Our children will need much more than remote learning to get back on track in school

Summer school, longer school days and a longer year should all be on the table. We also need a plan to close the digital divide.

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Students have been home since mid-March, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the step to close the state’s schools to stop the spread of the coronavirus

Students have been home since mid-March, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker took the step to close the state’s schools to stop the spread of the coronavirus

Ashlee Rezin Garcia | Sun-Times

Across Illinois, families are doing their best to navigate the “new normal” of shelter-in-place schooling since Gov. J.B. Pritzker ordered school campuses closed as part of the state’s response to COVID-19. 

We now know that the closures will extend through April. And we wouldn’t be surprised if school doors are closed for the remainder of this school year. Saving lives must be the first priority. 

We applaud the students, parents, teachers, administrators and volunteers who are making the best of a difficult and frustrating situation. And heartfelt thanks to the Illinois State Board of Education, elected and community leaders, philanthropic organizations and residents who are giving their time, talent and dollars to ease the pressure.

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But despite heroic efforts, this pandemic forces us to face a hard reality, and it will test our ability to respond.

Many households across the state lack sufficient devices, Internet access and cellular data plans to support digital learning. In some communities, broadband access is woefully inadequate, if available at all. Consequently, e-learning and state-advised remote learning, which goes into effect this week, will be challenging, or impossible, for many students. 

Learning loss related to COVID-19 will be tremendous for most children. But for many reasons, including a digital divide that is rooted in long-standing issues of race, class and poverty, the learning loss will be far more inequitable and potentially devastating. 

As John B. King Jr., CEO of the nonprofit Education Trust and former U.S. Secretary of Education, recently told the Washington Post, “The risk is that in some schools next year, you are going to have a kid with parents who were able to provide high-quality supplemental instruction at home, sitting next to a kid who hasn’t received meaningful instruction since February.”

This current crisis presents an opportunity and a challenge. We can finally close the digital divide and turn this moment into a bold leap forward for lasting change by developing and investing in a serious plan to create equity in the education technology provided by our schools. Yes, this plan will take years to implement, but it’s possible, if we have the will.

Every bit as important, we need a plan to reverse the inevitable, profound learning loss now being experienced by two million Illinois children, and to respond to the more intangible social and emotional impact of this massive disruption and trauma. 

This plan will almost certainly involve summer school — this summer and next year, as safety permits — as well as longer school days and a longer school year to provide adequate time for learning recovery. Plus, children will also need enhanced social and emotional support, which means more staff, and that must be part of the plan too. 

All of this will require additional resources, and flexibility from labor and management alike. 

We cannot let an entire generation of students live with the learning loss now occurring.  And we should not allow future generations of children to endure the digital and learning divides that are crippling our ability to mitigate that loss. 

When we pick ourselves back up and learn our own lessons, we will have serious work to do.

Robin Steans is president of Advance Illinois.

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