As schools grapple with responding to the new coronavirus and the federal government’s recommendation to plan for extended closures, one thing is becoming clear: remote learning remains a remote possibility.
An escalating number of COVID-19 cases are being confirmed in the U.S., and at least nine deaths have been reported as of Tuesday afternoon, making extended school closures in some communities more likely.
Most school districts do not have plans for continuing instruction during an extended closure, but several are considering it after the Centers for Disease Control last week urged districts to prepare. This has opened up an opportunity for tech companies trying to market products enabling distance learning, though experts caution districts not to rush into making big investments.
Several challenges stand in the way besides the cost of new software or infrastructure. In many communities, large numbers of students don’t have internet access at home. Other students, such as those with special needs, may need the services they would get in person at a school. All of this means that a switch to remote learning could worsen longstanding equity problems.
In areas where the virus has appeared, some school districts have already cancelled class for a couple of days to clean buildings, or to let teachers spend time learning how to conduct online lessons. That includes the Northshore district in Washington state, which has the most confirmed coronavirus infections in the country. And an Oregon district that employs that state’s first COVID-19 patient closed the school that person worked at, while keeping kids in class in other schools.
Children do not appear to be at high risk of getting seriously ill themselves, but may be able to spread the virus to others, including school staff.