Too many policymakers merely throw around the concept of virtual education, without acknowledging the real challenges faced by districts to enact such a transition. The pace in which our schools and districts moved during this COVID-19 crisis was unprecedented in American education history. We have not even begun to understand what has worked and what has failed, and still, we are being told to keep pushing in that direction. The question to ask is: Are we building on solid ground or are we tilting at windmills?

The promise of virtual education is not clearly understood. It will likely never be a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Virtual education probably works best when utilized in conjunction with traditional schools, not in place of such schools. This is of course assuming that the lack of broadband access in Tennessee communities would not be a serious factor. The digital divide must be addressed and should be a serious concern to policymakers. It is not just a problem in education. The digital divide hurts small businesses, limits the opportunity for our citizens, makes it harder for those in agriculture to take advantage of technology, and also prevents access to advancements in telemedicine.

A March 2020 survey by the National 4-H Council and Microsoft found that: “Twenty-one million people living in the United States, including 17 million living in rural communities, do not have access to broadband Internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. This makes a challenge for everyday tasks such as looking for jobs, applying to college, and connecting with peers. The survey examines what this lack of high-speed Internet means for young people, and the results indicate these challenges create barriers to opportunity and can have a long-lasting impact on a young person’s self-confidence, belief in their career prospects and the likelihood of attaining financial success — all traditional aspects of the American dream.”

Karen Cator, who led the Office of Education Technology at the United States Department of Education for President Barack Obama, stated that the department does not collect data on community connectivity. If schools and districts proceed with virtual education this could develop into more complications.

Troy Kilzer, Superintendent of Schools in Chester County Schools, stated, “[Betsy DeVos’] assumption is that everybody sits with the same opportunities with the internet, with all the resources supporting technology, and thinks everyone is well supported with access,” then he added, “And that is just so narrow-minded to think that everybody is in that same shape.” Kilzer is correct, and even if we were all equal with the same technology and access, problems would persist. Solutions such as hotspots, higher speeds, and discounted rates still do not put an end to the bigger problem of supporting remote learning for all students.

Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard Reilly coined the term Virtual Distance to describe the “psychological distance created between people by an over-reliance on electronic communications. They point out such items as loss of project success, innovation, satisfaction, trust, goal clarity, and leader effectiveness. We are creating psychological gulfs when we lose human interaction.

Lojeski and Reilly suggest the greater the Virtual Distance the more problems — miscommunication, lack of clearly defined roles, even personal and cultural conflicts can develop. While they were studying the business application, it is clear that the research is limited in an education setting and will need further analysis before policies are firmly established and become entrenched in education policy. The three major issues for states to address in virtual education are academic performance, lack of equity and access, and privacy concerns.

The Tennessee Department of Education has finally issued a framework for the potential paths a district might select for reopening schools. The guide was created by a few superintendents of schools and lacked input from parents, teachers, and educators, as well as school boards. While the document recognized the need that stakeholders should be meaningfully involved in conversations about schools, the lack of inclusion in preparing the document is surprising. However, it is a start and we encourage districts to review the guide with building-level educators, parents, and school boards and develop a plan that meets the needs of all students in your community and district.

The Digital Age of Virtual Education can complement schools, but will never be a replacement for traditional brick-and-mortar schools. There is just no way to completely replace in-person teaching, social interaction, and emotional care and support — for most students. Districts will need time to address effective online teaching models, particularly concerning evaluating and supporting teachers and promoting best practices. If another pandemic arises, or should COVID-19 continue to impact our public education system, we have much work left to address before virtual education is seen as a viable solution to educate vast numbers of children across the state. Too many challenges remain.

J.C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.

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