When will school reopen? No date in sight, and schools struggling to put learning online


With at least 70% of America's schools shutting down and a chorus of prominent voices calling to close the rest, millions of parents entered a strange new reality this week: attempting to manage their children's education from the confines of home.

The new landscape of remote work coupled with remote schooling is bizarre and chaotic. And it stands to get worse before it gets better: Districts and states vary wildly in their ability to deliver educational services at a time of social isolation.

President Donald Trump on Monday called for limiting gatherings of people to no more than 10 for the next 15 days and suggested school-age students take classes from home. Although it has not called for all schools to close, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said to avoid crowds of 50 or more people.

Traditional schools that stay open may be technically defying these recommendations. But they lack firm guidelines.

"Nobody is taking the bull by the horns and saying, 'This is what we're doing or should be doing,' " said Dan Domenech, head of the American Association of School Administrators. "We need more guidance."

On Tuesday, Domenech's group and the CDC scheduled a joint call to offer guidance to school leaders. But 10 minutes before it was scheduled to start, the AASA said the CDC had canceled. Health officials offered no explanation. In a statement, the group of school administrators then blasted the government for the confusion caused by varying recommendations.

The lack of guidance notwithstanding, a nationwide shutdown of schools looks increasingly to be a case of when, rather than if. And it's becoming clear the nation's schools could be closed not just for a couple of weeks, but for months or the rest of the school year. On Tuesday, Kansas became the first state to do just that, when Gov. Laura Kelly said in-person teaching was over for the school year.

That means, ready or not, schools will have to try to figure out online education.

“This is a whole new world around online learning, even for very sophisticated districts," said Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, a nonprofit that connects technology officers at schools.

Online learning is easier for middle and high school students, who are more independent, Krueger said. Plus, many elementary students don't have a dedicated device for online learning.

"At the lowest grades, (online learning) is probably never going to work," he added.

Also, Krueger said, only about half of districts report they can provide a laptop for every child. That means students who either don't own a device on which to do schoolwork, or who don't have access to broadband internet, will be significantly disadvantaged.

These schools are already learning online

Some schools and districts are ahead of the curve. And they have elegantly – if not painfully — pivoted to a new extended reality of online schooling.

"The first two weeks were brutal," said Mindy Rose, the director of college counseling at Shanghai American School, an international school in China, where her two children are also enrolled. The school shifted to distance learning on Feb. 3, when the coronavirus outbreak prompted schools to close in China.

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Rose came back to the States with her children, while her husband, who works for Disney, stayed behind in Shanghai.

Now Rose and her kids have been working, learning and living like nomads across America, renting Airbnb units and visiting colleges where Rose has contacts. Her children log on each day for their online studies, and Rose continues counseling Shanghai American School students remotely.

"Week one here is week seven for us," Rose said.

The Shanghai school uses Zoom, a videoconferencing platform, to connect students and teachers. Zoom has extended free accounts to K-12 schools since the virus outbreak.

Some individual schools in Washington state, the original U.S. epicenter of the virus outbreak, pivoted to online learning last week.

One is The Downtown School, a private independent school in Seattle that shifted to virtual classes last week until at least April 24. The school had used e-learning for snow days before; now students and teachers participate daily in classes via Zoom. The school day runs from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., said Sue Belcher, head of school.

Last week, the school even held a virtual "assembly" via a live webinar, which featured a speaker who talked about the science behind the coronavirus.

Belcher said she likes teachers to hold synchronous classes, meaning all students are online at the same time so students can see each other and feel less isolated.

"The teacher might say, 'OK, you’ve read this article, work in a team on the following prompt and activity,' " Belcher said.
E-learning in large districts takes more planning

Online learning can work in larger districts, but it takes more planning – and challenges remain.

The Northshore School District north of Kirkland, Washington, enrolls more than 25,000 students and started virtual classes last week.

Because of the acute outbreak in the state, Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid knew she and her staff needed to act quickly. They spent a weekend planning for what online learning needed to look like. The next week, the district canceled class for a day so teachers could learn how to teach online modules. They used Google classroom, Microsoft Teams and Seesaw, an online learning platform for younger students.

The district also provided 4,000 low-income students with computing devices. T-Mobile supplied low-income families with mobile hotspot devices for internet access, Reid said.

But now, Reid said Monday, the district has paused the experiment because it might put its schools in jeopardy of losing money under state and federal rules and regulations.

Schools are required to provide instruction equitably. Parents had raised concerns about difficulties children with disabilities, many of whom usually have paraeducators helping them at school, were having with the online program, according to a GeekWire report. The school also cited concerns about English language learners.

The reason given was the district’s inability to provide equitable services to all students. While the Northshore announcement didn’t specify the nature of the inequities, a few areas were listed, including special education and English language learning services, as well as food and child care.

“Here in Northshore, while we have been able to mitigate several of these challenges, we have not yet been able to mitigate all of them and meet the strict guidelines outlined in federal and state regulations,” said Reid.

Students are working on individual projects this week instead, she said.

Other districts don't appear to have made a plan at all for distance learning.

Ashley Dohmann, a 36-year-old teacher and mother near Dallas entered the first day of spring break with her two kids at home Monday. Her district, she said, has not announced what teachers and students are supposed to do after this week.

As of Monday morning, Dohmann was already running out of ways to keep her two young children quiet while her husband, a software engineer, worked from home. A painting project occupied them for a total of 10 minutes.

"I don’t know what online instruction is going to look like," Dohmann said. "It would be easier if they would make a decision so we can get prepared."

By Erin Richards