With each passing day we learn of more schools that have temporarily shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, also known as coronavirus. As of today, according to UNESCO, 39 countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America have implemented school closures to mitigate risks of spreading the disease, with 22 of those countries closing all schools nationwide. Many colleges and universities in the United States have moved to online courses for their thousands of students, with more expected to follow. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control have suggested that U.S. school districts prepare for internet-based “teleschools” in anticipation of increasingly likely long-term closures.
As we prioritize children’s health and well-being, we must also prioritize their learning. Experts believe COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic we face. School districts and policymakers need to plan now for how to respond not only to this public health event, but future ones as well.
Virtual schooling is an obvious solution, and educators and families have already started to scramble for online tools. But implementation requires that care is taken to ensure that 1) every student has access and they know how to use it, and 2) the online experiences are powerful and meaningful.
The digital learning gap is caused by differences in how learners access technology, both in and out of school, and in how technology is used for learning. Not all students have daily—let alone anytime, anywhere—access to high-speed internet and a device for learning. Consider that about 15 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children do not have a high-speed internet connection at home. Rural Americans are more than twice as likely to not use the internet than their urban and suburban counterparts, with approximately one in four rural Americans saying that access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their community.
A growing number of states and school districts are prepared because they have already adopted technology with an eye toward providing students with access to learning. Districts such as Lindsay Unified School District in central California and Morris School District in New Jersey designed and implemented community wifi programs that give students and parents free at-home internet access. In both cases, collaboration with outside groups was integral to the program’s success—Lindsay Unified worked with their local wireless and utility providers to expand the district’s own network and create local hotspots, while Morris partnered with organizations like Kajeet and Optimum to utilize their network and hotspot capabilities.
Other school districts, such as those participating in the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program, offer each student a personal device and a data plan for use at school and at home. Additionally, some schools provide devices and access points for students to check out of the school library to enable home access.
Basic access to technology and the internet is an important part of school districts’ contingency plans in the wake of a pandemic. However, the design and selection of content, software, and the methods of interaction are equally important.
In order to prepare for virtual learning at scale, district leaders are moving quickly to review and select appropriate online resources for students to use at home. Research-based software can provide learners with personally relevant content and customized options for difficulty level, as well as accessibility for students with special needs. Organizations like Discovery Education and Outschool are offering free resources to schools experiencing closures due to COVID-19, including digital content for students and teacher training and webinars on effective virtual learning.
Additionally, programs that offer video conferencing, shared document creation, and other techniques for collaboration can augment the ability to research, read, write, and practice mathematics. Longer term, programs that integrate emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality can serve to build empathy as students figuratively step into others’ shoes—perhaps those of students in other places also grappling with COVID-19.
The unprecedented urgency surrounding COVID-19 presents an opportunity for determining how technology can be leveraged most effectively in the event of a national emergency. Coordination and sharing among networks of experts can help communities more quickly identify and share what is working and what is promising for learning to be both undisrupted and meaningful, which may ease this particular problem-solving burden.
Whether or not teleschools become a widespread public health necessity, now or in the future, it is possible to create access to digital learning for every student—learning that not only inspires and engages students, but also advances development of creative thinking, problem solving, self-regulation, and empathetic global citizenship. Providing equitable learning experiences is not only imperative—it is the right thing to do, in any circumstance.
Please visit our COVID-19 Online Learning Resources and FAQ for a compilation of some of the best resources and exemplars for schools and families preparing for online learning in response to COVID-19.