Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Virtual Education is NOT Remote Emergency Education

One evening in high school, I sat in my room at the old kitchen table that I used as my desk, and I held a knife against the veins in my wrists.  I had read somewhere that cutting them across the veins, or maybe along the veins, would prevent the doctors from being able to sew the veins up again, making the cuts all the more permanent.


Over the past few weeks, as the education community here in Massachusetts has waited for a plan for the return to school in late August 2020, I find myself growing more and more frustrated by some of the messaging that underlies the publications and expert reports we see.  A report by NPR, forwarded by a district administrator, says that “remote learning is likely to result in severe learning loss and increased social isolation.”  The teacher unions at the State and National level call for a return to in-person education as well, citing the same reasons of student emotional well-being.  The Massachusetts Commissioner of Education quotes the Governor of Massachusetts in a memo from the Department of Education, saying that “This plan will allow schools to responsibly do what is best for students — bring them back to school to learn” (emphasis added).

I would like to challenge us all to take a more nuanced look at the situation.

First, and above all else, I think clarification is necessary.  What students all over the world, not just Massachusetts, experienced this school year was not virtual education.  It was emergency remote learning.  Emergency.  In emergencies, we are building airplanes while we fly, slapping on bandaids in lieu of following schematics and well-designed plans.  I see a clear differentiation between our emergency remote learning experiences and the work done by our colleagues in virtual schools, such as GCVS here in Massachusetts.  Virtual education is education….delivered remotely.  It is planned and plan-ful, thought-out and meaningful, organized and evaluated.

classroom-2093743_1920.jpgI believe that, just as Universal Design for Learning challenges us in our teacher practice to know that one-size-does-NOT-fit-all in the classroom, so, too, does brick-and-mortar education not fit all in the bigger picuture.  Nor does virtual education, for that matter, but there seems to be a bit of a conflation of the emergency remote experiences we had this year and the structured experiences available in virtual education.  They are not the same thing.

My peers in my brick-and-mortar education were the reason I held a knife to my wrists.  Starting in 7th grade in particular, I was chosen, by the complex calculus of middle school peer dynamics, to be the one inhabiting the bottom of the social scale.  My clothes, my hair, my weight, my interest in academics, my love of reading…it was all fodder for what we would today label bullying.

I hear a lot these days about how every student needs “an adult connection at school,” stated as though that is the panacea to the realities of middle school peer hell.  I had great relationships with the adults in my middle school and high school.  I returned to visit after graduation, spent my 7th period study hall with my Calculus teacher almost every day, worked in the main office all through middle school…adult relationships were not enough; they did not fill the emptiness of being targeted and isolated.  The teachers were not there if I used the wrong bathroom (the one the kids used for smoking).  The teachers were not there on the bus when all seats were oddly taken when I got on too late.  The teachers were not there every second of every day.  It’s not enough.

What did help me through was having a life outside of school–I did theater, was active in my church, wrote and published, danced, taught aerobics, and did tons of arts and crafts at home.  I built a life that existed DESPITE school, a life that waited for me before and after the daily hours I spent in brick-and-mortar.  I would have loved learning in a virtual setting, and I would have been good at it.  (Of course, my high school years predate the wide-spread availability of high-speed internet in my small New Hampshire community, so it would never have been a possibility at the time I was actually in high school.)

When I think about the difference between virtual education and remote emergency education, one glaring difference is that, pre-COVID, a student in virtual education could participate in a rich life outside of school, a full menu of dance classes or college courses or whatever additional learning and life experiences were needed to augment the day.  Under COVID, we are all living more restricted lives, so opportunities for socialization, with a peer group of choice, are limited.  My school and my parents supported me in finding opportunities beyond the regular classroom, but I still had to go into that peer setting in my brick-and-mortar school, day after day after day.

Virtual education is NOT a second-class education, a “fall-back” education.  Done well, it’s an opportunity to provide education and learning while bypassing some aspect of the traditional brick-and-mortar experience that doesn’t work for a given student, whether it’s a health concern or a peer situation or something else.  Just as we ask ourselves to value choice in our practice, I challenge us to be more precise in our language, more flexible in our thinking about what makes a healthy and supportive school experience for our students.  I know, from personal experience, it’s not always found within the red brick walls of the typical classroom.


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