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New York’s Andrew Cuomo asked why the country wasn’t ready for a mass shift to online education. Here’s why.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) speaks at a news conference on the coronavirus on March 24. (John Minchillo/AP)

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has become a national face of the response to the coronavirus outbreak with his frequent televised briefings about the situation in his state, which has more covid-19 cases and deaths than any other state. (Covid-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.)

This week, he spoke about the inevitability of “something like this” happening again, saying:

“You can’t just turn off the economy like a light switch. How do governments work together? You can’t figure it out on the fly; what the federal government … does, what the state government does, what the local governments do — figure it out before. Learn the lessons from this. Telemedicine and tele-education. We have to close the schools. Well, why weren’t we ready with a tele-education system? Why weren’t we better at telemedicine? Why didn’t we have that capacity?”

Let’s address his two questions about tele-education: Why wasn’t the country ready for a sudden, mass shift to online education? And why didn’t it have the capacity?

We can dispense with the second question first: The country does actually have the ability to ensure that all students have an equitable education and that there are options for them in times of emergency. The country has just never chosen to prioritize the policies — not just in education but in housing, health and other areas — that would be required for such an outcome.

So why wasn’t the country ready? Is it mostly about lack of foresight to think about planning and insufficient funding? Or is there more?

Americans are not known to be great planners, individually or collectively. They don’t save money like people in many other industrialized countries, for example. With U.S. foreign and domestic policies often reactive, the federal government was clearly not ready to deal properly with a pandemic, despite warnings that one would eventually develop and challenge us.

When it comes to why public schools weren’t prepared for a quick switch to online learning for tens of millions of students, Jack Schneider, scholar of education history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said it’s about far more than a lack of planning. Instead, he said, the reasons go to the very heart of what it means to be educated and what the purpose of schooling actually is.

Schneider — the author of several books, including “Beyond Test Scores,” and co-host of an education podcast called “Have You Heard” — cited the effectiveness of online education, which he says has “generally been a train wreck” for most students, as a reason that the country isn’t ready.

Most research on the subject, Schneider said, show that most young people don’t learn as much or as well in a virtual environment.

“Face-to-face interactions, personal relationships and human cues matter tremendously in the education of young people,” he said. “While virtual schools may be cheaper to operate — a major attraction for those looking to wring a profit out of public education — they are hardly an adequate replacement for their brick-and-mortar counterparts.”

Schooling is about more than learning how to read and solve algebraic equations. “Across time,” he said, “the public has valued a broad range of outcomes — from the nurturing of creativity to the fostering of interracial friendships — that go well beyond content standards. Mindsets, dispositions, social skills and the like are simply much harder to teach online. Moreover, the schools provide a wide array of services — from feeding students to keeping them safe — that cannot be replicated virtually.”

And inequitable access to technology remains a very real problem in America’s cities, rural areas and suburbs, said Kevin Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law. Many families can’t afford mobile devices, and neither can their schools districts. Even if schools can provide children with devices, many families don’t have access to or can’t pay for Internet service.

Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal and executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports public schools, said she thinks that teachers and schools have done well given the situation.

“Frankly, I think schools have done an incredible job transitioning as quickly as they have to distance learning, which is a better descriptor in this case than online learning,” she said. “At the same time I have no doubt that based on what we know most students will learn less and gaps will widen between high achievers with good support and students who are struggling learners.”

Cuomo touched on a central issue around virtual education: the social implications of sitting at home and going to school largely on a screen. In the same monologue in which he raised the issue of tele-education, he said this:

“And let’s talk about societal stability and engagement at times of crisis. You can’t just tell everyone, ‘Go home and lock your doors and sit on your couch and order takeout for the foreseeable future.’ That’s not who we are. It’s not even a mental health issue. It’s just, it’s our personal health issue. It’s how we relate to one another. We’re not built to be isolated for long periods of time and not have human contact. So how do we deal with that?”

Good question.