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The somewhat surprising thing President Trump said about online education

President Trump speaks Tuesday as Ivanka Trump listens. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump said something this week about online education that was somewhat surprising, given that he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been on the same page about education policy since he took office.

DeVos and her supporters have made clear for years that they believe the future of education in the United States will not be in traditional public school districts but in various alternatives, including online schools through increasingly sophisticated technology that can “personalize” learning plans for each student.

Over many years of education advocacy, DeVos has repeatedly praised the growth of virtual schools, saying that educational options such as charter schools, private schools and online schools will help improve educational outcomes. And in the past, she and her husband, Amway heir Dick DeVos Jr., invested in K12, a network of online schools.

Talking this month about the swift shift to distance learning in schools across the United States because of the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, she said that she thinks “it’s very clear that we have an opportunity to embrace distance learning and remote education in a way that two months ago would not have been thought possible.”

“And it’s happening very well in many places and — out of necessity — many others are getting up to speed,” she said.

While DeVos and Trump have been in lockstep about their chief education priority — expanding alternatives to traditional public schools — the president said something this week about digital learning that seems counter to DeVos’s belief that online learning can be as good or better than learning in brick-and-mortar schools.

At a White House event Tuesday, he said that schools should consider reopening and that while online learning is “wonderful,” it’s not the same thing as being in a classroom. Referring to covid-19, he said, it’s “a bad death,” and “grips onto some people.” Then he said:

Now, we found out that young people do extraordinarily well. That’s why I think we can start thinking about [opening] schools, but of course we’re ending the school season, so you wouldn’t be back for too long. I noticed where Purdue University, a great school in a great state, wants to open and have students come in. I think that’s correct. Some colleges, I think, I saw Harvard wants to have students come back in the fall. I would hope that they’d have students.
I think that the whole concept of computer learning is wonderful, but, it’s not, tele-learning, but it’s not the same thing as a being in a classroom in a great college or a college of any kind. College, university, there’s nothing. You can’t replace that. Hopefully they’re going to be coming back. Young people do very well with this horrible scourge. They do very well.

To be sure, Trump has in the past supported efforts to give parents the right to use public money to send their children to attend any kind of school they want, including virtual schools. But Tuesday, at least, he made clear that he thinks there is no substitute for students being in an actual classroom, with a great teacher.