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Opinion It’s time to embrace distance learning — and not just because of the coronavirus

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Jeb Bush, the Republican governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, is founder and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit based in Tallahassee.

In the face of a viral pandemic that has closed schools nationwide, one might expect that all school districts would rush to provide distance-learning opportunities to students. But that’s not what has happened.

In Oregon, unions pressured school officials to block transfers of students into public charter schools that use virtual classrooms; Michigan’s state superintendent denied credit for online learning, citing state law requiring in-person attendance. Other school districts have capped online learning or denied it altogether, citing “equity” issues. In effect, school leaders are saying: If we can’t provide online instruction for all students, we won’t provide it for any.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones.

But stopping distance learning over equity concerns is a false choice. Many school districts, state leaders and others have figured out how to keep instruction going. Some opened access to virtual schools. Some, supported by private donations, have given laptops and tablets to students who need them. Others have made do by printing reams of classroom materials.

"It's just me... and I don't really have a lot left in me," said Melanie Malloy, a single mother and an emergency room doctor in Mount Sinai Brooklyn Hospital. (Video: The Washington Post)

It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms — not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning.

In the near term, many issues loom. A vaccine for covid-19 is months away. Even if schools are able to reopen this fall, rolling closures are likely when the pandemic reappears. Some parents simply won’t send their children to school — especially if family members have underlying health conditions — and will demand at-home accommodations.

Longer term, all K-12 schools need to adapt to distance learning. Already, one-third of college students take courses online. The $200 billion-plus market for corporate learning is exploding with content libraries, assessment tools, workflow learning and “micro-learning.” Learning is no longer modeled on the traditional classroom but has become digital, individualized and delivered on smartphones or laptops.

Several states and districts, recognizing this, had already introduced online courses — some even required such courses — and had made online tools available to all students. Computer-assisted and personalized learning can be particularly effective in closing achievement gaps, especially in math.

With so many children losing precious learning time today, further delays are not an option. Steps to take now include:

  • Every district should make available a device and WiFi so every child can participate in online learning. The digital divide must be closed.
  • Every district should practice and plan for distance-learning days every year. Distance learning isn’t just for pandemics; it’s also for times when schools would otherwise be closed — whether for snow, hurricanes or other emergency events.
  • Every district should make sure teachers and other instructional professionals understand how to use distance-learning tools effectively.
  • Every district must plan to virtually serve students with special needs, nonnative English learners and others who require more attention. This will be challenging. First steps should involve conducting an audit to identify which services can be delivered online, and then narrow the list of services that require unique solutions. Districtwide solutions should be considered, such as using a reading specialist to virtually support dyslexic students across the entire district, without being constrained to an assigned school.

Some might push back against these measures, but the benefits are clear: Such changes would better enable students to learn. They would be better prepared for the learning platforms of college and the workforce. Teachers would be able to deploy more innovative and personalized instructional strategies. Distance learning has the capacity to help students go deeper where their interests take them and get more focused attention in areas where they’re struggling. And Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual-enrollment courses and other intensive offerings could be expanded in districts where they are not currently available.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced many educators to adapt to virtual teaching. Here's how 7th grade math teacher Jil Llewellyn suggests you get through it. (Video: The Washington Post)

How to pay for this transformation? Schools already have access to $4 billion a year, funded from Americans’ telecommunications and home cable bills, to close the digital divide. Congress should make this program more flexible so districts can deploy WiFi or mobile hotspots in student homes where there is a need.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

Congress has already set aside $13.2 billion for states and schools to spend on pandemic-related education issues. A portion of these funds should be used to provide needed technology tools to students who don’t have access to WiFi and laptops or tablets.

Already, states and districts spend more than $13 billion a year on digital education and other information technology. Given the scale of this crisis, and the likelihood it will continue, these dollars should be prioritized on distance learning, virtual classrooms and closing the digital divide. The money is there. What’s missing is the will to make it happen.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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