Column: COVID-19 has closed schools. We’re not ready for online learning.

Photo by Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

Schools and universities are closing around the globe, the country and here in Michigan because of COVID-19.

With actors Tom Hanks and Idris Alba being diagnosed with coronavirus and collegiate and professional sports being shut down in an attempt to contain the virus, people across the country are beginning to pay more attention, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated it as a global pandemic.

According to Edweek, 39 states have decided to close schools. At least 91,000 U.S. public and private schools are closed, are scheduled to close or were closed and later reopened, affecting at least 41.6 million school students. These numbers are certain to increase in the coming days.

Closing a K-12 school or school district is a painful decision. Our schools dispense not just education, but food and other social services that many of our children and families desperately rely on, although many districts are continuing food distribution. Closing schools is an equity, educational, as well as a public health decision.

After 12th coronavirus case, Whitmer shuts down all Michigan K-12 schools

Poor children are unlikely to have connectivity and technology in their homes, and may not have adult supervision. Continuing their learning outside of the confines schools is a challenge.

Many universities and schools are offering online learning to fill the void. Online learning has been in the educational shadows and has now popped into the spotlight. Under it, learning is no longer regulated to the six-hour school day, four walls of a classroom or the two bindings of a book — if educators are prepared to uses these tools.

I know a bit about blended and online learning, having written an internationally recognized report on the topic while serving as the assistant to the president at Wayne State University, following by tenure as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2005.

I wrote a report 15 years ago, “The New Education (R)evolution: Exploring E-Learning Reforms for Michigan” and there are a series of policy recommendations that I think are as relevant today as when I wrote them. Some of our schools have embraced this technology and are partially ready to continue learning for their students during this crisis. Sadly, many are not.

I am not advocating online learning replace the human touch of face-to-face teaching and learning. Yet, sadly, few schools have adopted the full potential technology can offer our schools and children in a way that prepares students for their future, and not our past.

After 12th coronavirus case, Whitmer shuts down all Michigan K-12 schools

Many Michigan teachers were given a one-day training on how to take their lessons online, just a day before they were expected to transition to a new way of teaching. A longtime teacher colleague of mine called the impromptu training “ad hoc/stop gap. Virtual teaching is an entirely different animal — it is too little too late.”

Our students are facing an uncertain future that will defy predictability … will they be ready? It is our collective responsibility to ensure they are. By not being ready to fully engage students outside of the four walls of the school, we are missing a valuable teachable moment.

After this crisis passes, it would be wise for the governor, state board of education, state superintendent and Legislature — with direct input of teachers — to examine what policies, laws, practices and staff development must be modified, changed or created to allow children to truly learn at any time, place or pace using online learning. It would be wise to dissect why more and more districts, schools and teachers are not prepared to go virtual.

The coronavirus is exposing cracks in our preparedness as a state and nation on multiple levels. A child without a decent education today becomes and adult without much of a future tomorrow. All opportunities should be explored to enhance learning.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made the right decision to close schools under April 5 for the benefit of our collective public health. We will get through this crisis by working and caring for each other in the short-term. We will be stronger in the future if we are willing to do a deep self-reflection on anchors that hold us back when this crisis ends.