It’s about time for Florida to acknowledge that its students probably won’t be going back to traditional classrooms this year. While education commissioner Richard Corcoran directed superintendents this week to keep campuses closed until May 1, the trend lines of coronavirus make it unlikely that schools will stop being virtual until the new school year begins in August. What this means is that teachers, students, parents and administrators should buckle up and prepare to work out the kinks in virtual school and use it as an opportunity for innovation.
Florida has approached the coronavirus like one might approach any seemingly insurmountable task: one step at a time. That strategy has engendered significant criticism from those who say it is not nearly fast enough. Being careful is key, but so is being realistic. The decision to keep schools closed until May 1, following President Donald Trump’s decision to extend social distancing guidelines until April 30, came on the same day as teachers and students began their foray into online learning. Many felt like they wanted some certainty for the rest of the year. “We’re probably not going back to school,” said the head of Hillsborough’s teachers union, Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins. “Let’s just settle into it. It seems to me we’re delaying making a call on the inevitable, and people would have more comfort if they knew.”
Learning how to learn online is clearly a work in progress for many teachers, students and families. Monday marked the first day of online learning for various counties across the state, including Pinellas and Hillsborough. But problems of internet connectivity, as well as limited access to computers for some families, have already plagued the system. This will be an ongoing experience for families and teachers, and one not without its obstacles, but it is one they must plug away at for the betterment of Florida’s children.
Online education in the time of coronavirus has proven difficult for the entire country. In a study of 82 school districts serving more than 9 million children across the country, including major systems like New York City and Los Angeles, researchers found that only 10 percent of them were “providing any kind of real curriculum and instruction program.” That is worrisome. This cannot be a full quarter of the school year lost to coronavirus. Teachers and administrators must find a way to make this work, and they are going to have to be patient with parents struggling to financially survive and juggling children at home.
To its credit, Florida has leaned in where it could have leaned out. Other states, like Michigan, have opted to shut down school and not count students’ work toward their overall record until class is back in session, at least in the interim. But when that could be, no one really knows. And that date increasingly seems farther and farther out. So Florida is doing the right thing by acknowledging that students must learn, even if they are not in a traditional classroom setting. Now the state needs to send one realistic message about how long parents can expect virtual learning will be the norm.
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