As vaccines become more available and the coronavirus pandemic comes more under control, many school systems are offering in-person instruction for the first time in over a year. Many others, though, are either remaining with an all-remote option or a hybrid version, with some students sitting in classrooms and others logging in from their homes.
According to a 2020 RAND Corp. study, 1 in 5 districts were planning or considering a fully remote learning option for 2021-22 at that time. And EdWeek parent polls indicated strong interest in remote-learning options for the coming school year.
“If they [in-person and remote learning] were of equal quality, offering equal services, maybe that’s neutral or even potentially positive,” comments RAND’s Heather Schwartz. But given the uneven instructional quality reported in some online schools, “it’s a big red flag.”
It’s especially important since both parent surveys and patterns in how families chose from the options this spring suggest that large numbers of students — particularly students of color and those from low-income families — could opt to stay with remote learning this coming fall.
Some school districts, confident they can operate schools safely at this point and convinced there’s no substitute for face-to-face instruction, are shutting down their remote-learning classes. But others, seeing that many parents still want a virtual option, are trying to figure out how they can provide it.
While some districts offering remote-learning options plan to have their own teachers provide the instruction, others, like Albemarle County, Virginia, are creating virtual academies complete with separate teaching and administrative staffs, and still others are outsourcing their entire remote-learning operation.
But what happens when school districts create separate tracks for some children or relinquish control over instruction? Will the quality of the curriculum and expertise of the teaching staff be of equal standing? And how will students fare without in-person socialization, including equal access to specialists, counselors, sports, and music?
Equity in education researcher Pedro Noguera of the University of Southern California says that history has demonstrated that when separate tracks are created for students, there’s good reason to fear some will end up with a “watered down” version of education. And Bree Dusseault of the University of Washington fears that because low-income families and those of color disproportionately chose remote instruction during the pandemic, “there is a huge question about whether we’ll have two different school systems [if we keep hybrid options available in the fall].”
With a large proportion of students still choosing to stay with remote learning, and with the likely overrepresentation of historically marginalized students in that group, it becomes more important than ever to provide strong instruction and a high-quality curriculum designed for online learning if districts choose to go with the two-track approach. “The fear,” notes educational technology expert John Bailey, is that the longer those students stay in online learning, the further behind they will fall. It’s important to make sure online learning is a much better experience than what we put kids through this year.”
But even if it’s a better experience, will it be a good and fulfilling one? Will remote students still have the necessary opportunities for peer socialization and for developing a greater appreciation of the world outside their backyards as their in-class counterparts do? What can we do to ensure that we don’t go back to a “separate and unequal” school system?
We value the input of our readers. What do you think? And what would you do to ensure educational parity in our still-a-patchwork model for instruction? Please leave your comments in the section below.
 Gewertz, Catherine. (May 4, 2021). “Remote Learning Isn’t Going Away. Will it Create Separate—and Unequal—School Systems?” Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/remote-learning-isnt-going-away-will-it-create-separate-and-unequal-school-systems/2021/05.