In the wake of the coronavirus crisis with most people self quarantined at home, schools across the country are shut down.
Some offer (or are considering offering) distance learning over the Internet.
However, this poses problems.
Not all student services can be provided via computer.
And not all students even have a computer, online compatible device or Internet access.
Should our nation’s public schools soldier on anyway and provide some kind of learning experience for those not thus encumbered at the expense of those who will be left behind?
The U.S. Senate’s proposed coronavirus aid package includes a provision to waive existing federal law that requires all schools to provide services to special education students. Removing this specification would allow districts to move forward with virtual learning without having to worry about meeting the needs of their special education students.
Advocates worry that even a temporary suspension of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) could have devastating long term effects on students with disabilities and ultimately remove the requirement upheld for the last 45 years that they receive a free public education.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos offered a gleeful statement in favor of dispensing with protections for students with autism, cerebral palsy, learning disorders and other special needs:
“It was extremely disappointing to hear that some school districts were using information from the Department of Education as an excuse not to educate kids. This is a time for creativity and an opportunity to pursue as much flexibility as possible so that learning continues. It is a time for all of us to pull together to do what’s right for our nation’s students.
“Nothing issued by this Department should in any way prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction. We need schools to educate all students out of principle, rather than educate no students out of fear. These are challenging times, but we expect schools to rise to the occasion, and the Department stands ready to assist you in your efforts.”
The Department of Education issued a Fact Sheet that went even further:
“To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
This is tantamount to prioritizing the education of some students over others. In short, if we follow DeVos’ guidelines, we will be saying that regular education students are more important than students with special needs.
It is a dangerous precedent.
However, perhaps even more dangerous is the abdication of any responsibility for, even complete erasure of any mention of poor students without Internet access.
This just underlines the importance of legislation. Special education students have IDEA. Poor students have nothing. There is no right to education for them at all.
If there had been some legislation specifically enshrining the rights of the underprivileged, however, it is clear this administration would be likewise proposing measures to dispense with it.
I understand that we are in a crisis. I understand that some think it is better to take half measures so that something gets done rather than nothing.
However, the coronavirus outbreak is expected to be a temporary situation. It may last weeks or months, but it will not last forever.
We want to do things in the best interests of children now, but we also must be aware of later. And trying to meet some kids needs now while writing off a large chunk of the rest would have a huge negative impact later.
If we educate just the privileged kids, we will be worsening the socioeconomic gap between students – a gap that is already too wide.
According to the most recent federal data, nearly 7 million students in the United States do not have Internet access at home. That is about 14 percent of all U.S. students. And of those with online access at home, 18 percent do not have home access to broadband Internet so they would also have difficulty retrieving lessons or participating in Zoom meetings online.
Moving to distance learning on the Internet would leave tens of millions of children behind.
Is this really what we want to do?
In addition, there is the question of quality.
Few teachers are trained or have experience with distance learning. They will probably be able to provide some kind of learning – but it will almost certainly not be the best they could be providing.
Moreover, there are real questions about the quality of learning that CAN be provided in a virtual environment even under the best of circumstances.
Cyber schools are a perfect fit for some students. Older and more mature students would probably have an easier time adjusting to it.
However, many students – especially younger ones – need the face-to-face interactions of school to get the most out of the experience. Forcing them into a mold that may at best be unsuited to them individually and at worst developmentally inappropriate will only cause them undo trauma.
I understand that everyone wants to appear like they’re doing something to meet the challenges provided by this crisis. However, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
One day the quarantine will be lifted. At that point, we can reopen the schools.
This may mean a few months of summer school. Or we could extend the 2020-21 school year to make up the difference.
Neither are perfect solutions. But they’re both better than virtual learning.
Neither require us to write off our poor and special education students.
And THAT is the most important thing.
Public schools don’t have to settle for whatever fad is offered from disaster capitalists.
We can still do what’s right for our kids.
Like this post? You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.
Plus you get subscriber only extras!
Just CLICK HERE.
I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!