With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis shuttering our schools now and into the foreseeable future, educators are scrambling to provide necessary support to students and families in this difficult time. Numerous commentators, including recent reporting from Jackie Rabe Thomas, quite correctly shine a troubling light on the range of circumstances now facing Connecticut’s public school students.
For example, the reliance of students on schools to address their food insecurity has risen to the fore, child-serving agencies are raising concerns regarding student safety at home, and the digital divide relative to devices and/or broadband access have never been more apparent. These are all important issues, and we at ReadyCT support all efforts that remove barriers to high-quality educational opportunities, including the barriers already referenced.
Our remarks here, however, are focused on the lack of a statewide remote learning plan for Connecticut public school students that would offer a high-quality education for all students impacted at this time.
This remote learning gap in preparedness is likely due, in part, to Connecticut’s local control approach to education. With resources in 169+ school districts already stretched thin, remote learning design and delivery likely remain low on any list of priorities (if even on a to-do list at all). But along with our new shelter-in-place approach to life comes an opportunity to examine the role of remote learning in the K-12 educational system since it currently impacts every educator, student, and family in the state.
Right now, educators, lawmakers, state administrators, parents, and students — and even the business community — can band together and undertake one concerted effort to offer Connecticut’s public school students a remote learning plan that is rigorous, effective, and equitable, simultaneously absolving 169+ individual districts from 169+ similar undertakings and resultant inefficiencies.
To those citizens who reside in well-resourced school districts that were prepared to respond to this crisis (and, at least anecdotally, we understand some have), before dismissing an effort that would support statewide collaboration, we would ask that you consider even the mid-range impact of leaving behind the students whose districts are struggling at this time. The argument we’re hearing is it’s better to educate some versus none, but avoiding a more expansive approach only contributes to making our state’s persistent achievement gaps all the more pronounced. The impact of exacerbating these gaps will be all of ours to bear.
An under-educated population is costly; as a citizenry and an economic force, we can only be as strong as our weakest link. And, with the inevitable economic repercussions of the current crisis, poorly prepared students will have even less of a shot at viable short- and long-term employment.
As districts and schools are forced to react to mounting needs and demands with very little lead time, delivery and communications are patchwork and highly variable, and our most under-resourced districts simply don’t have the ability to provide solutions at scale. Efforts to identify and publish remote learning resources are well underway, though that, too, could be better coordinated. Just this week the state established a COVID-19 Learn from Home Task Force charged primarily with a logistical effort to distribute donated learning materials to schools in need. This group can be expanded in scope and move towards designing and rolling out a statewide model remote learning plan that can be used both now and in the future.
In these uncertain times, many educators and related stakeholders are just trying to keep their heads above water; however, there are others who, due to the nature of their employment, have “found” time and are looking to do more to help. With the range of stakeholders previously mentioned, this would also be an opportunity to build upon the Commission for Educational Technology’s five-year plan and resources for remote learning, which address digital equity, digital learning standards, and especially Open Education Resources (GoOpen CT.org) — a perfect platform to house a model remote learning plan and its accompanying resources.
God willing, we will not face another pandemic-level event anytime soon, but the possibility of a natural disaster or other form of disruption is always possible, underscoring the need to get this done. A silver lining to currently gloomy circumstances includes the chance to design a remote learning curriculum that looks beyond traditional classroom walls and other physical boundaries and leverages the 21st-century emphasis placed on project-based, interdisciplinary learning (other states’ undertakings can serve as a springboard for our work). While Connecticut’s innovation on this front would be born of necessity, it would demonstrate to students and the broader community the need to adapt to a world that is, quite frankly, rapidly changing and less certain than it has ever been. Resilience and perseverance will play key roles in any student’s long-term success.
Bringing 169+ school districts and other key stakeholders together for any undertaking will require all concerned to be adaptable to a rapidly changing world, too. There will be resistance, and the effort may result in a final product that does not please everyone. Still, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and instead seize this moment in time to move forward — not just with a unified remote learning plan, but also as a more unified state and community of people committed to cohesively and adequately educating our students. Each and every one of them.
Shannon Marimón is executive director of ReadyCT, an education-focused nonprofit committed to advancing academic excellence and career-connected learning for all public school students in Connecticut.