Remote Learning Isn’t Working

But just forcing schools to reopen without a plan won’t work, either.

An empty classroom. Chairs, desks, a whiteboard, and a screen are seen within.
A classroom sits empty at Kent Middle School on April 1 in Kentfield, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The debate over what school should look like in a few weeks, no matter what your perspective is, doesn’t have a lot of simple answers. Starting up schools again may seem like a tall order in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But what happened this spring with the sudden nationwide adoption of remote learning has not inspired confidence in the efficacy and sustainability of that particular adjustment. Parents are tired, kids are being deprived of proper education, every individual school district seems to be doing things a little differently, and it’s hard to figure out what the first day of school is going to look like when—if—kids go back in a few weeks. To puzzle through this terrible situation, I spoke with Washington Post education reporter Laura Meckler on Tuesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: What does the CDC say about reopening? Like, what should schools look like?

Laura Meckler: One of the guidelines is about social distancing, essentially, within the building, trying to keep kids away from one another.

That means keeping kids 6 feet apart in one room all day—no changing classes, no cafeteria.

There’s also health stuff like temperature checks, having staff and kids wear masks, wiping down surfaces. Kids would have their own supplies instead of having, like, a pile of crayons in the middle of the table for everybody to use. You’d have your own set of crayons.

As someone who’s covered education for years, when you look at these guidelines, do you think they’re reasonable?

The first thought I had was, is anything reasonable right now in our lives? It’s a balancing of risks. I do think the guidelines make sense. But how many schools are really going to be able to implement them? I mean, there are places where they don’t even have soap in the bathrooms.

We have only four to six weeks before schools will be cranking up again, maybe. So I’m curious if we can look at how some of this confusion is trickling down to actual school districts. I live in New York City, and here we’ve announced one of these hybrid plans for going back: a few days on, a few days off. It’s still pretty unclear what that will really look like because we don’t even have a first day of school yet.

It’s stunning that we are so close to the start of school and so many people don’t even know what it’s going to look like. I’m in D.C. and the public schools have not said yet what their plan is going to be.

Just this week, Los Angeles announced that it wasn’t even going to try in-person classes. It was gonna be all digital in the fall. At the same time, just a few miles away, in Orange County the school board voted to issue its own recommendations about going back to school, saying schools should go back to five days a week in person. Kids aren’t even required to wear masks. The recommendations are nonbinding, but it seems like they encapsulate the confusion going on right now.

The situation with the virus is different in different parts of the country. Los Angeles and San Diego said they were going to start all digitally while COVID cases are surging throughout California right now. So that’s much different than what’s happening somewhere, say, in the middle of Montana. It’s also different from New York and Washington, where we had a lot of cases in the spring but have not had another wave of cases yet—hopefully not at all. So maybe a hybrid model makes sense there.

Almost everyone wants kids to go back to school. Parents definitely want their kids learning. And I think a lot of teachers hated online instruction. But there’s all this confusion about how and when to do it. To me, this was best crystallized by how the American Academy of Pediatrics responded: In the past month, it’s said a couple different things. It first came out with this statement saying schools need to reopen, that the benefit is really much greater for kids than the harm. And then in the past week, AAP issued another statement together with superintendents and teachers unions saying that if there’s a risk of the coronavirus, schools should have the option to close.

AAP was right in both statements. It’s right that it is better to go back to school. It’s also right that you need to follow local health conditions. I think what happened was AAP came out with its first statement, which it really believed for good reasons, and it got super politicized. Suddenly, AAP was President Donald Trump’s favorite medical association to have walked the earth.

The White House was eager to hear what these pediatricians had to say because Trump wants schools open. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has been clear: If it were up to this administration, kids would be back in the classroom five days a week.  Trump had this event at the White House last week where he and his advisers talked about how important it was to reopen schools. And the school leaders who were there were very gently saying, Well, I think we’re going to try a little digital learning and a little bit in person.

There was this principal from a Catholic school in California. In this big roundtable with Trump, he says, We’re planning this hybrid model where kids are at home some days and in school other days—which is what a lot of districts are planning. The implicit message of the whole White House event was, we want you there full time.

It’s also become pretty clear that the White House wasn’t too happy with the CDC guidelines.

The White House does not have much use for the CDC, it seems. The CDC director, perhaps mindful of keeping his boss happy, has emphasized over and over again that its guidelines are meant to tell people how to reopen, not to give them a reason to stay closed. As I mentioned, one of the key pieces in the CDC guidelines was to have physical distancing between students in the classrooms, desks 6 feet apart. Well, most schools do not have enough space to accommodate that if all the kids are in the building. And that’s why schools are looking at hybrid models where half the kids would be in on some days and the other half would be in on other days, in order to allow space between them. The problem with the CDC guidelines is they’re pushing schools toward something less than fully reopening. That seems to be why some people don’t really like them.

So the White House doesn’t like the CDC’s plan, but does it have a plan for how schools should be opening instead? Or is it just, We don’t like what they’re doing over here

What Trump has said is, I want schools open. I don’t know if we could call that a plan. He’s said he thinks the CDC guidelines are tough and expensive and essentially go too far.

Trump’s suggested cutting off funds for schools that don’t open. DeVos can’t do that with funding that’s already been appropriated. But the vice president, at a briefing last week, said something that they could try to do is, if there is another coronavirus relief package and it includes money for schools, you could theoretically put a requirement in it that says you only get the money if you reopen. So Mike Pence said that they would be pushing for that, and we’ll see if they actually do.

Is there an estimate of how much it will cost if we wanted to bring kids back to school fully?

You clearly do need more money. If you want to have no-touch trash cans, most schools don’t have that. You want to be sure there’s hand sanitizer throughout the building. Most schools don’t have that. You want to do temperature checks. Who’s doing the temperature checks? Lots of schools don’t even have a nurse. Not to mention the fact that kids have lost learning over the spring and summer and they’re going to need even more help going back to try to catch up.

Have you been able to talk to school stakeholders, people like principals and teachers, who are going to have to figure out the fall no matter how it plays out?

I’ve talked to some of them, and everybody says it’s going to be better. We’ll see. I have a story about a class of sophomores who took AP World History in the spring. I followed them over the course as they did remote learning and prepared for this high-stakes test at a high-poverty school in San Francisco. There were certain things that got mentioned over and over again: Do people have computers? Do people have internet access? There were so many issues that came up in this reporting that I don’t really know if people have figured out how to solve.

Like what?

For some children, it was extreme social isolation. One of the kids I spent a lot of time talking to was just really lonely, and so he was up until like 2, 3 in the morning every night playing video games with his friends online, because it was the only way he could connect with them. I talked to other people who had to spend hours every day caring for their younger siblings or nieces and nephews who were living with them. This is the kind of stuff that is not easily solved by anybody, frankly.

Yeah, especially not by a principal or a teacher, not over Zoom.

The Zoom thing, also—I met this teacher over the course of this reporting. He said he’s used to reading the room when he’s teaching, acting stuff out and seeing when kids are getting sleepy, who’s not getting it. And now he’s like, it’s just me with a PowerPoint. And often kids would have their cameras off. So he couldn’t really see faces, even though he would encourage students to keep their cameras on. And then when people did have their cameras on, sometimes embarrassing things would happen. There’d be fights behind them in the background or stuff in their house that might be a little bit embarrassing to their peers. There were a lot of complicating factors that he found.

Other countries, like Denmark, have sent their kids back to school. Are people in the U.S. looking at those other countries for guidelines here?

There’s a lot of looking at what’s happened in other countries, and in fact, people who advocate opening schools have said it’s gone all right in other countries. The problem is in those regions you don’t have the surge in cases that we have in states here.

That’s why this is a hard problem. It’s not just like one point of view is the obvious, right one. You’ve basically got more than 13,000 school districts in the U.S. serving 56 million kids who have to navigate this essentially one at a time.

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