Technology perpetually changes the way education is delivered. COVID-19 has accelerated a lot of these changes, with schools scrambling to create distance learning plans as a response to closures.
For quality distance instruction, you need a few basic items—students with high-speed internet connections, proper learning devices (laptops), content from the instructor, and synchronous feedback on student work.
How did Missouri respond overall? After reviewing distance-learning plans from the more than 500 school districts throughout our state, it can be said we barely managed.
The main obstacle for many schools to implementing quality distance learning was access to high-speed internet. For students without high-speed internet, education was delivered through printed learning packets.
And many Missouri students did rely on printed learning packets because nearly 1 in 4 students in our state does not have access to high-speed internet. Just as shocking: 1 in 10 teachers don’t have access either. Without a reliable internet connection, students couldn’t use online resources and their teachers couldn’t provide proper feedback. Thus, districts were left with providing homework packets that were for “enrichment” purposes only. From our research of distance learning plans, most packets found on district websites did not cover fourth quarter state standards that students were expected to learn. To put it simply, learning did not happen for many students.
Some schools deserve credit for responding creatively to the unexpected challenges. Some creative solutions included providing Wi-Fi in school parking lots, having teachers post read-a-longs on school Facebook pages, and partnerships with internet companies that provided two months of free service to households. However, these temporary band-aids are not long-term answers for Missouri student learning.
The few school districts that were able to continue with effective distance instruction made sure that every student had a device and access to high-speed internet before resuming instruction. Those districts were by and large suburban and already had the infrastructure in place. Most rural and urban areas in the state don’t have such infrastructure.
A majority of districts have sizable student populations without high-speed internet or without devices. In those communities, school leaders decided to not leave these students behind, meaning instruction goes at the speed of those receiving paper packets in the mail. This means instruction is slowed down to the lowest-common denominator, and other kids with online resources are being held back. And there’s no quick solution. Despite numerous grants, expanding high-speed internet across Missouri it is not cheap and is not a problem that falls on the school districts.
We all hope that schools can reopen and that students can go back to in-person learning. However, if schools must temporarily shut down due to an outbreak, students deserve more than what was offered last spring. If we don’t start getting ready for the next crisis now, the prospect of quality distance learning is unlikely for Missouri.