K-12 Online Learning In the US During The COVID-19 Pandemic
As I write this article, schools in every U.S. state but three (Maine, Nebraska, and Iowa, deferring to local school districts) are closed—some for a few weeks and some indefinitely. As a result of this, schools and school districts have perforce, and post-haste, pivoted from brick-and-mortar schools to virtual schools at a vertiginous speed. How is K-12 online learning being carried out in the U.S? What issues are schools, students and teachers confronting in this virus-imposed mad rush from offline to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic?
How Are U.S. School Districts Responding?
Were you to ask this question of any number of more centralized education systems across the globe, the response would be simple and straightforward: “(Country name) is doing X.” In the vast, uneven, decentralized policy and program terrain that is the American K-12 education system, posing the same question yields a much more complex set of responses. Yes, it does appear that most states have turned in some degree to online learning. However, definitions of what constitutes “online” learning vary across, and within, states themselves. For example, in my state of Massachusetts, online learning is not an approach, but a kaleidoscope of different internet-based activities in which the focus, dosage, delivery mechanism, and degree of interaction of the online experience vary greatly. My observational and non-scientific scan of “online learning” across districts and schools here reveals a patchwork of online technologies to reach students:
- Virtual Learning Environments
Districts/schools using what we think of as “traditional” online learning—classes are taking place via a Learning Management System (Blackboard, Canvas with or without an integrated web conferencing platform like Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom).
- Web conferencing
Districts/schools using synchronous, "face-based” instruction via a webinar platform, like Zoom.
- Virtual classrooms
Districts/schools where life goes on as before school closures because instruction was already blended and where learning online was built into the system via platforms like Google Classroom, SeeSaw, Class Dojo or Apple Classrooms or other “virtual classroom-like” tools such as Nearpod or VoiceThread.
- Self-paced learning with curricular resources
Districts/schools uploading curriculum resources and instructional materials (e.g., teacher videos) on a portal or YouTube channel or emailing resources to students who complete these activities, either “doing” them online or submitting digital products to their teachers via email.
- Offline work with online delivery
Districts/schools asking students to do their textbook- and workbook-based assignments and either sending photos of paper-based work or transferring to Word documents and sending them to their teachers via email.
- Self-paced learning with externally provided content
Districts/schools sending playlists (Khan Academy, specific YouTube videos), or websites (iXL, NewsELA) or interactive lessons (PBSLearning Media) to students and asking them to watch and do as “enrichment.”
- Communication tools for instruction
Districts/schools using social learning platforms, VoIP and messaging applications like FlipGrid, Skype, Voxer, for check-ins, sharing, instruction.
- Integrated and differentiated forms of online learning
Districts doing some or all of these things.
- Print-based instruction
Districts/schools using none of the above approaches, who sent students home with paper-based packets, or regular textbooks, and/or who are providing no instruction to students at this time.
How Is The U.S. Doing?
How well states, districts, and schools are doing in the mad dash to online school depends on the availability of resources, policy, technology infrastructure, and human capital. Many districts have up-to-date technology policies, and some even have emergency policies, 1:1 or BYOD programs, cloud-based services, and teachers who know how to teach online. 32 U.S. states have fully online schools, and though many are charter schools that enroll a small number of students, they at least are free from the startup issues of scheduling, assessment, managing workloads, accreditation, motivation and equity that have or will certainly arise in moving to an online system. 23 states have virtual schools. These are state-supported supplemental online programs that can also provide guidance to states and districts as well as take on more students. The largest and most well-known of these is the Florida Virtual School, which according to its website, had 485,000 course enrollments in 2017.
One of the most prevalent myths promoted in education is that of kids as “digital natives,” which has led to many districts eliminating technology training and keyboarding classes.
However, many more school districts do not have the infrastructure, funding, and policies to support online instruction and are struggling with all of these issues in real time in the midst of this pandemic. Indeed, many of these same districts—districts with large concentrations of poor students, students with special needs, English-language learners and/or rural districts— struggle offline, in the best of times, with access to technology, equitable and quality instruction, providing services, high teacher turnover, and a sufficient number of qualified teachers.
Teaching Naked (Figuratively, That Is)
Warren Buffett once famously said that when the tide goes out we know who has been swimming naked. Now and for the next few months, at least, U.S. education is stuck at a low tide that has laid bare the most vulnerable and often hidden parts of the American education system. Below I mention some of these as they influence our response to online schooling.
The Digital Divide Is Alive And Well In The United States
The digital divide is now an education divide. While 75% of US households have broadband internet access, that figure varies across demographic groups. Racial minorities, rural residents, and households with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home. The Federal Communications Commission reports that as of 2019, 14% of households with school-age children  lacked internet access. Most earn less than $50,000 per year and most live in rural areas.
Home internet access may be one reason  most U.S. districts do not have the ability to provide virtual education to their students. But it's not the only reason. Many school districts themselves lack the policy, technical and human infrastructure.
In a recent EdWeek survey of school district superintendents, 52% reported they could not provide online learning to students and 41% said though they could provide some form of online schooling, however, they could not provide it “every day.”
Consequently, school districts are attempting to level this educational divide in a number of ways.
- Checkout loans of technology
Some school districts have instituted divide and WiFi checkout programs.
- Hardware home drop-offs
In Boston, where I live, Boston Public Schools delivered 20,000 Chromebooks  to students who lack devices at home.
- Free or subsidized home Internet access
Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the largest district in California and second-largest in the nation, is providing internet connectivity to up to 100,000 students who do not have internet access at home.
- Redefining “mobile learning"
School districts in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa are using school buses to provide "drive-by” internet access  to provide internet hot spots to homes lacking an ISP. This mobile internet delivery is common in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia that lack connectivity.
A number of rural districts and even urban districts—Seattle Public Schools for example—have sent home print-based instructional materials.
The U.S. Education System’s Highly Decentralized Nature Makes A Unified Response Difficult
With 50 states and approximately 13,000 school districts, education in the United States is a local affair. The US Department of Education establishes policy, enforces federal education laws and provides some financial assistance to states and schools (among other things). While it is providing guidance to states and school districts regarding COVID-19, decision-making, implementation, and actual responses are the responsibility of states and districts.
Our Digital Natives Aren’t So Native After All
One of the most prevalent myths promoted in education is that of kids as “digital natives,” which has led to many districts eliminating technology training and keyboarding classes. However, teachers are discovering that students are struggling with academic uses of technology—file management, writing online, reading online, managing passwords, uploading/downloading, and navigating a Learning Management System.
Teachers And Students Have Not Been Prepared To Teach And Learn Online
Teachers have been told to “put content online” (as if the conversion process from one medium to another was transubstantiation) but many have not received professional development, guidance or support on how to do this. Additionally, while many students are accustomed to submitting assignments through their LMS, they have little experience being online learners and many are struggling with motivation, concentration, time management, and self-regulation.
Teaching Online Doesn’t Work For Every Subject And Every Student
Teachers are finding that some academic subjects (math, science) are easier to teach online than other subjects (music, physical education) and that academic subjects generally are easier to teach online than Social Emotional Learning or Response to Intervention. Many teachers are struggling to provide distance-based education for children with special needs, children with severe disabilities, or English-language learners.
Public Television To The Rescue
As it always has, public television, both the Public Broadcasting Service and its local TV affiliates, is providing high-quality educational programming. But now in many locations  remote learning is televised learning. TV stations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, upstate New York, Detroit, Houston, Boston, and Florida are providing fixed-schedule educational programming to families. This is particularly important for pre-K, kindergarten and elementary age learners for whom traditional online learning is not an option.
My neighbor, WGBH, via its World Channel is broadcasting science, history and English Language Arts for students in middle and high school, Monday to Friday, from noon to 5 p.m.
Technology And Education Companies And Consultants Are Shifting Their Business Model
Just as General Motors and Ford are scrambling to make ventilators, many education companies and consultants are scrambling to become “remote learning” experts. This pressing need may result in fabulous new innovations or educational quackery to address real issues. It is resulting in teachers being overwhelmed by options and resources but also seeing ISP providers, and longtime connectivity champion associates, like Kajeet, offering free or discounted access to WiFi for a few months to households who lack affordable internet access.
The US Lags Behind Other Countries In Terms Of Equitable eLearning
Despite our wealth and the fact that 75% of classrooms have the technology, US efforts to extend online learning to all home-bound students, pales in comparison to other nations. South Korea, Singapore, Uruguay, Shanghai (okay, technically not a nation but bigger than most countries!) and New Zealand have national 1:1 computing systems, cloud-based services, centralized digital content, near-ubiquitous home internet access, centralized policies and procedures and support for home instruction. More on that in the next post.
Everyone Is Doing Their Very Best
We have never before experienced a crisis like this. Everyone is struggling. Everyone is doing their best. Teachers are pulling double duty. Many are taking care of their own children in one physical space while at the same time, guiding, teaching and nurturing those of others in virtual space. If we learn nothing else from this pandemic, I hope we at least learn to appreciate the complexity of education and the value of our teachers.