Because administrators can’t guarantee all students will have access, some schools call online work ‘enrichment,’ not part of curriculum

By Tawnell D. Hobbs, The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 2020

For all the talk of online learning during shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic, many U.S. public school students will find that the work they do while at home is actually optional. It won’t be graded and it won’t count.

Some public schools are calling online work “enrichment,” not part of the curriculum, because they can’t guarantee that all students will have access to it. Students without the internet or home computers can’t do it, and special-needs students may require accommodations to complete it.

As a result, millions of schoolchildren risk missing weeks of school. Most states have closed schools, leaving more than 43 million children, in grades K-12, out of school, and some schools won’t reopen this school year.

“It’s an equity issue. If you can’t guarantee all your students have online access, nothing’s graded,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesman in Seattle Public Schools in Washington, which closed schools and plans to broadcast not-for-grade educational activities online and by TV. “Our goal is to keep the students from going into a summer slide.”

The U.S. Department of Education recently sent out information to remind educators that schools moving to online learning must comply with civil rights laws, including making sure such tools are available to students with disabilities. Some teacher unions have decried school districts rolling out online plans not accessible to all.

Schools are expected to advance students to the next grade, come fall, even with all the months of missed coursework, though many administrators say they haven’t addressed it yet. Teachers already dread what they call “the summer slide,” or information children lose over summer vacation, and schools haven’t yet said how curricula in the fall may need to be adjusted to make up missed work.

In Washington state, where schools are closed statewide until at least April 24, the Education Department has warned against using online learning that isn’t equitable. At least one district in Bothell, Wash., halted the online model it had rolled out to students to address equity issues. Now, the Northshore School District superintendent said, in a letter to families this week, the district has launched a resource page online for families to keep students moving forward. This week, students are being encouraged to create projects that could be useful in relation to the current health situation, such as building a hand-sanitizer dispenser. A petition to restore online learning had over 11,000 signatures on Thursday.

Chicago Public Schools posted on Twitter Tuesday that work online or sent home during its shutdown won’t be graded, sparking criticism from some parents.

“Gee thanks, you have taken away any incentive for my children to do any school work while they are home,” one response said in part.

On Wednesday, citing updated state guidance, Chicago school officials changed course and said that teachers can grade work as long as it increases academic standing and doesn’t negatively impact a student’s grades. And students who opt not to do the work can’t be penalized. The Illinois State Board of Education says the rule addresses students with support and technology issues and children with mental and physical health challenges during the statewide school shutdown, which is now scheduled through March 30. The Chicago Teachers Union criticized the policy, saying it could exacerbate inequities as students with internet and digital devices work online and improve grades, while those without cannot.

“If you can’t get it for everybody, is it fair for anybody?” said Chris Geovanis, a union spokeswoman.

Most schools plan to stay closed at least through the end of March or early April, but some have already extended reopening dates or are closed indefinitely. State leaders in Ohio, Texas and California have floated the possibility of schools in their states being closed all school year.

Some parents have taken to creating their own lesson plans.

Jessica McHale, a photographer in Massachusetts, created a daily schedule for her three children that has been shared at least 300,000 times online. It starts with waking up before 9 a.m., eating breakfast, getting dressed and a morning walk with the dog or yoga if it is raining. She includes set times for academics, creative time, chores, lunch, quiet time, fresh air outside, dinner and TV time. The day wraps up with bedtime at 8 p.m., or 9 p.m. for children who followed the daily schedule and didn’t fight.

“I threw it together in a panic,” Ms. McHale said. “It’s been such a confusing time for parents, and the children are looking to us.”