Teachers Unions, Demands for ‘Equity’ Work to Block Online Schooling Growth Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Written by Dave Huber

The quick transition to online learning in the wake of the coronavirus has left students, parents and school districts scrambling to find a happy medium acceptable to all parties involved.

One of the more significant concerns is that of equity — not all students have internet access or, if they do, it is slow and unreliable. In addition, their computers may be outdated and cannot handle needed programs.

This consideration has led to some school districts frowning upon virtual learning.

Seattle Public Schools said it was following advice from the state which said teachers should not engage in online instruction unless they “can ensure that all students will have equal access to learning.” At least one district in the state ceased virtual instruction because it could not guarantee equity. In its place, the superintendent recommended students work on projects “that could be useful in relation to the current health situation” … like “building a hand-sanitizer dispenser.”

Teachers in Philadelphia initially had been told the same as those in Seattle, but district officials quickly backpedaled after word got out to the public.

A large part of the equity worry has been assuaged by mandating that any online student work not count for a grade — everything that is taught is for “enrichment.”

Many districts in Delaware are following this model, but interestingly, teachers in Chicago (of all places) are allowed to grade student work. The catch, however: Grades can only be applied if they help student averages, but assignments don’t even need to be completed in the first place. In addition, students lacking computers can pick up laptops on loan from schools, and those without internet physical assignment packets.

It should come as no surprise that interest in cyber schools has skyrocketed during the pandemic as they’re already well established in the delivery of virtual instruction. Interestingly, this has concerned two progressive governors who, in response, have thrown up a roadblock: Citing concerns about loss of (traditional) public school funding, the states of Oregon and Pennsylvania imposed moratoriums on student transfers to cyber schools.

Of course, that funding is paid by individual taxpayers, typically through property taxes. But the party of “choice” would forbid Americans from using that money to get the best schooling option for their children? Is this not an “equity” concern? Or does the term mean “everyone has to be the same”?

The Wall Street Journal had asserted the teachers’ unions in Oregon “pressured” the state department of education to end student transfers to cyber schools; The College Fix asked the Oregon Education Association‘s designated media contact, Trent Lutz, if he could verify the WSJ’s claim. He did not respond. The Fix asked the same question of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, also without response.

Although the National Education Association is not opposed to online instruction, its policy statements and at least one resolution resist full cyber teaching.

In its Resolution B-79, the National Education Association says “quality digital learning can create or extend learning opportunities but cannot replace traditional education which allows for regular face-to-face interaction among students, peers, and instructors.”

The union’s policy statement on distance education states online schooling “is not an alternative to traditional education that can in all respects and in all contexts fulfill the mission of traditional education.” The union also is concerned that “reliance on high level information technology has the potential to create new barriers based on economic and social status.”

Another issue: Public cyber schools, because they are charters, do not have unions.

Nevertheless, as improved technology becomes more and more available to the general public, cyber school enrollment across the country continues to grow.

The College Fix spoke with Scott Chamberlain, one of the original teachers (and later, an administrator) of the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School, for more insight into the benefits (and shortcomings) of cyber schools. Chamberlain worked at the PLCS for ten years.

The biggest advantage cybers have, Chamberlain said, is their ability to tailor instruction based on how quickly a student masters the material, and on a student’s individual learning style (although the tide may be turning on that particular topic). This includes students with IEPs — Individualized Education Programs — and 504s (accommodations based on section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) as many online schools are public entities (charter schools).

Chamberlain also noted PLCS “saw a tremendous amount” of enrollment from students who were bullied in traditional schools.

“The stories were heartbreaking,” he said. “One student was so stressed from being bullied that her hair was actually falling out. When she was removed from that environment, she was able to focus on her schoolwork much better and her health improved as well.”

Cyber schools’ biggest weakness: the person-to-person interaction between student and teacher.

“Nothing can really replace that one on one, interpersonal interaction of a classroom,” Chamberlain said, echoing an NEA concern. “It is difficult for teachers, at times, to see exactly when students are confused, not paying attention, disinterested, or even when they are excited. There are live class video chats, but these only go so far.”

But unlike the NEA, Chamberlain doesn’t believe this shortcoming should preclude full-time distance learning.

And rightly so. That would be like advocating cessation of full-time traditional instruction because one of its major weaknesses is “moving on” to the next lesson, even if students (likely in a class of 30 or more) haven’t mastered the material … a practice which has been exacerbated in the age of standardized testing.

This article was originally published at The College Fix.