the SOL tests waived for this spring in the fall (and then the next set the following spring!!!) so that schools can show growth. (See here at about minute 55:00.) This is a bad idea for a number of reasons--social-emotional, academic, financial, and psychometric--and doesn't reflect an understanding of the reality that's ahead for us.

Yes, we public school educators and workers should continue our missions as much as possible--to provide our students with sort of normalcy and to continue to serve the public and to provide families with structure and some sort of way for students to continue their education. But understanding and preparing for what's ahead and helping stakeholders to manage this crisis will be so much more important soon.

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