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BARTH KECK

Week #1 of the adventure known as “distance learning” has begun for me. Many of you – especially parents and teachers – also will become intimately familiar with this 21st-century concept. In a hurry.

What began for many as an “optional” or “supplementary” mode of learning when schools initially closed a few weeks back in response to COVID-19 has suddenly become mandatory.

In a letter last week, Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona encouraged superintendents to “[s]hift thinking from supplemental learning, which was intended for short-term cancellations, to distance learning, which is intended to serve as an alternative to learning in a schoolhouse.”

As Education Communications Director Peter Yazbak noted, districts can anticipate being physically shuttered for six to eight weeks, or maybe longer.

My CTNewsJunkie colleague and Southern Connecticut State University Professor Jonathan Wharton explains that “virtual learning will require a sudden, steep learning curve for academics.” But, he adds, it also provides an opportunity for colleges to “consider new approaches in digital education” at a time of “student enrollment concerns.”

In other words, colleges can approach distance learning as a way to adjust for the future. K-12 public schools face an altogether different set of issues and challenges.

Among the many: how will teachers address students’ special-education needs?

“A school closure can inflict a level of damage to [special-education] students which can never be effectively remediated,” according to Barbara Distinti, president of Special Education Equity For Kids of Connecticut. “Indeed, the impact of closures on students with disabilities will be far more profound than the impact on other students.”

Adds State Child Advocate Sarah Eagan, “[W]hat about kids who are more profoundly disabled, who receive a lot of hands-on instruction? Kids who need one-to-one support – I don’t know yet how they are going to do that.”

Another concern is a shortage of resources: Do all students have computers and internet access?

Recent surveys by New Britain schools, for example, found that “13% of students don’t have internet access and a third don’t have a computer, laptop, or tablet to do schoolwork on.” What’s more, 40% of New Britain’s English language learners and special-education students lack a digital device, and 15-17% of those students have no internet access at all.

And then there’s the work itself: What constitutes an appropriate workload for kids when there’s no guarantee of adult guidance? How many hours a day should they spend in front of computer screens?

Early anecdotal evidence from friends and colleagues indicates that some schools have gone full bore into the distance-learning paradigm, requiring kids to replicate the work they would complete in school and leaving them exhausted and frustrated at the end of the day.

Thankfully, my district has taken a more reasonable approach, asking teachers to moderate expectations, monitor student feedback, and adjust lessons as needed. In short, this entire distance-learning initiative is a work in progress – not a solution for empty classrooms and certainly not a replacement of them.

“In the fully online model,” writes University of Michigan Professor Susan Dynarski, “a student may never be in the same room with an instructor. This category is the main problem. It is where less proficient students tend to run into trouble. After all, taking a class without a teacher requires high levels of self-motivation, self-regulation, and organization.”

Dynarski underscores this point with the results of a study in Chicago high schools, noting that “students who had failed algebra were randomly assigned either to online or to face-to-face recovery courses. The results were clear: Students in the online algebra courses learned much less than those who worked with a teacher in a classroom.”

As I enter Week #1 of my own distance-learning experience – as both parent and teacher – I am taking a reasonable approach with my daughter and my students. Admittedly, I’m blessed compared to many others: My wife and I will be home with my daughter every day; all of my students reportedly have access to the resources they need; and while a number of my students require assignment modifications and accommodations, that seems doable – none of them need one-on-one supervision.

Let the adventure begin.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and 15th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition.