Into Coronavirus and the Classroom: The Biggest Online Learning Experiment Ever
Trymaine Lee: Over the next few weeks millions of American students and teachers spread across the nation's 13,000 public school systems will begin a new school year. That experience will be vastly different depending on where you live. In some states like New York the decision or whether or not to reopen was drawn out and contentious.
Just last week New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that students would in fact return to the classroom this fall. In California governor Gavin Newsom made the call back in July to keep most schools online. That includes the San Diego Unified School District where we've been focusing our coverage all week. These are tough decisions for administrators. It divided teachers, families, and communities. But in California experts believe they made the right call.
Dr. Linda Darling-hammond: We should be reshaping education and the way we think about it. And this is a moment where there is that flexibility.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today we wrap up our week-long series Coronavirus in the Classroom with Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond president of California's State Board of Education. Dr. Darling-Hammond is the first Black woman to hold this role.
And she's well aware of the gaps in education that existed before this pandemic hit. But she's also hopeful about the changes the moment could bring to a system that will benefit from reform. Is it safe to say that this what we're dealing with now is perhaps the biggest online learning experiment that we've ever had in this country?
Darling-hammond: It is totally the biggest online learning experiment we've ever had in this country. And interestingly, you know, we have had 20 years of trying to get technology used in schools. And overnight we have got technology being used in virtually every school and teachers learning how to use it, kids learning how to use it. If we're smart about this when we come back to school, we will take advantage of the fact that we can use these technologies in ways that prepare our work force for 21st century technology-based employment.
Lee: So in California, specifically in L.A. and the San Diego Unified School District, give us a peek behind the chalkboard. You see what I did there? Peek behind the chalkboard. (LAUGH)
Darling-hammond: Very cute. (LAUGH)
Lee: (LAUGH) What were administrators, you know, weighing as they determined that, "You know what? We're not gonna open physically this fall"?
Darling-hammond: Well, both of those counties are on the county monitoring list. So the state will not allow them to fully open their schools. We do have an elementary waiver process that may allow some elementary schools to open if they are in areas that are not as impacted and if they have all of the rules and supports in place.
So behind that chalkboard, you know, these are folks who are trying to figure out how to, you know, do distance learning well. And they've done a tremendous amount of professional development for teachers. They've tried to make sure that every single kid, even those in homeless shelters, has computers and WiFi. They are setting up as other places are, places for kids to get additional support and help beyond what they can, you know, get in the home. And all of the creativity of sort of starting (LAUGH) school is in this different context.
Lee: Do you get the sense of that people understand what distance learning and online learning actually is?
Darling-hammond: Well, distance learning simply means that the teacher is in one place and the student is in another. And sometimes distance learning has meant in the pandemic packets of worksheets that went home to kids. And they sat at their kitchen table and did the worksheets without any interaction at all.
Most places are trying very rapidly to get everybody online using the computer for people to see each other, for kids to be able to go online and get, you know, assignments for them to use interactive multimedia materials. So distance learning in the best sense would take full advantage of that technology.
Lee: What does the research tell us about how effective this is, but also the impact on learning in general?
Darling-hammond: Well, distance learning done well can actually be as good or even more effective for at least older kids as just in-person learning in a classroom. But that requires that you have a really thoughtful curriculum, that kids are using interactive multimedia materials as well as going online, doing small group work in the Zoom breakout room. You know, getting information from the teacher, doing projects that engage them in using the technology in really exciting and interesting ways.
Lee: Could you walk us through some examples of how online learning can be effective?
Darling-hammond: So for example in one study they had a group of kids who were learning about the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad, you know, in a classroom with some discussion. And another group had that discussion, but they got to use an interactive multimedia set of materials that allowed them to experience aspects of the Underground Railroad, to interact with the material and figure out how to get people through the Underground Railroad and to understand the history in that way. And they outscored the kids who just had the classroom experience. We can actually get better outcomes sometimes with online than we would get otherwise.
Lee: There is some early research that suggests that the average American student during the course of this time has fallen behind seven months or so with marginalized communities and people of color, especially maybe taking the biggest losses. What is it that's triggering those losses besides the fact of not being in the physical classroom with your teacher? What's happening here? Those are big serious losses.
Darling-hammond: Well, those estimates are based on kids getting no education. The assumption in those studies was, "You know, the doors are closed. The lights are off. Kids are getting nothing. And what are we gonna come back to?" And you can see that there would be enormous loss, particularly in areas like math where you have to use it all the time.
And of course, communities of colors have been hardest hit by the pandemic in every way, in terms of health, in terms of employment, in terms of lack of digital devices, in terms of education. And this just magnifies all of those differentials that we've seen.
Lee: In California, how is playing out there?
Darling-hammond: Well, California was one of the states that when the pandemic hit said that, "We needed to do distance learning immediately." Some states just closed the doors and turned off the lights and left kids to their own devices. And they are going to experience enormous learning loss during this period.
California's been working on it. But we have a huge divide. And we have huge equity concerns because first of all about 20% of kids were not in a position where they had internet connectivity and a usable device when the pandemic hit. Once you get kids online, then you've got to be sure the teachers know how to teach effectively online.
That they have, you know, the materials and the supports that are needed to do that in a very effective way. And finally it is true that for very small children while there are interactive tools that you can use on computer. And my grandson is a good illustration at the age of two that you can do that. It is very important for little kids to be in physical in-classroom settings or with caregivers right at their elbow in order to learn effectively.
Lee: So how are you all in California accommodating families that might not have the necessarily technology, resources, or say, you know, high-speed internet for online learning at home?
Darling-hammond: So in California we've committed ourselves to close the digital divide. And we've both put an expectation in the law, but also state money, local money, and federal money are all being devoted to be sure kids have devices and hotspots. Many corporations and foundations have stepped up to contribute thousands of devices and hotspots as well. So that even if you're in a homeless shelter, even if you're in a part of the state that has not previously had broadband, you can be part of the learning process in the year ahead.
Lee: Could that have been possible without the magnanimity of Google? It's a kind of a little troubling if you have to rely (LAUGH) on these big corporations to help us do what we should be able to locally on the state level. But do you think it would have been possible without that help?
Darling-hammond: Well, the help that folks like, you know, Google and many other companies, you know, contributed has been very important. It shouldn't be up to us trying to solve this problem that way. We should have solved this digital divide a decade ago. And by the way, some states have.
And, you know, the federal government should be regulating internet the way it regulates telephones so that everyone has access, so that the rates are low. We have a lot to do to understand that this is part of the foundation for daily life for families as well as kids in schools that has to be provided by government.
Lee: We're going to take a quick break. But when we come back, I talk to Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond about the achievement gap and what the outcome of this crisis could look like in the long run. Stick with us.
Lee: We've been talkin' to families. And one parent told us, and I want to quote this, "The wealthy are going to keep getting educated and the poor are going to struggle even more now." What's your thoughts on that? That parent's really concerned.
Darling-hammond: That parent is, you know, comin' from a very legitimate place. I mean, the way our society operates and the way schools have been funded and the way that wealth has been distributed, the rich get richer, the poor getting poorer. That's kind of the starting place for almost anything in this country.
Now, can government push against that? And I think in California we're seeing huge efforts from Governor Newsom and the legislature to put billions of dollars into closing the divide and to making sure that the resources get to the kids who need them most. Yes, we can do more and are doing more. It's going to be, you know, an uphill battle. But we are engaged in it, certainly in this state and in a number of others.
Lee: Say you spent a bunch of money on the actual technology, right, the actual resources. But you happen a community where parents are hourly-wage workers. If they don't go to work, they don't get paid. Maybe it's a single-parent household and they have to leave. If you had to go out there and, you know, break bricks and lift things and cook things and bake things and deliver things, how can you supplement the education?
Darling-hammond: First of all let me just say we are going to see horrific consequences particularly if the next federal aid package does not get passed that reinstates unemployment benefits, protects people from being evicted from their homes, doesn't reinforce the food supplements that we've had school districts giving to kids and families.
So number one, how we come out of this pandemic has everything to do with what the federal government does right now. Out of the almost $3 trillion has been spent so far on the recovery, less than one half of 1% has been designated for education, including the food and other things that school districts are providing to kids.
But there are things that districts are doing. San Francisco for example just created a way for low-income kids to have pods during distance learning. 6,000 kids in 40 different locations will get access to day-long supports for their technology, for getting on the Zoom, for getting food, for getting help with their homework just like they might in an affluent household, from, you know, the nanny who's been hired.
Lee: Those learning products, it's a big buzzword right now. Could you explain what these pods are, the idea behind these pods are?
Darling-hammond: Yeah. So more affluent parents are getting together with other families. They're protected from engaging, you know, in society because they have jobs that allow them to work at home. They can put their kids together in a way that they don't see anyone else.
And then there's not access to, you know, the virus permeating that pod. And then they're providing extra education. Sometimes they're hiring a teacher or they're hiring other helpers to both help their kids go online, if they're doing distance learning. Or to even supplement or substitute for the school experience. What we need are places that are providing those same kinds of supports for all kids, not just those who have parents who can afford it.
Lee: You talked about this earlier about how older students might benefit most from online learning. They're more independent. They might be able to actually utilize this other tool for their learning. But what does the research tell us about any drawbacks of online learning? And what's lost when teachers and students don't have that physical interaction, that face-to-face interaction?
Darling-hammond: Of course, a lot is lost by not being together. All the camaraderie, you know, all the sort of incidental ways that people get to demonstrate caring for one another, to see one another, to, you know, relate to one another outside the bounds of the curriculum.
And so we have to make up for that in a lot of other ways that people are trying to invent right now. And of course for little kids where the hugging and the touching and the running and the playing are so important, that's also a piece of it.
The social and emotional learning part of this hugely important. And we have really, in California and some other states, put out guidance saying, "Prioritize figuring out what's happening with your kids. What has their experience been? What are they struggling with? What are their needs? How can develop resilience and skills for dealing with the coping that's needed in a time like this?"
Lee: But I wonder, do you think there's an opportunity also to be flexible as educators? Like, break from the mold of just sit in the desk in front of me, at the chalkboard. Is this an opportunity to really reshape the way we imagine education in America?
Darling-hammond: Absolutely. We should be reshaping education and the way we think about it. And this is a moment where there is that flexibility. What we're finding is that kids are the most engaged in distance learning when it's being related to their life and what they're experiencing.
In fact there were a group of kids in Oakland last year at the end of the school year who'd been doing a safety study of the school and how to make it safer to get to school. And they had done all kinds of analyses. And they presented on the Zoom to their city council what they had learned at the end of the year.
And actually got some changes made in their community about what could be done to make either traveling to school a safe place. We can be developing intelligence and the capacity to problem-solve in our kids in any situation. And this is the time to think about education that way.
Lee: You know, we talked to a bunch of parents who have kids with learning disabilities. And their concern is, "You know what? Even under the best circumstances, you know, we can't deliver to our children what they will be getting in a traditional academic environment."
Darling-hammond: Yeah. You know, I'm hearing stories from all across the country really from parents and teachers. And some kids who have learning differences are struggling or have struggled in the spring. But some have done brilliantly because they're actually in an environment where they're not getting bullied. They're not, you know, having the social discomfort that they were having.
They're able to just get rid of the distractions and focus in. Some districts have had paraprofessionals, you know, in the Zoom breakout room working directly with the kids who have additional needs. And they're getting very personalized attention in a one-on-one or two-on-one or three-on-one setting.
And that's been very helpful. For one thing, my daughter tutors special needs students. She says, "You know, have the computer up on a stand where the kid who's ADHD can be standing up and fidgeting and give him some fidgets while he's learning. And for another kid, take a break every so often and do something physical so that that's happening." Every kid is gonna need something different. And we're gonna have to problem-solve for what will help them the most.
Lee: What about the social, emotional concerns and also the mental health concerns? For kids who this is their place to thrive and maybe home isn't that place. Or maybe elsewhere isn't that place, but school is that place.
Darling-hammond: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and sometimes there are homes that are not really a safe place--
Lee: That's right.
Darling-hammond: --for all kids. So this is where I'm really happy to see some of these districts like San Francisco, West Contra Costa. There are others around the country stepping up and providing safe spaces for kids to be even if they have to be in distance learning, socially distanced from one another and spread out in community centers and libraries and other places where they can be in a place where they can at least see other kids. They may not be up close, you know, and breathing on each other. But they can (LAUGH) with their little masks on, you know, be in a place where they're getting that kind of social interaction and, you know, caring and attention.
Lee: When you think about the school districts who made different decisions than those in California and say, "You know what? We gotta get these kids back to school. They need to be around each other. You know, we're willing to take the risk"? Does that send, like, a chill down your spine? Like, when you hear that or you see those schools who made different decisions, how do you feel?
Darling-hammond: Well, it's gonna be different in every community. But I will say there are about a dozen countries that have managed to open schools to some extent. Some have opened and then reclosed. In places like Israel, France, South Africa where they opened up schools really quickly, they didn't follow all of those rules.
They immediately had hundreds and thousands of cases and had to reclose the schools. Particularly an issue in high schools, particularly if high schools don't redesign themselves into smaller pods of kids who stay together all day. You know, in places that have a high infection rate in the community, you're gonna see that happen in the schools.
Lee: You know, there are so many families, and we've talked to a number of them, who actually are up in arms and really upset about this idea that there won't be any physical school to go to. And I'm not sure if you've talked to any of those parents. But what do you say to those parents who, you know, just don't understand? Right, they're sayin' like, "You know what? (LAUGH) What's goin' on here?"
Darling-hammond: Yeah, I mean, I wish that we had at the national level a more transparent and educative conversation about this virus and what it means and how you protect yourself from it and how we get to the other end of this curve. Because people are getting misinformation sometimes or lack of full information. You know, it's a public health crisis. We need to be helping people understand it every day. And then we need to keep working to bring the curve back down.
Lee: You know, you have those parents who may have taken their cues from the top early on and those who have been misinformed and have kind of like drank the Kool-Aid. But you also have a bunch of working parents on the other side who understand all that. But it's like, "You know, I have to go to work." Do you think that they're actually equipped in this kind of structure to really supplement the education that school districts are tryin' to give ''em?
Darling-hammond: Well, you know, my heart goes out to them. And we do have childcare open in a number of places for, you know, the parents who have to go to work. We are, you know, trying to create these other alternative settings so that kids can, you know, go somewhere so that they're not home alone.
My heart goes out to every family that's in that situation. And I know that there are many, many, many efforts to try to be sure that those kids have a place to go. You know, children are learners. Human beings are learners. We have to hope that that learning process, even if it's a little bit different right now, even if it's not the traditional curriculum the way we would normally learn it, that people will continue to learn.
I think we have to give each other permission to experience this moment in history in a way that does reduce the anxieties about, "Will my kid, you know, catch up or keep up?" They will catch back up. And the more we get this under control, the faster we'll get them back.
Lee: For my last question I would love for you to pull out your crystal ball and just imagine the future. And when you think ten years from now after going through what we're going through right now and all the advancement and being nimble and reimagining this education system that we have in America, where do you think we'll be?
Darling-hammond: Well, if we do this the right, there's always two futures ahead. You know, one future is that we don't step up in this moment. That we let the inequalities that are there exacerbate. That, you know, a small number of the 1% and 2% people get through this with very little challenge and, you know, accrue more of the wealth.
And that those who've really struggling are further behind. But the other future is one where we do step up. Where we equalize funding to schools all across the country. Where we give more money where the kids' needs are the greatest. Where we give them the wraparound supports for health and mental health and social, emotional supports that they need as well as the computers and the technology and the teaching that they need.
Where more and more people are ready to engage in a 21st century economy that is technologically based. And where we've really freed up education to support the curiosity, the invention, the inquiry that human beings are, you know, designed to engage in so that we have a group of problem-solvers and critical thinkers who are coming out of our schools who can solve the big problems in the world that we have not managed to solve.
And so, you know, we are gonna have to depend on this generation to get to a place where we have enough natural resources in the world, where we solve the climate change problem, where we address these issues that need to be addressed. Educating kids in the right way right now could help us get there.
Lee: Which one do you think is more likely? The latter sounds amazing. I want to live in that world. But if history is any guide, we know the pendulum swings in odd ways sometimes.
Darling-hammond: Well, you know, every 30 years we have a progressive era. From 1870's reconstruction to the turn of the century, 1930's the New Deal, 1960's was civil rights marches. We got progressive policy, War on Poverty, the Great Society. We made great strides in each of these eras, 1990's.
2020 is such a year. We are due for a progressive era. So I'm optimistic that we'll take advantage of this social upheaval which always proceeds any major change in society to provide greater opportunity and take it to that greater opportunity.
Lee: Dr. Darling-Hammond, thank you so much for your time. This was educational. We learned somethin' today. (LAUGH) Thank you very much.
Darling-hammond: Thank you very much. Great to see you.
Lee: Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond is the president of California's State Board of Education. And that wraps up our week-long series, Coronavirus in the Classroom. If you missed any of the episodes, just check the Into America feed. And you can go back and catch up.
Thanks to all the parents and teachers in the San Diego Unified School District who talked with us for the series. We're wishing all the families and teachers luck this fall. And we keep hearing from you. Tell us what you thought about the coverage. You can send us story ideas or your feedback on the show.
Just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. that's intoamerica, all one word, @nbcuni.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.