Considering the many difficulties of implementing virtual classes this spring, it should have been apparent to parents and educators that trying virtual classes in the fall would have similar results. Not all students would have the right technology, many teachers would need extensive training in virtual learning software, and there would be few accountability measures to make sure everything works as intended. At best, teachers could only expect a bare minimum from students and just grade them on a pass/fail basis.
It also should be apparent by now that closing schools is unnecessary. COVID-19 doesn’t seriously threaten young people. Moreover, there is a significant emotional and academic toll on young people from so little social contact. Whatever magic a teacher can accomplish through Zoom and a vast array of education apps, students are still isolated from others and spend the day in front of a screen.
Nevertheless, those who pushed virtual learning over brick-and-mortar schooling assured everyone that having a summer to prepare would fix these problems. Teachers would receive the proper training, students would be familiar with the platforms, and schools could use their new funds to buy everyone a Chromebook or iPad.
Concerning the necessity of keeping students at home, school districts could give parents a choice of whether to have virtual or face-to-face instruction. After so much work and spending, virtual learning would undoubtedly match or exceed the quality of face-to-face instruction — education would finally move into the 21st century.
Unfortunately, this has not happened. Many school districts have delayed opening, offering exclusively virtual instruction for the first several weeks (or three months, in the case of Dallas) before introducing the option of face-to-face classes. So far, most schools are struggling with the same logistical challenges that they encountered in the spring: students are not logging in; school networks cannot support so many users hosting virtual classes simultaneously; and other technical issues (a website’s server goes down, people hacking into classes, a certain application is not working, etc.) continually arise.
If a school can overcome these obstacles, there are privacy issues to consider. When students put their cameras on in their bedrooms, teachers can now see, and report what they might see. If a student has drugs, guns, obscene posters, or even items that look like such things, the teacher now has an obligation to report it.
This happened in Baltimore when a teacher mistook a student’s BB guns for bigger guns, resulting in a police investigation. One might suggest keeping cameras off, but then the teachers couldn’t take attendance and schools couldn’t receive funding.
The privacy issue also comes up when parents decide to sit with their students to watch a virtual class. This would be no different than a parent observing a class in normal times, except that he or she might not be visible in a virtual setting. Teachers and students wouldn’t know if someone is watching them, eliminating the usual safety and confidence of the classroom.
At least, this was the claim made by Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee, which sent a letter telling parents not to watch their children’s classes. While one might say that parents should have the right to know what’s going on in a child’s classes, another person might contend that kids should have the right to be in a class where strangers aren’t watching them without their knowledge. Whichever position one takes, this issue undeniably only comes up with online learning.
In addition to privacy, another unforeseen issue with online learning has been scheduling. Without thinking of the work involved, state and local politicians simply told schools to offer virtual and face-to-face options a few weeks before the start of the school year. This caused school counselors and administrators to fly into a frenzy to somehow accommodate each and every student’s chosen classes and mode of learning.
Teachers now have to teach both online and in-person, often at the same time. All this has led to massive classes, numerous different course preps for teachers, and constant schedule changes during these first few weeks.
However, supposing these external issues are addressed and a district has maintained stability in the virtual learning system, there is something inherently flawed in this mode of education: it’s not real. There’s no teacher, no space for learning, no extracurricular programs, no classmates, and no real accountability or oversight. There’s just a screen.
To this point, it’s worth asking what a student is really getting when he participates in virtual schooling. In most cases, all he has are a few apps to track his progress, some livestream videos, and occasional feedback on simplified assignments. In a sense, these students finally have nearly full ownership of their learning—a perennial goal for education reformers. What they own just doesn’t amount to much.
Even so, all this could be tolerable, especially for older students nearing graduation, if the restrictions of physical school (bells, attendance, busing, etc.) were lifted. The one good thing about online learning is that it allows students to work at their own pace and on their own time. Unfortunately, many schools have forced a normal bell schedule onto a virtual platform, thereby combining the worst of both worlds: the rigidity of face-to-face learning with the superficiality of virtual learning.
Most schools around the country have not reopened, and many will continue offering virtual learning far into the school year. Many have also suspended their arts and athletic programs indefinitely. All of this is done in the name of health and safety, but this should be a decision the parents make, not a school board or district administrator.
This situation is far from resolved, and parents, students, and teachers are feeling the strain of online learning once again. It’s time to stop this nonsense and finally reopen schools for everyone.