Long-distance learning could help us democratize education

The pandemic can be a chance to remove geographic barriers in education.

This story originally featured on Working Mother.

“We moved here for the schools.” It’s a popular refrain of suburban families wealthy enough to afford the high real-estate taxes that go toward funding well-rated public schools but not wealthy enough, or not interested, to send their kids to private school. The result: Because Black parents earn 40 percent less than non-Hispanic white parents, and Black and Latinx dual-income households have half the wealth of white single parents, neighborhoods with properly funded public schools wind up being predominantly white. Even the teachers in those districts’ schools are predominantly white.

There are adverse consequences to this. White parents are more likely to make white friends in their neighborhoods. Then white kids make white friends. They don’t see people who don’t look like them for years. And when they do, they might fear them or be unkind to them. Families from underrepresented groups in these “good school districts” can be ostracized. Kids as young as two-and-a-half prefer playing with children of their same race, and kids of parents who don’t talk about race might associate differences with negativity, says Wanjiku Njoroge, M.D., assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and program director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

This has been happening all over the US for decades. I grew up in the overwhelmingly white South Shore of Staten Island, a highly segregated borough of New York City. I didn’t have a Black teacher until high school; she was only in her position for a couple of months. Similarly, there was only one Black student out of more than 100 in our academically rigorous program for high-performing students. She has written about her numerous disturbing encounters with racism in school.

The pandemic is time to break this pattern.

Very few parents had extremely positive experiences with the distance learning that COVID-19 forced upon families in March. But that’s because teachers didn’t have time to train on the best practices. Parents didn’t have enough support from their workplaces to integrate their children’s learning into their schedules. Not everyone had the technology necessary to be successful, and everyone was feeling anxious about a deadly virus that had upended families’ sense of safety and normality.

While there is still much about which to be anxious, the health risk of schools reopening should be viewed as an opportunity to improve remote learning in a way that makes it preferable, at least for some families.

What if a good education weren’t determined by where you live and how much in taxes parents can afford? What if classes weren’t determined by age but instead by common ability and interests, but differing backgrounds?

Here’s what I propose: small, but nationally sourced, remote classes. Families from anywhere in the US sign up to take part in the pilot. The country’s best remote educators—who would be judged on different criteria than being great in-person instructors—teach children grouped together after students’ strengths, weaknesses and areas of interest are evaluated. The teachers are matched with groups based on the same. Everyone’s preferred schedules are considered, too; because it’s not based on small districts, there’s a larger pool of instructors who truly can be paired with the kids who will learn best from them and at the most convenient times. Students receive devices they can operate themselves instead of relying on parents for help, one of the many barriers to working parents’ ability to get their jobs done. And the classes are intentionally racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse to increase understanding among children of different backgrounds. There would still be opportunities for socialization, using technology for kids to have one-on-one conversations and play games in small groups, like recess. And like recess, there would be movement activities; students would just do them from their remote learning locations.

It’s unclear whether school systems, such as New York City and Los Angeles, that are continuing distance learning in the fall will purposefully diversify classes, taking white students from, say, Staten Island, and grouping them with Black children from, say, the Bronx, being taught by a, say, Latinx teacher. It would behoove society if they did. But what about the kids who can’t learn from home because their guardians have to report to work?

How about those kids go to a designated center, a single, large, well-ventilated room with a smaller group of children than a traditional school would have in a class. There would be one adult, compensated similarly to a daycare worker, whose job would be more that of a caregiver/technology support–giver than of a teacher. The goal would be to give kids a safe place to learn until parents return from work, but without the large groups of children and adults that mix in traditional school buildings and increase the likelihood of spreading the virus. And these children would still be educated by the national remote system in distinct learning groups, despite their shared physical location.

Perhaps the dollars that currently go toward educating these children in their local school districts—or toward childcare, as in New York City—can be pooled to fund this national program. Families in higher-performing school districts might need additional incentive to join, given that they’d no longer receive the benefits their locale affords them. Maybe they could receive a federal tax break; maybe the boons of diversity and customized education will be enough.

Another benefit: The teachers who are leaving the profession because they don’t feel safe in school buildings—or can’t get childcare for their own kids—can still participate. With alternative schedules, based on when different children learn best or when their parents prefer because of their own work schedules, outcomes can be optimized.

There’s obviously a lot more thinking that needs to be done for a proposal such as this to work. Given that I’m a writer/editor with just a couple of years of early education experience, there are loads more-qualified folks to do this thinking, though I’m indebted to actual New York City public-school teacher Cristina Bolusi Zawacki for vetting this proposal. But what’s clear to me and other parents is that the old way just doesn’t work anymore, not until there’s significant containment of, cures and prevention for the virus. So why not try something that protects families from illness while fighting other ills, such as racism and the idea that a couple dozen kids who share nothing but a birth year and a zip code should be taught the same things in the same way?