A response guide for school administrators published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises schools that dismiss students to avoid the spread of COVID-19 to “implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options as feasible and appropriate,” and to “consider ways to distribute food to students” that won’t facilitate too much interpersonal contact—like meal delivery and grab-and-go lunches for pickup. That said, not every school can realistically provide remote learning or meal service during a closure.
Becky Droter, the district school nurse for Colville, explained that while Colville schools were closed this week, the duty to continue providing meal service took a back seat to the urgency of stopping the spread of germs. “If we’re going to work on social distancing, we can’t really do meal service, as much as we’d like to,” Droter said. “We understand that breakfast and lunch are essential for many of our families. We have a high percentage of poverty-level families in our district. It just doesn’t work for social distancing.”
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Schools’ ability to successfully implement online instruction varies widely, and e-learning would present a monumental challenge for Colville. As a school district in a rural part of the state, Lewis said, “broadband is a huge issue for us.” Students who live high on hills or deep in the valleys of northeast Washington can’t always rely on good Wi-Fi signals, and about 30 percent of the student population has no internet at home. “Some of our teachers don’t have internet, so they would [also] struggle to get that information to their kids,” he said. Other families in the district can’t afford the exorbitant price of the data usage it would require to receive assignments and send in homework every day. “It’s just one of those things where we’ve been thinking about, How can we do this if we have to?” Lewis said on Wednesday, before school opened up again. “I don’t have a great solution yet.”
The sudden, forced transition to online-based learning in Hong Kong has proved to be a struggle for both teachers and students, Ip Kin-Yuen, a lawmaker who represents Hong Kong’s education sector, said. The city had previous experience with lengthy school closures: In 2003 the territory was badly hit by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), nearly 300 people died, and classes were suspended for around six weeks. Seventeen years later, new technology and increased internet connectivity have made things easier, but there still have been many difficulties.
Distance teaching greatly limits a teacher’s toolbox. Lesson plans drawn up for the classroom, which may include partner work or hands-on projects, do not necessarily translate well to online teaching. Ip said younger students are generally more engaged, but with older students remote lessons risk becoming “one-way indoctrination,” with teachers lecturing while the students get distracted. One parent, a university professor, said she worried about her young son spending so much time in front of a computer screen. “He no longer knows what outside looks like,” she said.