With many schools closed through the end of the school year, students and parents are largely on their own when it comes to navigating remote learning and sticking to lesson plans developed by teachers as best they can. This looks different for everyone, with some parents able to provide more time and attention to learning than others because of work and other constraints.

There’s an old saying that classrooms are the great equalizers. Students receive the same instruction regardless of their circumstances outside of school. That’s all off the table as COVID-19 exposes racial and economic inequalities.

Given this disparity, how can schools close the learning gap when in-person instruction resumes? In a recent Brookings article, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered his thoughts for how the government and the private sector could work together to level the playing field moving forward.

Remote learning hinges on access to high-speed Internet, which is not possible everywhere. This digital divide has existed for a long time but moved to the forefront of public consciousness during COVID-19. 

Some schools have solved this by stationing school buses equipped with long-distance Wi-Fi routers in parking lots in both urban and rural areas. Families can drive to the parking lot and access high-speed Internet while maintaining social distancing from their cars. 

While that solution works in the short term, Duncan argues it’s not viable in the long run. Instead, multiple partners need to work together to improve access.

“In partnership with local governments, computer manufacturers and internet providers could quickly collaborate on a plan to close the digital divide and ensure that every single student in America—and their teachers, counselors, school nurses, and other support staff—has the needed technology to homeschool by distributing free or low-cost computers and providing broadband to every community in America,” Duncan wrote. 

Duncan also supports the Trump administration’s steps to increase the focus on personalized learning, as opposed to one-size-fits-all standardized tests. Schools are canceling tests this spring because they’re not equipped to deliver them remotely, but Duncan argues that they should be scaled back moving forward — if they even come back at all.

Personalized learning will be critical as teachers shift to a mode where students are increasingly working at their own pace. 

“Just taking everything we used to do and trying to wedge it into a new virtual reality is not a promising practice, it doesn’t work,” Michelle Reid, superintendent of the Northshore School District in the Seattle suburbs, told Axios

As schools contemplate the return to in-person instruction, some are thinking about starting the school year early to make up for lost time and get a jumpstart on a potential second wave of COVID-19 that may occur in the fall. Duncan supports this idea, saying it would also help ease the feelings of isolation students feel being away from their friends and might help improve the economy as well.

“I would encourage the federal government to support a major, nationwide summer school and after-school program so kids can catch up and start off next September ready for the next grade,” Duncan wrote. “Teachers and after-school providers will welcome the chance to earn some extra money, which will help stimulate the economy, and they will also appreciate the opportunity to help their students catch up. They entered the field of education to make a difference and they don’t want to see their kids suffer.”


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