It’s no secret that the phrase “remote learning” is synonymous with frustration for many families who have been dealing with Zoom class horror stories and Google project pandemonium for over a year. But for others, the reverse Pandora’s box of remote instruction has ushered in a powerful new vision of what learning can look like.
Thousands of students are now realizing the potential that had previously gone untapped under traditional schooling methods. Remote options have given comfort to the parents of children suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes or asthma. Some have even asserted that virtual learning may play an important role in abating—or at least not exacerbating—existing health and educational inequities among Black and brown communities.
Even if the demand for remote learning wanes this fall thanks to dropping case rates and a successful vaccine rollout, you know how the storied myth of Pandora ends. Now that remote learning is out of the box, there’s no putting it back. Whether it’s out of concern for emerging COVID-19 variants or a simple preference for learning at home, a new crop of rising parent activists are already speaking out against districts dropping remote learning options for families who want them, and they’ve got a million dollar question: Who can parents turn to for high-quality remote learning options this fall?
It’s an earnest question that somehow seems lost upon major school districts moving forward with plans to axe virtual learning programs for the coming year. In New York City, where an embarrassment of school choice riches exist among its Gifted & Talented academies, dual language programs, zoned and unzoned schools, specialized/screened schools, and fine arts high schools, no remote option will be offered this fall. The same is true just next door in New Jersey, where students are expected to return five days a week. Chicago schools will be open full-time with only limited exceptions for remote learning; without a doctor’s note, students are out of luck. Even states like Massachusetts and Connecticut—where educational options abound—are restricting virtual options this fall in spite of parent interest.
Advocates like Lakisha Young, co-founder and CEO of The Oakland REACH nonprofit that works with Black families on education issues in Oakland, California, are hesitant about sending students back full-force after more than a year of learning from home.
I’m concerned about pushing kids back into schools when their parents don’t want them to go, without a real plan about how we’re going to do business better for them in person.Lakisha Young
But the real issue is not just access to remote options this fall; it’s access to high-quality options. Oakland families may take some comfort in their state’s plan to continue remote “independent study plans” for families who want them, but these options have come under fire for pushing low-achieving students out of the classroom and lacking accountability for outcomes.
Parents shouldn’t have to settle for remote programs that check boxes but fail to provide quality instruction for students; yet, despite the push for schools to double down on what has worked with remote learning and commit to improving outcomes, district interest seems to be waning by the day. Who will step in to bridge the gap for families?
Indianapolis, a city with a robust school choice history, is taking a novel approach to remote learning. Any Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) student wanting to learn remotely this fall must transfer to one of the district’s virtual charter schools. And while such virtual schools are often looked at with skepticism by reformers for their track record with student achievement, some have said that they may be able to reach places other schools can’t. If that’s true, they may be due for their big break.
And because remote learning is the only game in town for virtual academies, their leaders are almost forced into sustainable decision making. These are schools that want to stick around for the long haul, not just survive from one year to the next as the pandemic fades. For parents, that may be preferable to what cities like Miami and Houston are offering in the fall: remote learning for families who want it, but without a guarantee that such programs will be built to last.
For that reason, Indy’s approach may provide some hints for what the future of remote learning will look like—that is, of course, if virtual charters can finally shake off their bad reputation and satisfy parent demands.
But the heart of the matter actually goes even deeper. Where there is no vision, the people perish. If traditional systems fail to build upon what they’ve learned over the past year—that is, if they continue to view virtual learning as another battle to survive rather than an opportunity to thrive—other options will.