As the school year progresses and districts continue to reopen, many students are still learning virtually. With the number of COVID-19 cases always fluctuating and so-called health experts’ continued insistence that the Wuhan virus poses a serious threat to students and educators, there is little reason to see this situation changing soon.
Even if cases do decline and a vaccine is distributed, we are unlikely to see virtual schooling go away. Besides providing a safer option for students wanting to stay away from a crowded setting, virtual school is now proving to solve a much bigger challenge that has hampered public schools long before the virus: It has effectively become the ideal format for problematic students.
This is no small matter. School leaders and teachers have long struggled with students who proved unmotivated, uncooperative, or unable to do the work — usually a combination of all three. These students disrupt classrooms, antagonize teachers, take up the time of administrators and counselors trying to help them, and often fail their classes by the end of the grading period. Whether educators admit it, these students determine the school’s success more than any other factor. The more problematic students there are, the worse the school.
To counteract this, public school districts use a variety of strategies to manage these students, usually to the detriment of the other students. Teachers lighten the workload and keep assignments “engaging” (translation: easy and not educational). Curriculum and textbook writers for the district try to keep pace and dilute their material, featuring “high-interest” texts (translation: below grade-level and politically leftist) and time-consuming projects that are graded subjectively. Administrators relax discipline standards by introducing programs such as restorative justice (which treats misbehavior through counseling strategies, not punishment) and bouncing students referred to the office right back to the classroom.
Even with such measures in place, many problematic students still continue their downward trajectory and take everyone with them. In their wake are lower standards, fewer expectations, and a multitude of unhappy teachers and students.
They also cost more money. Students who can’t behave or do their work ultimately necessitate alternative disciplinary campuses, credit-recovery programs, after-school and weekend detention sessions, truancy courts and officers, various committees and meetings, counseling sessions, remediation programs, and endless loads of paperwork. For anyone who wonders where all the funding for public schools goes — the U.S. average is $12,800 per student — a large percentage is allocated in some way to disciplining struggling students.
Online Education Lessens Accountability
Virtual learning is offering a way out of this dismal setup. Now those students who hate school have a choice to stay home and receive credit for doing less than the bare minimum. They can dawdle and misbehave all in the comfort of their own bedrooms. They don’t need to ask the teacher’s permission to go to the restroom for the umpteenth time, nor will an administrator confront them when they roam the halls and visit their friends in other classes.
Naturally, district leaders will assure parents there are still accountability mechanisms: Teachers will take attendance, assign work, and take grades. Unfortunately, not all teachers will have the wherewithal nor their administrator’s permission to fail, write up, or mark a student absent. Why should they? If the teachers look like they’re doing their part, and the student looks like he’s doing his, no one will really question how much learning is really happening.
That said, it is only fair to acknowledge that most students and teachers do act in good faith — for now, at least. Some families choose virtual learning because of legitimate concerns for their children’s health, and they follow through with completing their work and logging into their Zoom sessions. Some dutiful teachers take responsibility for their virtual classes and hold students responsible for attendance and grades. Unfortunately, as it becomes increasingly apparent that there isn’t much accountability if a student stops cooperating or a teacher stops noticing, that good faith will dissolve and the virtual class will become a pointless charade that mainly attracts low-performing students.
Already, the virtual option has positively affected the general atmosphere of physical school campuses. Not only are in-person classes much smaller to comply with social distancing recommendations, but they are much more restrained, mature, and even collegial. The students who normally disrupted the class, bullied their peers, vaped in the bathrooms, and took up the time and patience of teachers and principals are mostly at home. What educators thought would be a massive headache of asking students to wear their masks and keep six feet apart has been relatively easy; the students simply do it.
Virtual School Is Exposing Bugs in the System
At some point, the reality of this two-tiered system will become evident. Once standardized testing resumes — and it has with the PSAT administered last month — those paying attention will start to see a growing gap in performance between virtual students and in-person students. Perhaps this will encourage some schools to stop offering virtual classes, as it has in Texas, but the convenience and popularity of keeping a virtual option might make it permanent even after the threat of COVID-19 subsides.
It falls to parents to make the right choice for their children and insist on in-person schooling as soon as possible. The low expectations and lack of accountability will inevitably take a toll on even the best students. Only a physical classroom, teacher, and classmates will make learning and intellectual progress real; with virtual classrooms, learning remains largely theoretical and imaginary. Even if virtual learning results in a GPA boost, which can attract some of the more grade-conscious students, that number will soon become meaningless when it clashes with assessment data.
Quite unexpectedly, virtual school is offering a real choice to students who want a traditional education with reasonable standards and expectations. Unencumbered with problematic students, many public schools might even be able to compete with private and charter schools that have always benefited from this fact.
For the first time in decades, American families will finally see what is possible when all schools truly become places of learning instead of glorified daycares. It will be a great day for motivated students, educators, parents, and even the problematic students at home, who might be forced not to take their schooling for granted.