The Sunday Read: K-12 remote learning is flaming trash


(The Center Square) – I have two children in public grade school here in Illinois. 

While some public schools around the country and even in this state have conducted in-person learning, the vast majority of schools in densely populated areas have been teaching via remote since the start of the 2020-21 school year. These schools previously shuttered in-person learning for the final three months of the 2019-20 school year that ended in June. 

Aside from a week where my local district attempted to return students to a hybrid (two days in person, three days remote) model, which lasted less than one week because trending averages of COVID-19 cases in the region prompted a complete shutdown, my kids have not been in school since the week before St. Patrick's Day. 

To say that remote learning is not going so well for us shall be my expletive-free understatement of the year. 

Each of my grade-schoolers has a problem with electronic devices. No, not in using them. On that front, they are regular IT wizards. But rather falling into them.

The tablets that we received from the school district are not restricted in any way – and they cannot be restricted. So when learning about digging trenches during World War I or while they should be hunkered down on an at-home, indoor physical education class that involves yoga theory, you can bet that my kids are playing some kind of online game or watching someone play Temple Run with expert commentary from some random 11-year old on YouTube.

Why? Because they can, and there isn't anyone to stop them from doing it. There are no parental controls on the device. Not even a passcode to enter the device.

Not me, not their mom, and not their grandmother, who sits in the same room with them in an attempt to keep them focused on whatever was going on in the classroom – none of us has been able to prevent the irresistibility of holding access to anything and everything in the world in your hands. I am hearing from other parents that my kids are not uniquely inflicted with this issue. And the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommendations on electronic-device usage years ago that remains salient. 

Initially, I was – and again, expletives deleted here – displeased with my children and their lack of attention to online school. But I have softened my stance on this largely because I know where my mind is after the 31st minute of a Zoom call. I cannot get behind the idea that it is OK for children to be on a tablet, laptop or desktop for the bulk of a 7-hour school day. I cannot believe that anyone would be locked in and learning this way when they are 8 or even a teenager.

No, I do not believe that is possible. The only proof I can bring forward is that my kids have rings around their eyes and bags under them on the days when they successfully achieve what the school has asked them to do, and have very little left in the tank to talk about what they've learned that day. If this doesn't sound familiar to you, ask yourself what the takeaways for the day were the next time you have four or five Zoom calls and a battery of phone calls with your work associates over the course of a workday. 

No, K-12 public education's response to COVID-19 has been woefully bad and dangerous. I would say, more dangerous than the terrible virus that we're trying to keep at bay. Public education simply hasn't measured up to the expectations taxpayers have for a high-quality education. And it appears that they did not give improvements to remote education much consideration during their summer vacations.

Where I live, just a shade less than 72% of my annual property tax bill, which the county allows me to pay in two convenient installments of This is Outrageous and Really... There's a Second Payment Due, goes to fund local schools and pensions. I live in Illinois, as noted previously, so the pension part of the school tax-payment equation is not insignificant. 

Hey, you may say, couldn't you have put your kids in private school? Well, yes, but no. I could have, if we had any meaningful run-up to the start of the school year to make a decision such as that. 

Our district surveyed parents in the first week of July – less than six weeks before the start of the school year – and asked us whether we wanted our kids to learn in person, in a hybrid model (part time at home, part time at school), in a fully remote at home setting or to be homeschooled. We chose in-person. Overall, of the nearly 1,800 families who responded, 63% chose in-person learning. Of the 37% who indicated they were uncertain about sending their kids back to school full-time, 68% said that they were good with the idea of a hybrid plan.  

About 10 days later, and five weeks before the start of the school year, the district shared results and a then a new survey was released. In-person learning was eliminated as an option. 

It was at this time, though, that it was announced that a task force had been formed that included "district administrators, building principals, teachers, support staff, school nurses, and union leadership."

So right then and there, I should have seen where this was headed. But I fell for it. I believed that returning to school might be possible, or that my district and districts like mine actually wanted to return to school. 

The task force eliminated the in-person option, and parents were left to choose from hybrid learning, remote or homeschooling. This time, 67% of parents chose hybrid, 31% chose remote and 2% chose homeschooling. It was now less than one month from the start of the school year. 

Less than three weeks before the start of the school year, the district determined through its task force that starting the year remote was how it would go forward. 

Not long before the start of the school year, my local district emailed a flier to every parent in the district, promoting a private remote-learning facility where my kids could receive tutoring and maybe learn some karate if they wanted. It was $1,000 per month per child, or roughly what I pay for the tuition portion of my oldest daughter's college. I am sure that they were attempting to be helpful. But if my kids couldn't be in their school, I struggled with the idea that the school thought it might be OK for them to be learning in-person somewhere else. 

Oh, and I eventually did attempt to get my kids into the local Catholic School – in October. By then, I had seen enough. It was conclusive that my kids were falling behind and struggling to maintain the high educational standards that remained despite low-quality content delivery and an absurd notion that school is school whether taught in person or over an iPad. That Catholic school, by the way, has operated in person since mid-August and has had two cases of COVID-19 that they dealt with by quarantining a single classroom. They will resume classes in person tomorrow morning, bright and early. 

Meanwhile, COVID-19, while insidious and scary, has not affected our children in any meaningful, statistical way. In fact, statistically, in the part of the world where I live, there have been more children killed by stray bullets than COVID-19. This summer in Chicago, seven kids 13 and under – six of them 10 or younger – were killed by gunshots.

I do not know how much education my kids are missing. A lot, I am sure. But, as American kids prepare to return to school Monday after Thanksgiving break, I also know that they are not alone. 

study, conducted by the Fairfax, Va., County Public Schools Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, is equal parts sad and fascinating. But it confirms largely what any parent knows too well. Some 83% of students in that district have more than one F grade in their classes, and failing grades overall are up in some cases more than 100% among student demographics.

The execution of remote learning is trash.

The fear that drives our public policy decisions is flaming trash.

The state of K-12 public education in this country is flaming trash in a Dumpster, floating down a flooded street.

* * * *

Elsewhere in America... 

GEORGIA

Four Republican state senators are calling for a special legislative session to review Georgia's voting system before the U.S. Senate runoff elections in January. The group of senators urged Gov. Brian Kemp and General Assembly leaders to hold a session to "address structural issues" with the state's voting system before the Jan. 5 election. The next legislative session is scheduled to convene Jan. 11, according to law. "Furthermore, we need to address directives from the Secretary of State and State Election Board that attempt to replace conditions of Georgia law," said Tuesday's joint statement from Sens. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming; William Ligon, R-Brunswick; Brandon Beach, R- Alpharetta; and Burt Jones, R-Jackson. On Nov. 20, Kemp called for an audit of Georgia's absentee ballot signatures.

FLORIDA

Canada's ban on nonessential travel through at least Dec. 21 will harm Florida's winter tourism industry. An estimated 1 million Canadians annually spend up to six months wintering in the Sunshine State, contributing an estimated $6.5 billion to Florida’s economy. Fort Myers and Cape Coral are popular destinations for visitors from Ontario. The Lee County Visitors and Convention Bureau said more than 215,000 Canadians visited last year and spent more than $218 million.

VIRGINIA

Del. Lee Carter wants revenue from the possible legalization of recreational marijuana to be used as reparations for Black and Indigenous Virginians. The idea of legalizing recreational marijuana use in Virginia has picked up steam after the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) released its report on the subject and Gov. Ralph Northam said he will introduce and support legislation to legalize marijuana. "Every single penny of tax revenue from legalized cannabis should go to reparations," Carter, D-Manassas, said. "That's a moral commitment our history demands of us and a necessary first step."

TENNESSEE

Over the past nine years, the number of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits in Tennessee has dropped by 75%. As a result, the state is sitting on a $741 million surplus from the welfare program – the largest in the U.S. Tennessee lawmakers will decide what to do with the surplus when they return to Nashville in January.

KENTUCKY

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear lashed out at a lawsuit filed by two Kentucky families who claim his order capping capacity at family gatherings unfairly targeted large families. Austin and Sara Everson and Nicole and James Duvall joined a federal lawsuit with several religious schools and two individuals who hold political gatherings. They’re seeking an injunction to stop the order, which limits indoor gatherings to a maximum of eight people. They also want a judge to rule it unconstitutional.

OHIO

As an expansion of Ohio’s school voucher program sits on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk, the state’s teachers’ union wants it vetoed. Senate Bill 89 expands the number of students potentially eligible for the state’s EdChoice Program, which provides private-school vouchers for students. It’s been trumpeted as a victory for parents, but the Ohio Education Association called it damaging even as polling shows a growing majority of Americans want more school choice options.

PENNSYLVANIA

Nearly 700,000 mail-in ballots appeared from “nowhere” in Pennsylvania, putting a thumb on the scale for former Vice President Joe Biden, the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told state Republican senators on Wednesday. Giuliani, the public face of President Donald Trump’s legal efforts to overturn the election results in a handful of swing states – Pennsylvania chief among them – laid out his allegations of voter fraud before the Senate Majority Policy Committee in Gettysburg, just days after a federal judge dismissed the claims as baseless. Giuliani said a special prosecutor should be appointed and those who orchestrated the election should face prosecution.

Students at Pennsylvania’s institutions of higher education could be forgiven if they were confused about whether they needed to get a COVID-19 test in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. State officials recommended that all colleges and universities put testing in place ahead of the holiday, but they didn’t require it. In turn, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education decided to allow each of its 14 member universities to dictate its own policy. Some decided to make testing available, while at least one, Kutztown University, opted to switch to strictly online learning for the remainder of the semester. Penn State University, which is not part of the PASSHE system but does receive some state funding, chose to offer widespread testing and also switch to online learning after Thanksgiving.

NEW JERSEY

The agency that controls commuter rail in New Jersey, NJ Transit, is spending $300 million to implement a federally required safety system on its lines known as “positive train control,” or PTC. But according the federal officials, New Jersey is in danger of becoming the only U.S. state that fails to have the system in place by the end of the year. NJ Transit officials insist that federal officials’ fears are unfounded and that the system will be up and running in time. They insist that the contractor responsible for implementation is following a schedule that will lead to full safety certification before the Dec. 31 deadline. “We intend to hold them fully accountable to meeting that deadline,” a NJ Transit spokesperson said.

MICHIGAN

Enbridge Inc. filed suit in federal court on Tuesday afternoon against the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a move that was anticipated after the governor sought to revoke the company’s easement to operate its Line 5 under the Straits of Mackinac. The company said the administration’s revocation would result in a daily shortage of more than 14 million gallons of gasoline and other transportation fuels for Michigan as well as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec. Additionally, 10 regional refineries and delivery of aviation fuel to Detroit Metropolitan Airport would be hindered considerably.

U.S. Senate candidate John James wants Michigan election officials to delay their certification for two weeks and called for an audit. James requested the state Board of Canvassers take an additional two weeks to audit election results before Dec. 7. "I submitted this request because I'm interested in the truth and protecting the integrity of our elections," James said. James conceded the race to incumbent Sen. Gary Peters on Tuesday, Nov. 24.

MINNESOTA

Gov. Tim Walz introduced sweeping four-week restrictions to combat COVID-19, sparking outcry from restaurant groups and Republicans warning of the inevitable economic fallout. The restrictions stretch until Dec. 18. Among them are prohibitions on in-person social gatherings with anyone of another household; limiting restaurants and bars to take-out and delivery only; and shuttering gyms, fitness studios and event spaces.

WISCONSIN

Clerks in Milwaukee and Madison started Wisconsin’s presidential recount, even though there continues to be disagreement over just how it should happen. The Wisconsin Elections Commission met for six hours Wednesday night to talk about the recount. Former Trump Chief of Staff and former Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said on Twitter Wednesday the Elections Commission staff called the meeting to try and change how the recount would work.

A new study suggests that the number of coronavirus cases has little to do with the decision to move classes online in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty says, instead, politics and teachers’ union membership play a larger role. The WILL study found schools in areas with strong teachers’ unions and in areas that voted for Hillary Clinton are much more likely to have canceled their in-person classes and moved to online only.

ILLINOIS

report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs detailed issues at a LaSalle Veterans' Home where a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, including ventilation problems, ineffective hand sanitizer and a Halloween party that staff reportedly attended. Just 90 minutes before Tuesday afternoon’s virtual Illinois Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on the outbreak earlier this month at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs said it would be implementing recommendations from the report.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan said he has significant support from members of the House Democratic caucus, but a longtime political observer said the speaker's power could be waning. There are 17 or 18 House Democrats who have said they won’t support the speaker for another term. Longtime politics observer Jim Nowlan served in the legislature with Madigan decades ago. He said from his count, Madigan has lost the necessary support to be re-elected speaker in January, at a crucial time for the state.

MISSOURI

A lawsuit filed by more than 40 restaurants is challenging St. Louis County’s right to impose COVID-19 emergency orders that restrict their operations. A lawsuit filed by two downtown St. Louis bars, on the other hand, refutes the city’s right to sanction businesses that violate its COVID-19 emergency measures. Both lawsuits were filed in St. Louis County Associate Circuit with the restauranteurs’ challenge to the county’s COVID-19 measures awaiting Associate Circuit Judge John Lasater’s purview, and the lawsuit filed by Wheelhouse and The Start Bar assigned to Associate Circuit Judge Christopher McGraugh.

COLORADO

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took a flight to Houston on his way to visit family on Wednesday, despite urging residents to avoid traveling for the holidays, Denver’s 9News reported. Hancock's flight took off about 30 minutes after his Twitter account tweeted that residents in Colorado’s largest city should “avoid travel, if you can,” according to 9News. The tweet, which was accompanied by a graphic, also recommended that people “host virtual gatherings instead of in-person dinners.” COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks, both in Denver and across the state and country, as health officials have warned that holiday gatherings could lead to more spikes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended last week that people avoid traveling for Thanksgiving. 

Gov. Jared Polis spent Thanksgiving in quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19, his office said late Wednesday night. Polis received a negative test following the exposure. The governor’s office did not release details about the circumstances of his exposure. “Per CDC and CDPHE guidance, the Governor has begun quarantine, will be closely monitored, and will be re-tested in the coming days,” Polis’ office said. The governor had said in recent days that he was planning on spending Thanksgiving with the first gentleman Marlon Reis, their two kids, and their dog.

TEXAS

Electric and hybrid vehicle owners may have to pay additional fees to support Texas’ road funding programs as more drivers shift away from gasoline-based engines. The higher motor vehicle fees would help to cover revenue losses in the state’s road fund with more drivers using less gasoline, which has a tax that supports road projects. The state of Texas anticipates $14.6 billion in revenue for 2020 for the highway fund. However, its gas tax collection dropped 7% in 2020 from 2019 to $2.6 billion. Texas Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, proposed increasing the annual renewal and registration fee to $200 for electric vehicles and $100 for hybrid vehicles, with all revenue going toward the state highway fund.

ARIZONA

Several Arizona mayors have spent recent months criticizing Gov. Doug Ducey over his hesitance to issue a statewide mask mandate, though virtually the entire population is under a local mandate. One of Ducey's most prominent critics, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, is now facing similar criticism due to her approval of a 500-team youth soccer tournament in her city over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. The thousands of families, most of which are from California where youth sports are banned, fly into the valley as state and local officials are pleading with residents to have Thanksgiving without extended family. 

Chris Krug is publisher of The Center Square. Executive Editor Dan McCaleb, and regional editors J.D. Davidson, Derek Draplin, Delphine Luneau, Brett Rowland, Jason Schaumburg and Bruce Walker contributed to the column.



* This article was originally published here
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