As outbreak spreads, schools face dilemma in going online

The deep technological and wealth gap that exists nationwide between poor and affluent students has made the coronavirus outbreak even more challenging for school officials


ASSOCIATED PRESS
By Michelle R. Smith and Collin Binkley

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When the new coronavirus surfaced at Saint Raphael Academy after a school group returned from a trip to Italy, officials decided to close the Rhode Island Catholic high school for two weeks.

Instead of cancelling classes, the school in Pawtucket instituted "virtual days" where students are expected to work from home, check for assignments through an online portal and occasionally chat with teachers. 

A few miles away, a public charter school also closed after a teacher who attended the same Italy trip awaited test results. But at Achievement First, the two days off were treated like snow days — no special assignments and no expectation that kids keep up their schoolwork. 

A bottle of bleach sits on the steps of Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I. Image: AP Photo/David Goldman
A bottle of bleach sits on the steps of Saint Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I. Image: AP Photo/David Goldman

As more schools across the United States close their doors because of the coronavirus, they are confronted with a dilemma in weighing whether to shut down and move classes online, which could leave behind the many students who don't have computers, home internet access or parents with flexible work schedules. As the closures accelerate, children at some schools, like Saint Raphael, will be able to continue some form of learning, while children at schools with fewer technological or other resources, may simply miss out.

The deep technological and wealth gap that exists nationwide between poor and affluent students has made the coronavirus outbreak even more challenging for school officials, who are wrestling with not only health and safety decisions but also questions about the ethics of school closures.

These deliberations have been playing out in schools all around the country during the outbreak, from urban districts in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles to rural ones in Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

If we shut down for a week or two weeks, and some of the kids can do it but some can't, what do you do?" said Edward Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. "There are some places that don't even have phone service."

Although widespread closures are a new development in the United States, they are already a reality in nations that have been hit harder by the virus. The United Nations' education agency, UNESCO, says nearly 300 million children in 22 countries on three continents were being affected by school closures last week. In response, it has begun supporting online learning programs.

In hard-hit Washington, education officials recommended against schools moving instruction online unless they can ensure equal access for all students, including those with disabilities or without internet access. The state's education agency advised schools that it would make more sense to cancel school and make up classes at the end of the year.

"We are putting out a word of caution about the equity lens," said Rhett Nelson, director of alternative learning at the state's education department. "We want to discourage practices that disproportionately impact certain populations, especially those that are more at risk."

Schools also have to consider whether closures are actually beneficial to public health. Very few cases have been found in children and teenagers, and experts caution schools to think about factors such as harms to children's education and absenteeism among health care workers whose kids have to stay home.

There's not strong evidence that closing schools will have a meaningful public health benefit," said Jennifer Nuzzo of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

In Los Angeles, teachers are raising concerns about an emergency plan to move classes online. So far, it's unclear how the district would reach students whose families can't afford laptops or internet service, said Alex Orozco, of the district's teachers union. New York officials say they're considering closings only as a last resort, citing concerns that it would disrupt daily life for thousands of families.

Some districts plan to distribute Wi-Fi hotspots to students without internet access, and others say they will provide computers to every student. Public schools in Miami say they're readying more than 200,000 laptops ready to go home in case classes move online. 

In the Northshore School District near Seattle, which shifted its classes online as of Monday, officials are loaning computers and hotspots to students who need them. They're also providing to-go meals to address concerns about children who get free lunch going hungry.

Dozens of U.S. schools have announced closures of one or two days to disinfect schools, and some are shutting down for longer. Public schools in Scarsdale, New York, are canceling classes through March 18 with no plans to move online after a school worker tested positive. The 64,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District near Sacramento, California, closed through Friday after a district family was placed on quarantine.

Colleges were also moving classes online, including the University of Washington, Stanford University, Princeton University and Columbia.

The closures have proved to be a boon for some online schools and tech companies that help schools teach online. Many say they're seeing increased demand for services, while some are offering to help schools for free. Among them is Google, which is giving schools free access to larger video conferences.

The Leyden High School District near Chicago has been offering "E-Learning Days" for four years when bad weather arrives. All students are given tablets, and they can get free Wi-Fi hotspots if needed. But the practice is normally used only a day at a time, and Superintendent Nick Polyak questions whether it could be sustained for longer stretches.

We could do something really high-quality for a week. If it's a month, I don't know that we could," Polyak said. "Not every student can just log on to a computer and participate. What do we do with our English language students? What to do with cafeteria workers and bus drivers? Do they just lose pay?"

Similar concerns have led some schools to plan for outright closures rather than virtual classes. An hour outside Lincoln, Nebraska, officials at Johnson-Brock Public School say they aren't considering online options because internet accessibility is too spotty in their rural community. Instead, the district of 250 students would plan to close and make up days later.

Some other schools are planning for low-tech options, like packets of work that could be sent home every week. Even schools equipped with technology are considering that option for younger students who don't use online learning software.

At the charter school in Providence, Achievement First closed for cleaning while it awaited a teacher's coronavirus test results. She ended up testing negative and the school reopened after just two days.

Soraida Morales' three children attend the school. She still had to go to work at her pharmacy job, but was able to depend on her parents for childcare while she worked. They are also fortunate to have a laptop at home, a luxury that many families in the district don't have. The school serves a large number of English language learners, and the vast majority are considered economically disadvantaged.

Holly Taylor Coolman has two sophomores at the Pawtucket Catholic school shut down for two weeks. She and her husband are both college professors and have the flexibility to stay home with them and their 4th grader, a decision they made so they would not put anyone else at risk. She jokes that her family is in "quaranteen" as she keeps her kids on a strict schedule to keep up with coursework online. 

She also recognizes that her family is fortunate to have the flexibility they do, and she wonders about what other families will do who don't have the same kind of privilege.

"There's this much bigger question about how are kids faring right now, who don't have two parents at home or don't have any parent at home," she said. 

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Associated PressCopyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. 

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