The Post-Covid Future of Distance Learning is Now

Next week the city of Minneapolis is preparing for the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. In what may be an unprecedented move, and is certainly the first time I've seen it, Minneapolis Public Schools announced that they are returning to distance learning for the second half of next week. MPS is concerned about public protests and public safety, so is shutting things down. You can read the full statement here. Hopefully we just get an entirely appropriate jury verdict, but there's no reason to be confident in that result and perhaps MPS is right to take precautions. But I think this is harbinger of the way short-term shifts to distance learning will be used in the future, shifts that unless we take proactive steps, will leave too may people out.

It's been clear for awhile that distance learning was here to stay, that the rapid ramp-up of both skills (from teachers and students and parents and staff) and infrastructure has revealed that distance learning can work for so many children. Snow days may be a thing of the past. And in other kinds of short-term weather emergencies, or public safety concerns like this one, we will see schools rapidly pivot to distance learning.

It's not all bad! As I wrote for CNN earlier this year: "The future of remote education is complicated. It's a powerful tool not just during this pandemic but also for kids who have to bus a long way to reach a school building, during snow days or extreme weather events (and not just natural disasters, but also heat waves since schools are often not air-conditioned), and perhaps most of all for children who are learning better from home than they did in school."

But we haven't fixed the problems. We don't have universal broadband, of course (broadband is infrastructure!), but we also haven't addressed the policy issues that have been so challenging for my family and many others. 

My son can learn! He can learn effectively and inclusively! He requires either one-on-one support in a classroom or one-on-one support in the home, and federal education law clearly supports his right to a 'free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.' At no time during distance learning has his school provided FAPE in LRE.  Again for CNN I wrote:

He's a 13-year-old non-speaking autistic boy with Down syndrome. Left alone in his room, as I tracked recently for my own records, he needs in-person help around 100 times a day (from logging in and clicking into a session, to having the teachers understand what he's pointing at, to just keeping him focused).
He wants to learn, and our state department of education has ruled that the school district "may" permit parents like us to hire an in-person aide and have the school district fund it, but our district has thus refused to allow this for any families. (The Mounds View School district, where I live, declined to comment or provide a rationale for this piece.) Many other districts in the country have made similar decisions, though circumstances vary widely. Cardona needs to lead the way to change that "may" to a "must" and make sure that whatever reasonable accommodations disabled children need, they get. 

And for The Nation I wrote:

We have no support in our home. The Minnesota Department of Human Services says you can’t use Medicaid money for school. The state’s Department of Education says that a school district may hire an aide through a third party and send them into the home, but it isn’t required to do so, and our district says it won’t for nebulous “pay and qualifications” reasons. (When I’ve asked repeatedly in meetings, the school district has refused to clarify what this means.) We hire a lawyer, and she tells us to log my son’s struggles, so one morning, instead of helping him, I open a document and write that he can’t type his password, can’t click on his e-mail, can’t open Google Meet, can’t click the “join” button, can’t mute or unmute his microphone, can’t join a breakout room, gets frustrated when he says no 20 or 30 times about the class’s song choices, gestures at a screen in ways his teachers can’t see, dances out of view of the camera so his teachers don’t know he’s participating. On and on the list of “can’t”s goes, and again I’m crying. And even with the documentation that distance learning is failing, the school district doesn’t seem to care.

With the return to in-person learning, these tensions have eased. He goes to school five days a week. But there has been no policy shift about what happens next time we return to distance. It's something that either the Federal Dept. of Education or Health and Human Services could fix (through slightly different tools - I think HHS should do it short term and Ed should enforce longer term fixes, but am indifferent about the best policy vehicle). Or Minnesota's state government could step up. Or our school district could decide to agree to the "may" rather than wait for the "must."

But if we're going to take advantage of the flexibility that short-term pivots to distance education offers, which I think are real, then we're going to need to make sure that everyone receives the education that they are legally due. 

The Post-Covid world will only be better if we take the actions to make it so. 

Edited to add this twitter thread in which folks told me about other non-covid flips to distance learning and the lack of accommodations. 

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