As Connecticut Schools Adapt to the Coronavirus, Stark Gaps in Educational Opportunities Raise Questions About the Future of Distance Learning

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On March 16, every school across Connecticut was closed, and for the first-time remote learning was the only option for primary and high school students. Within days, the inequity of the learning opportunities offered was abundantly evident as some students with computers and internet available at home were able to continue their studies, while others lacked access to the technology and internet connection.

“Today students in some places are getting distance education, but others are not. If this were to carry on for any length of time you’d have a case under the relevant statute law,” said Richard Kay, a professor constitutional law at UConn Law School. “Assuming this stops within a month or two months, the court would likely let it go, but if it lasts longer, you might see a change in standards. A lot, matters on how long the emergency lasts and when this becomes the new normal.”

A longer history

In 1977, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that all public school students are entitled to equal educational opportunities. It was the case of Horton versus Meskill and it launched decades of change for education in the state.

“That ruling, and many that followed, got the state to do a lot of stuff that they might not otherwise have done,” Kay said.

At the time of the trial, “Connecticut ranked fiftieth among the states in its efforts to distribute aid in such a way as to equalize the abilities of the various towns to finance education,” according to the case report.

After the ruling, the state introduced the Educational Cost Sharing grant that distributed state funding based upon district need, rather than the previous formula of a flat grant to every district.

Over the last forty years, Connecticut has made efforts toward closing the equity gap between wealthy and poorer districts with the formation of Alliance Districts to support the 33-lowest performing districts, grant opportunities, Open Choice programs that allowed students to attend school in alternate districts and magnet school options in every large city. But the State Department of Education is also abundantly aware that these programs have not closed the gap and that the current COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the issue.

At a press conference on Thursday, Commissioner Miguel Cardona emphasized that this crisis has shone a light on inequities that need to be addressed.

“We will keep focusing on our students with exceptionalities and our English Learners, we know we need to do better,” Cardona said. “With a greater sense of urgency and passion for equity and access we will continue to education. I’m proud to say that 100 percent of our districts are engaged in some form of distance learning at this time.”

For some students, like many in New Haven and New London, distance learning currently looks like a packet of worksheets and activities, for others it’s sharing a cellphone, tablet or laptop with siblings and parents in order to connect to class, for others, it is six full hours of online class, activities and homework.

“This is one more vivid example of how the playing field is not level,” said Richard Schwab, a Professor in Educational Leadership at UConn’s Neag School of Education and the former dean of the school. “Zip code is determining your education, not only in schools but online and I don’t think this is going away.”

Of course, the state of emergency will end, but according to Schwab, this pandemic has only opened the flood gates for online learning.

“Communities that didn’t put in any infrastructure with the internet and online learning are now like communities that didn’t want to connect to railroads back in the day,” Schwab said. “Just as a nation we are going to have to come to grips with the idea that connectivity and high-speed internet is like electricity, sewer and water. It is a necessity of life.”

This is will be a tipping point in education, Schwab said, because now, like it or not, the state — and every school district — will need to figure out how to administer education remotely and equitably.

And it’s not just a question of access, but also understanding what type of online instruction works at each grade level, said Scott Brown, a professor emeritus of educational psychology at the Neag School.

“It’s not just online learning, but online learning at different levels. There is a lot of great stuff out there on YouTube and Kahn Academy, but it may or may not be appropriate for the age level or child,” Brown said. “Most of the research has been done is at the high school or college level. What to do for elementary schoolers is unclear.”

Scott explained that kindergartners may be able to download an app and watch a video, but they can’t type answers to questions to demonstrate their learning.  

“I think we learned an ugly lesson here,” Brown said. “Clearly our educational system still has inequities because not everyone can go home and learn online.”

Brown said he expects to see legislation permitting the continuation of remote online and distance learning after the end of the pandemic, but also legislation around infrastructure and access to internet.

A turning point in education

One thing is for sure – Schwab and other professors at the Neag School said – snow days are history (as is summer, potentially).

“We’ve all convinced ourselves that we don’t need a day off from learning just because we are at home,” said Michael Young, an associate professor at the Neag School with a focus in educational technology and online instruction.

Whether it’s a day off in the winter or months in the summer, each break in learning contributes to a dip in student learning.

“We still have school on an agrarian calendar when the majority of students in Connecticut are not spending that time working in the fields,” Brown said. “Kids that have the privilege to go to camps or museums during those times don’t have the same level of dip in their learning.”

Months off regular school due to COVID-19 might be the push the state needs to change the usual calendar.

“I think we are going to be looking to see if there is summer school that we can do online to help kids,” Schwab said. “This time will have to be made up somehow.”

Unfortunately – as Young explained – compared to in-person teaching, online teaching takes a lot more upfront work for a teacher, which was impossible in the current emergency.   

“The least effective way of doing distance learning is just broadcasting what you were going to do in the classroom,” Young said.

This rush into remote learning has not allowed for the benefits that remote learning typically brings – increased personalization and differentiation for students.

“Students studying to be teachers take classes at the university, they listen to research about virtual learning, playful learning, but I don’t think until now that they even believed that it would happen in their lifetime,” Young said. “I think teachers are going to get wise in the ways of utilizing resources that have always been there because of this.”

Which, he said, will hopefully improve education access and opportunities in the future.

In the meantime, what advancing to the next grade looks like to children in 2020 is a serious matter for debate.

“In one case you don’t want to hold back a kid, but at the same time you don’t want them pushed ahead and shoveled out of the system without the skills and abilities that they need to have,” Schwab said. “Poor kids might be coming back to school in August without any formal instruction since March, we can’t act like that didn’t happen.”