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The threat of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is forcing educators across the country to think about what they’ll do if they have to close their schools for weeks or even months at a time. State and federal agencies have advised schools to create online learning plans to minimize the disruption to student learning. For some schools, that’s a small leap. Their students have internet connections at home, laptops they can work from, teachers who know how to design online lessons and a strong foundation of in-school blended learning experience.

But the fact is, these schools are rare. Most schools are completely unprepared – or, at best, woefully underprepared – for coronavirus and virtual learning.  Unequal internet access is just the tip of the iceberg of a massive equity crisis facing U.S. schools should coronavirus force education online.

“People think it’s about boxes and wires and that’s just the beginning,” said Beth Holland, digital equity and rural project director at the Consortium for School Networking, an industry association for tech directors across the country. CoSN members have been turning to each other for advice and support about how to approach coronavirus and virtual learning. But Holland is not optimistic. The data just don’t support optimism.

According to the latest survey data from the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of adults have broadband internet at home. But the differences based on income are striking. While 92 percent of adults from households earning $75,000 or more per year say they have broadband internet at home, just 56 percent of adults from households earning below $30,000 say the same. About 17 percent of adults access the internet from home through a smartphone only. For the kids in their homes, that means trying to read assignments, write papers, do research and take quizzes with tiny screens and tinier keyboards.

Beyond the “boxes and wires” that get kids internet access in the first place, what happens when they’re online is another problem entirely.

As Holland points out, successful remote learning experiences depend on teachers who know how to create and deliver engaging lessons online and students who have the digital literacy skills to access them. If entire K-12 districts move online, what can schools expect of early elementary schoolers? Not much. Younger children don’t have the independent learning skills, attention spans or social-emotional maturity to succeed in virtual learning environments for very long, let alone the troubleshooting skills they will inevitably need to manage whatever technology they’re using. Many middle and even high schoolers aren’t much better equipped. And what’s more, many of those older students may have to help watch their younger siblings during extended school closures, leaving them little time to tackle assignments of their own.

A host of organizations have stepped into the fray offering training and advice for teachers contemplating online learning for the first time. Noah Dougherty, a senior design principal at the education consulting firm Education Elements, wrote in a blog post last week that “the biggest shift virtual learning requires is flexibility and a recognition that the controlled structure of a school is not replicable online.” Some districts have already described their school closure plans as though students will be able to cycle through their regular school schedules from home. This ignores a host of equity concerns around access and flies in the face of research-based best practices for online learning. Students cannot be expected to sit in front of their computers for seven hours per day.

The Global Online Academy will host a free course about designing online lessons starting March 16 (added because of popular demand for its first course, which is running this week). Outschool has also offered a series of free trainings about “telelearning,” with a handful scheduled for March 11. The Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings has a webinar scheduled for 3 p.m. EST March 11 about the medical, legal, educational, logistical and equity issues that schools should be thinking about as they consider taking classes online.

Then there are the companies offering free use of their products should crisis hit a school community. BrainPop, Kahoot!, PearDeck, Google and GoGuardian are among them. Common Sense Media has curated a suite of recommendations for the best student collaboration tools, messaging apps, lesson-planning websites, interactive video apps, tools for project-based learning, and apps and websites for flipped classrooms and virtual field trips to help educators wade through what’s out there.

Many teachers have been practicing blended and online learning for years. But they’re not yet the norm in U.S. schools. And that’s what has Holland most concerned about what mass school closures may mean for learning.

“I have a huge concern for that massive number of districts that don’t even know how to start having that conversation because the infrastructure doesn’t exist in schools, the infrastructure isn’t there outside of schools, the culture isn’t there for online learning,” she said.

It’s these schools that are so far still the norm.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about virtual learning and coronavirus was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, WA. After graduating with...

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