Why are some schools and districts crashing to provide their pupils with online learning and/or “lesson packets” during this period of social isolation, while others have essentially just shut their doors and turned off the electricity, leaving kids and families to fend for themselves—and inviting the coronavirus version of “summer learning loss?”
The can-do institutions are seeking to sustain teaching and learning during this tough time, to maintain some continuity in curriculum, to ease the burden on parents and other at-home kid-supervisors, and to constructively occupy the minds and time of young people who might otherwise…well, you know. The shutdown institutions are doing none of that.
Why? The simplest explanation, of course, is lack of imagination, dearth of planning, inept bureaucracy, perhaps a union or two that would welcome the equivalent of a vacation for its members—and the misery of making major decisions very quickly in a genuinely complicated situation.
But two other explanations, which turn out to be connected, are also possible—and, I think, likely. The first is a well-intended but ultimately misguided notion of equity and social justice. The other is a compliance mindset that allows “guidance,” “fact sheets,” and “regulations,” which are themselves invariably driven by equity considerations, to control one’s actions without regard either to common sense or to conditions on the ground.
Of course we know that not all students and families have workable Internet access and devices that enable online learning. Does that mean no such learning opportunities should be provided to anybody (except those clever and wealthy enough to find them for their own kids)?
Of course we know that an online lesson or class—or hard-copy study packet—that works satisfactorily for most students won’t work as well (or perhaps not at all) for youngsters with certain disabilities or limited English proficiency. Does that mean nobody should have access to it?
Of course we know that some kids live near schools or have parents with cars and therefore have a relatively easy time picking up packets—or lunches—and taking them home, while others ordinarily depend on school buses (which aren’t running) or public transportation (which shouldn’t be taken). Does that mean the school shouldn’t open its front door to hand out books, packets, workbooks, videos, or food boxes to those who are able to stop by?
America has gradually drifted—this goes far beyond education—toward a troubling mindset that I have termed “worst-case social policy”: the belief that if a given program or policy doesn’t meet the needs of the least fortunate, worst-off case you can imagine, then it shouldn’t be undertaken at all. We have absorbed the view that it’s simply unjust and should be illegal not to meet everyone’s needs all the time, whatever we’re doing. If there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone on the sinking ship, then nobody should get into any of those that are available.
The view that anything that fails to deal with the worst case and meet everyone’s needs should be illegal has given rise to laws and regulations that say it is illegal, which then give rise to costly, embarrassing litigation when someone is aggrieved because their needs aren’t being met. Individualized special education, overdue and well intended as it was, is the premier example of this in the K–12 space—and many attorneys earn nice livings enforcing its provisions.
The sane way—the practical way—to address differing needs and circumstances is, of course, to deploy different strategies and programs. We have a fine example of that way of thinking in Naomi Schaefer Riley’s excellent chapter in Mike’s and my new book How to Educate an American and in an adaptation published in The 74. Naomi makes the straightforward but important point that, though school choice policies and programs can do much good for millions of needy kids, they’re not optimal for girls and boys from truly dysfunctional family situations. For them, she contends, other—more “paternalistic”—strategies are necessary.
In the present crisis, worse-case policy thinking about interim educational offerings is itself worsened by the predictable-yet-damaging “fact sheet” guidance issued on Monday by the federal Office for Civil Rights: “As school leaders respond to evolving conditions related to coronavirus, they should be mindful of the requirements of Section 504, Title II, and Title VI, to ensure that all students are able to study and learn in an environment that is safe and free from discrimination.”
It’s not acceptable, in a society allergic to discrimination and in favor of social justice, to argue against the principle set forth in that sentence. “All students” means exactly that. (Remember no child left behind?) We really mean it. And if you—we’re talking to you, educators—don’t do it right, we may come after you (we may label it a mere “fact sheet,” but you can be sure we’ll be watching).
The guidance isn’t totally rigid: “The Department understands that there may be exceptional circumstances that could affect how a particular service is provided.” Yet if I were a wary school superintendent, here’s the sentence I would focus hardest on: “If a school district closes its schools and does not provide any educational services to the general student population, then a school would not be required to provide services to students with disabilities during that same period of time.”
In other words, shut them all down and don’t do anything for anybody and you won’t get sued. You won’t get in trouble with Uncle Sam or one day find yourself in court. Nobody will have grounds to object because nobody will have been served. Remember Catch 22?
Except, of course, all those whose children could have learned quite a bit on the days the schools were closed if only the educators in charge had found a way to assist them and if only the government toward which we now look for relief from coronavirus wasn’t getting in their way by insisting on worst-case policy at a time when educators and parents are trying to offer some semblance of normalcy to children whose lives and routines have been upended.
For a school or district, is there a way to thread this seemingly impossible needle? Perhaps, but it would require the feds to cooperate in more imaginative ways than they’ve yet demonstrated. They’d need to clarify their guidance to acknowledge the extraordinary crisis facing schools, admit that they see some districts choosing not to provide any instruction rather than risk being found out of compliance with civil-rights laws, and then state clearly and strongly that federal law does not require such decisions. Rather, districts should move as swiftly as possible to provide distance learning opportunities for all students; for those with special needs, districts should reach out to families immediately to schedule meetings to revise their IEPs, understanding that it may take time to get those meetings on the books and held (probably remotely). Special-needs students will likely also need some remedial help as soon as schools are able to furnish it. Yet none of that should hold up a district from starting its distance learning program ASAP.
Social-justice warriors and timid or incompetent bureaucrats (and cautious attorneys) might still keep that from happening at the local level. But at that point, they’d have only themselves to blame for the ensuing learning losses.