The limits of distance learning

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: school disruptions.

Students were among the first to feel the effects of coronavirus precautions. Most schools across the country closed before businesses did. And parents quickly had to figure out how to manage their children’s school work as well as their own.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Joining us now to talk about some of the challenges they’ve faced is Laura Edghill. She writes the weekly education roundup at Good morning, Laura!

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary!

REICHARD: Nearly all K-12 schools across the nation are closed due to the pandemic. Most of them have switched to some form of distance learning.

EDGHILL: Yes, that’s exactly right. And it’s actually causing a lot of concerns. One does not simply flip a switch and start distance learning from scratch.

REICHARD: I’d imagine not!

EDGHILL: No, no, not at all. So, we are seeing more and more states though now officially closing until the end of the year. Some went early. Kansas back in mid-March said, “Yep, we’re done. We’re going until the end of the year.” But just last week Washington and Oregon made their decisions. And just over the weekend New York City announced they were indeed closing their buildings until the end of the school year.

REICHARD: That late! What are some of the challenges you’re hearing about?

EDGHILL: Well, what’s been helpful is that some of the early adopters like Kansas and even Illinois came out with comprehensive plans early on and now other states have been able to look at those plans and emulate their work. It’s not as simple as just getting devices into kids hands or even sending packets out to their homes. Students need to know how to access content digitally. Teachers need to know where to load it. And even what platform are they going to use. And it requires some comprehensive planning that, to be quite frank, a lot of school districts just have not really done at this point because they haven’t needed to. We’re already starting to hear a term coined called the “COVID slide,” which is kind of like that summer slide. We’re already anticipating that students will return to buildings at some point with learning gaps that we just—no matter what we do, we’re not going to be able to cover all of them. 

REICHARD: Well, I can imagine that this situation is particularly difficult for students with special needs. What are some of the challenges they face?

EDGHILL: Yeah, you’re right. So, the change of routine has been exceptionally hard on special ed students. That’s about 7 million students in the country or nearly 15 percent of the entire school population. So, as you can imagine, the loss of structure creates confusion and can lead to a free-for-all at home.

I talked with several families. One has a 15-year-old high functioning student with autism and his mom said, yeah, he was happy as a clam to be off school. But unfortunately, their son’s been doing more lounging around in PJs and playing video games than they would like because mom has a hard time sitting with him when she’s supposed to be working also.

I also talked with another family where dad’s a pastor, mom’s a preschool teacher, and their 16-year-old non-verbal son with autism has reverted to some really destructive behaviors in the house. Basically, anything that has a flip-top on it—like your spice jars, ranch dressing—for some reason he’s been tearing those off and breaking them and then trying to put them back together. But you can imagine the havoc that’s creating in the home with his younger siblings and just in the home environment in general.  

REICHARD: It’s a lot to handle. What are schools doing for this particular group of students?

EDGHILL: So, it’s a mix. It can range from as little contact as emails, maybe even phone calls. But maybe physical packets of materials sent to families, but all of those are really a pale replacement for an actual skilled professional working with a student. You know, some school districts are experimenting with full blown video conferencing to get therapists and social workers and teachers working with students. But, again, it’s not the same thing as being in the room with the student. 

I did talk to one administrator who pointed out a silver lining that they’re hoping to actually keep for the future, and that’s that they actually have had an easier time during this quarantine period connecting with parents for video conferencing to review their student’s individualized educational plans. So, this administrator said that due to the current conditions with people being home and being a little more flexible with their time, they’ve been able to leverage the video technology to have those meetings much more easily than they have in the past.

REICHARD: That’s one upside. Laura Edghill covers education for WORLD Digital and writes the weekly roundup called Schooled. Laura, thanks for joining us today. 

EDGHILL: It’s been my pleasure, Mary.

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Michelle Hansen, principal at Phoebe A. Hearst Elementary School, left, hands a laptop computer to the parent of a student that attends the school in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, April 10, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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