To help all students, Pa. needs to establish a distance learning task force | Opinion

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By Susan Spicka

In his recent commentary, (Schools out. We know that. The rest is a mess, 4/13/2020) Capital-Star Editor in Chief John L. Micek channels the frustration that many parents are experiencing right now as the reality sets in that schools will not reopen this year.

I have two high school daughters who are engaged in emergency remote learning. They are not thrilled about this and neither am I.

Our schools are built for physics experiments and art class, marching band and drama club, group projects, pep rallies,  class trips, and so much more.

As one of my daughters said, the emergency remote learning she is doing on her Chromebook, which includes online trigonometry lectures and tests, learning chemistry without a hands-on lab, and reading Shakespeare instead of performing it with classmates, is “all of the bad things about school with none of the good parts.”

But, I’ve never been more grateful for Pennsylvania’s teachers, school administrators, and staff than I am today. Within days and with no advance notice, teachers and school leaders pivoted from in-person instruction to emergency remote education. And they put in place new ways to serve meals to students to ensure they won’t go hungry.

To be clear, there’s work to be done to ensure that all of our school districts — and all of students — have resources and access for robust online learning.

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And there’s work to be done to train teachers to deliver effective remote lessons. That’s why Education Voters has called on Gov. Tom Wolf to establish a remote learning task force.

We can’t — and we shouldn’t — simply copy and paste all of the teaching and learning that occurs in real time in a school building into an online platform. We do need to be prepared, however, for an immediate future that may involve extended school closures. This is an opportunity for our school leaders throughout the state to provide careful and knowledgeable guidance on how to strengthen remote learning for every student in the commonwealth.

It’s no coincidence that school districts have steered clear of using Pennsylvania’s cyber-charter schools as a model for remote instruction.

Despite more than a decade of experience with online education, all of Pennsylvania’s 14 cyber charters are among the lowest performing in the state. Six of those 14 have performed so poorly that they’ve been designated for state intervention based on federal accountability laws.  These schools have failed to demonstrate that they can provide students with a quality education, in spite of receiving more than $500 million in taxpayer money each year.

Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Units and the state Department of Education have begun working with schools to provide academic support, technical assistance, and training to keep students learning and help teachers teach in this new environment. It’s important now for our state leaders to build on that foundation and develop quality remote education for the future.

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That means recognizing the vast gaps in resources and access available to so many of Pennsylvania’s students. Students in affluent districts have enjoyed district-provided laptops for years, while students in many of the state’s urban and rural districts not only lack laptops, they lack access to any kind of internet connection. Dealing with these inequities is another crucial part of our call for a remote learning task force.

The opportunity gaps this pandemic has laid bare in our education system cannot be allowed to continue. And parents and advocates will need to be vigilant during state budget negotiations. Lawmakers must not cut funding from schools this year, but instead commit ensuring that all children have an equal chance for success.

While I share some of Micek’s concerns, I am very optimistic that our public schools will emerge from the pandemic stronger and better than they were in March of this year. This crisis has shown that our public schools are filled with dedicated, caring professionals who will do what it takes to ensure our children can learn.

Susan Spicka is the executive director of the advocacy group Education Voters of Pennsylvania. She writes from Shippensburg, Pa. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.