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EDITORIAL: Distance learning and equity in education

EDITORIAL: Distance learning and equity in education

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ON March 23rd, Virginia became one of the first states in the nation to shutter all public schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. The COVID-19 crisis forced school systems across the commonwealth, including in the Fredericksburg region, to plunge into “distance learning” with little time for preparation. But as teachers, parents and students have since learned, teaching in a classroom and trying to instruct children remotely on a computer screen at home is not the same thing.

Nonetheless, it has become an unwelcome reality for thousands of Virginia students and their families, who have no idea when they’ll be allowed to return to anything resembling a normal academic year.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s newly established COVID-19 Education Work Group will be trying to come up with strategies for reopening the schools sometime in the near future.

“School closures have been necessary to protect health and safety, but lost class time has a disproportionate impact on Virginia’s most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged students,” the governor said at a recent coronavirus press briefing. “That’s why equity will remain at the forefront as we determine when and how we can safely and responsibly return to in-person learning.”

“Equity” is one of those buzzwords that few outside the educational establishment really understand. It refers to school systems’ legal obligation to make the same level of instruction available to every student, regardless of special needs or family circumstances. This is hard enough in a school setting; doing so at a distance is proving to be an even bigger challenge. As an article in The Atlantic put it, “one-size-fits-all education barely works in a classroom, but it is completely unmanageable with kids spread out across their various households working independently.”

Mindful of their legal restrictions, many school systems have made even minimal virtual instruction and homework assignments optional to prevent lawsuits. Stressed-out parents who are trying to work remotely from home themselves report that distance learning, in many cases, equates to no learning at all.

If one-size-fits-all doesn’t work, what does?

According to Colin Seale, author of “Thinking Like a Lawyer; A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students,” the coronavirus pandemic could force a major shift in educational focus from cookie-cutter lessons, using available technology to personalize instruction for children who struggle to keep up with their same-age peers because of a learning disability, poverty, or a developmental delay.

“The key to providing equitable distance-learning opportunities for all students is to recognize what this looks like for each student’s unique situation. This transition from ‘all children’ to ‘each child’ is probably a heavier lift than the shift to distance learning,” Seale writes in Forbes. “Distance learning has the strategic advantage of making it easier in some cases for teachers to pinpoint specific academic struggles.”

So in a perfect world, a kid with low reading scores would be using this time at home to master basic skills like phonics with the help of an online program that makes reading readiness seem like a video game, while another kid who already reads fluently might need extra work in math or writing. Their teacher’s job would shift from teaching academic content to managing the online tools each student needs, based on their prior test scores and other data.

This vision of highly individualized instruction based on each child’s current level in each academic subject would not only help them through the current lockdown, it should become the standard even when they go back to school, hopefully in the fall.

An equitable education is one that is specifically tailored to each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses, not simply their age or grade.

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