Virtual classrooms may become a permanent fixture in the state of Connecticut.
New legislation tasks the state’s Department of Education to develop plans for a K-12 statewide remote learning school that would use the same curriculum and have the same school year length as a traditional school, but would be under the jurisdiction of the State Board of Education.
Peter Yazbak, director of communications for the Department of Education, said that state officials still need to work out the specifics of how the school would be funded and which students would be eligible.
A proposal should be sent to legislators by July 2023.
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, ranking member on the Education Committee, explained that her committee wanted to look at virtual school as an option for students who do well in an online setting. McCarty said legislators were looking at Massachusetts — which has two virtual learning schools — as a potential model.
In an email to CT Examiner, Doug Casey, executive director of the Connecticut Commission for Educational Technology, said he wasn’t sure what the program would cost, but that it would need to take into account things like platform design, instruction, content and support.
“Of course learning options and standards for remote learning are important,” said Case. “The potential for a statewide remote learning option would follow what other states have done to support multiple modes of learning.”
Some changes have already been made. Starting next year, parents will have the option of remote parent-teacher conferences. And beginning in the fall of 2022, local school districts will be allowed to offer remote learning options at the high school level.
Prof. Michael Young, an expert in learning technology at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, said that he sees a lot of potential for remote learning — if done correctly.
Young said he’s been amazed to see the innovation that teachers have come up with over the last 15 months, like making TikTok videos and going on virtual field trips.
“They stretched and they did remarkable stuff,” he said. “Many teachers felt constrained by the curriculum and this took the lid off.”
But Young also warned that student performance in remote schooling this year may not accurately reflect the platform’s potential as a learning tool. He said that the rapid transition to remote methods during the pandemic meant that teachers had no time for the necessary preparation for online teaching. Young said that even in fall 2020, many schools were operating a hybrid model that left teachers juggling classroom and screen time.
“We know how to do remote learning well,” said Young. “What happened in March of 2020, with the emergency response, was not really it.”
Across the country, remote learning models received mixed responses as schools adjusted to the pandemic. Educators and parents have expressed concerns about isolation, lack of engagement and increased mental health issues, but also opportunities — like the ability to turn a snow day into a remote learning day.
A lack of consensus is reflected in the decisions that states and school districts across the country are making about instruction in the fall.
New Jersey and New York City intend to have every student back in the classroom in September. Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are broadening opportunities for learning remotely. Connecticut has opted to explore the idea. In a bill passed this week, the state legislature established the Connecticut Remote Learning Commission to create a report on whether expanding remote learning would be a viable option.
The commission includes representatives from teachers’ unions, the Department of Education, the Office of Early Childhood, the state’s superintendents association, the state’s Board of Education association, the University of Connecticut Neag School of Education and other education-focused organizations.
The report will address the effects of remote learning on student academic performance and emotional health, and will also study whether remote learning makes it more difficult for students to access mental health services and free meals.
While members of the commission agreed, in conversations with CT Examiner, that remote learning is here to stay, they expressed different ideas about its purpose going forward.
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said that she considers remote learning something to be used for contingencies — for example, in the case of a quarantine.
She said the commission needed to consider the logistical barriers that some students face when they are forced to learn from home — a lack of bandwidth, for example, and obligations to keep an eye on younger siblings.
“Not every living environment is conducive to being turned into a classroom experience,” said McCarthy.
A recent study by the state’s Department of Education and the national research and advocacy group Attendance Works found that the number of chronically absent students in Connecticut increased from 12.2 percent to over 20 percent this year, and remote learners were more likely to have frequent absences.
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she was concerned about the absentee levels over the past year. Rabinowtiz said that having a remote learning option at the district level would be “incredibly expensive and difficult,” but that a statewide remote school was worth considering. She said a program could give students the ability to take courses in subjects that their district doesn’t offer, such as world languages.
“We don’t want to go back to normal without any remote learning,” she said. “Some of it has worked incredibly well.”
“A much more playful learning approach”
Young said that an effective remote learning environment would depend on a specific combination of students and teachers — self-motivated students able to organize their time and handle frustrations and teachers with an instructional style that translates well into a digital classroom.
Teachers will also need access to the right technology, have the time to prepare classes, and support staff. Young said, as an example, that it’s difficult for a teacher to monitor the chat feature and teach at the same time. He suggested that paraeducators or other aides could perform those types of jobs, leaving a teacher free to focus on the lesson.
But in the districts where teachers were able to teach entirely online, Young said he saw positive results.
“We saw a much more playful learning approach,” he said. “We saw teachers who were focused acutely on engagement, and teachers who were realizing a big part of their job was to teach kids to be independent.”
In addition to its plan for a virtual school, the Department of Education will conduct an audit of school districts’ remote learning practices during the last two school years, reviewing students’ academic success, the training that the teachers had in remote learning platforms and levels of absenteeism among students.
Based on the audit, the department will create metrics for local and regional school districts to measure how well the districts promoted remote learning. They will also reconsider requirements that already exist for public schools, including what constitutes a “school day.” The audit will be submitted to the state legislature by July 2025.