Editor’s note: This is a developing story; watch for updates.
Like many states, Florida has quickly ramped up its online education offerings to temporarily replace brick-and-mortar schools that were closed in response to the COVID-19 virus.
But those efforts are about to receive an injection of rocket fuel that will take virtual learning to new heights.
Florida Virtual School (FLVS), the state’s online K-12 school, is seeking $4.3 million in technology upgrades that will boost its capacity from its current 170,000 students in district, charter and private schools to 470,000 students by April 17 – eventually expanding to 2.7 million students by May 4.
Founded in 1997, FLVS is a publicly funded non-profit that operates as its own $240 million school district. It served 215,505 students in 2018-19, which included 5,540 who were enrolled full time and 209,965 who were external learners. All Florida public high school students are required to take at least one virtual class, and many choose FLVS as the provider. Its students perform as well as, or even better than, other students in Florida in most Advanced Placement course exams.
That existing infrastructure, years of experience and track record of success have given Florida a leg up on other states that are scrambling to launch online education programs to fill the gap left by schools closed for public health reasons.
The latest FLVS represents a highly ambitious expansion of its course offerings and capacity to meet expected demand as school districts around the state establish their own online-learning programs.
FLVS will provide up to 100 digital courses on various digital platforms for free to all Florida schools through June 30. They will include Mathematics, English Language Arts, History, Science, electives, Advanced Placement and Career & Technical Education courses.
According to Tania Clow, spokesperson for FLVS, 2.7 million students are the estimated maximum capacity for the servers after they are upgraded. That is close to the total number of K-12 students enrolled in Florida district schools, but students in charter and private schools are also eligible to participate.
The Florida Board of Education is expected to approve the proposal at its meeting Wednesday.
This post has been updated from the original.
Sufficiency of relief aid is questioned, teacher raises and budget, urgent plea for laptops and more
Editor’s note: This commentary by Laura Waters, a mom, education blogger and former school board president in New Jersey, first appeared March 25 on EducationPost. The daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. Her observations on school inequities in her state are arguably observable nationwide.
I live right off Route 206, a mostly two-lane road that begins in the Pinelands of southern New Jersey, winds 130 miles north to Stokes State Forest, and ends in Dingman Township, Pa. One 12-mile stretch of 206 connects Princeton, Lawrence Township (where I live), and Trenton, the state capitol.
As COVID-19 affects, well, everything — here, we’re currently in something close to a lockdown, with a 158 percent jump in confirmed cases during the last three days — New Jersey’s educational inequities come into sharp relief.
Think of this stretch of Route 206 as an emblem of America.
Princeton Regional Public Schools, a district where only 8 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 80 percent of 10th graders meet or exceed benchmarks in reading, created a “Pandemic Response Team” that has issued a 10-page booklet explaining how students will continue to learn at home. Every student has a laptop or iPad, as well as internet access; if necessary, the district will fill in any gaps. Special education students have daily to-do lists and “teachers will send individualized guidance and support to parents through email.”
The district website lists separate letters from each of its principals detailing daily expectations. At Princeton High School, for example, “teachers will post content … and [students] will have a minimum of one hour of coursework for each class each day.” At elementary schools, students will have four hours of coursework per day and “one or more of our teachers [will] check-in with each pupil and his or her family multiple times per week via telephone calls, e-mails, Class Dojo or some other means.”
Now let’s travel 12 miles south to Trenton where 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 22 percent of 10th-graders meet or exceed benchmarks in reading. The district has a booklet labeled “Health-Related School Closures” that says, “a series of learning experiences has been created for students by grade levels.” There is a one-page letter from the superintendent that says “the current school closure is not a vacation” and “students are expected to log on to Google daily for at least four hours daily and complete assignments in Google classroom” using a one-page reference of free online education programs. If a family doesn’t have a computer or online access (for comparison, in demographically-similar Camden only 30 percent do), parents can “pick up a paper packet from their school.”
Or not. Just up the district website:
The district has exhausted all of the printed packets; the district is closed and our vendors have limited resources in printing out additional packets. Therefore, no additional copies are available until further notice.
If you are a Princeton High School student, you get six hours of online instruction a day and regular check-ins with teachers.
If you are a Trenton Central High School student who happens to have a laptop and access to the internet, you get up to four hours of online instruction with no assured teacher contact. If you don’t have a laptop and internet access you get nothing.
This disparity in opportunity and access was true before the pandemic, but now we see the gaps more clearly. Oh, the data was always there: according to state Doe, 72 percent of third-graders at this Princeton elementary school read at or above grade level; at this Trenton Elementary school, 11 percent do. Ninety percent of Princeton High graduates enroll in postsecondary programs but 51 percent of Trenton Central High graduates do. (It’s 12 percent at Trenton’s alternative high school where 445 students are enrolled.)
These starkly disparate numbers haven’t swayed New Jersey to do anything in the last half-century but throw more money at the problem with no impact on student outcomes. While we seem susceptible to bromides like those from the state teacher union that proclaim, “NJ schools rank first in the country,” parents stuck at home now have an unfiltered view of our deficiencies.
Of course, these opportunity gaps aren’t limited to a two-lane road in New Jersey. Camden superintendent Katrina McCombs says the school shutdown “has just exacerbated the inequalities.”
Colin Seale writes,
The coronavirus pandemic is revealing new layers of inequity that may end up setting us back even further. Education leaders are tackling the unexpected challenge of providing distance learning as the primary mode of instruction for weeks, months, and possibly the remainder of the school year. How can school systems that struggle to deliver equitable results in a standard brick and mortar setting overcome the added challenges inherent in distance learning?
Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, told NPR:
The inequities that we often talk about have a spotlight during this crisis. So if you’re wealthy or of a better socioeconomic means, you can get an access to tests, still get access to the support you need for your students. But that’s not true in communities where there’s high poverty and high need.
We’re all trying to stay healthy and keep our loved ones safe. It’s hard to think beyond this day or this week. But I think we must. Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute says “plagues drive change.” Rahm Emanuel says, “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”
We have to do things we thought we could not do before. We have to drive change. Otherwise, your location on a 12-mile stretch of road represents whether or not your third-grader can read or your high school graduate will go to college or get a job. It may have taken a pandemic to enable us to see this clearly, but here we are. Do we have what it takes to address systemic inadequacies, to innovate and buck a broken system? I hope so, but I don’t know the answer.
About a decade ago, Fernando Zulueta was making a presentation to school district officials in Florida about why his charter school support company, Academica, needed to expand into online learning. For one thing, he told them, charter schools serviced by Academica must better serve students who need flexibility because of their talents (say, an elite gymnast) or their challenges (say, homebound because of illness). For another, he said, you never know when a natural disaster – maybe even a pandemic – might necessitate a transition into virtual instruction.
Fast forward to coronavirus 2020.
Academica, now one of the biggest charter support organizations in America, was among the first education outfits in America to shift online as thousands of brick-and-mortar schools were shuttered. The company began planning for potential closures weeks in advance. And when the closure orders were given in Florida, it trained thousands of teachers, distributed thousands of laptops, and acclimated tens of thousands of students to a new normal – in a matter of days.
“I’m not a doomsday prepper,” Zulueta said. “But when you do the work we do, you have the responsibility to be prepared … and to evaluate risks and contingencies in the future.”
On March 13, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all public schools in Florida to extend spring break a week so students would not return to school. At the time, the vast majority of Florida districts were about to start their spring break, while a handful of others were ending theirs.
Most of the Academica-supported charter schools in Florida were still a week from break. But by March 16, about 40,000 of their 65,000 students logged into class from home. By week’s end, most of the rest had, too. Within days, Academica’s Florida schools were reporting, based on student logins, nearly normal attendance rates.
“I had a little bit of mixed reaction” when the call came to transition, said Miriam Barrios, a third-grade teacher at Mater Academy of International Studies, an Academica-supported school in Miami. Ninety-nine percent of Mater’s students are students of color; 97 percent are low-income. “A lot of these families don’t have computers. So, it was a little scary.”
“But overall things have gone so well, much better than I expected,” Barrios said.
“It ended up feeling a lot like being in school,” said Claudia Fernandez-Castillo, a parent in Miami whose daughters, ages 11 and 12, attend another Academica-supported school, Pinecrest Cove Academy. “They made the kids feel very comfortable with this massive change in their little lives.”
Academica services 165 charter schools in eight states, including 133 in Florida. Somerset, Mater, Doral and Pinecrest are its main networks. According to the most rigorous and respected research on charter school outcomes, students in all four networks are making modest to large gains over like students in district schools.
It remains to be seen how well schools in any sector respond to what is an unprecedented crisis, and what the impacts will be on academic performance.
School districts are mobilizing quickly. In Florida, most of them still have a few days to prep before the bulk of students return to “school” March 30. To date, there’s been little coverage of how Florida’s 600-plus charter schools are coping (though there’s been a glimpse here and there for charters elsewhere.) Ditto for Florida’s 2,700 private schools. Some are proving nimble and capable. But given the big resource disparities, it’s an open question whether others with large numbers of low-income students have the technology and support they need to turn on a dime.
For Academica, online learning is familiar territory. The organization supports three virtual charters in Florida. It offers online courses for students in its other Florida schools. For a decade, it’s also had an international arm, Academica Virtual Education, that serves thousands of students in Europe who need dual enrollment classes to earn specialized diplomas.
Given the events in China, Zulueta said his team began considering, in January, the possibility of school closures in America. The urgency ramped up in February, when the spread of coronavirus in Italy began affecting Academica students in that country.
In mid-February, Academica-serviced schools in the U.S. sent questionnaires to parents, asking if they needed devices and/or connections for distance learning. They ordered what they needed to fill the gaps. When Gov. DeSantis made what was effectively a closure announcement March 13, Zulueta said, “we were already ready to rock and roll.”
The day after the announcement, Academica used online sessions to do basic training in online instruction for 150 administrators. Over that weekend, it trained 3,000 teachers. Meanwhile, schools distributed several thousand laptops to families, in some cases through drive-through pick-ups. Zulueta said the need ranged from 4 percent at some Academica client schools to 20 percent at others.
Schools also immediately let parents know what was coming Monday.
Zulueta, who has three daughters in Academica-serviced schools, witnessed the new normal at his kitchen table.
“They got up. They logged in. And they went right to class,” he said. His daughters and their classmates wore their usual uniforms. The schools did their best to stick to established bell schedules. “We wanted to keep it as close to what they did at school as possible.”
Academica uses an online learning platform it created itself. It’s integrated with a number of other tools, including Zoom, the video conferencing software with the “Hollywood Squares” look.
Fernandez-Castillo, the mom at Pinecrest Cove Academy, said she watched over the weekend as friends who are Academica teachers practiced the new online platform with each other. Barrios, the Mater teacher, said she contacted her students’ parents after her training on Friday to tell them she would be testing the platform at 8 that night if they and their children wanted to join. Eight to 10 families did. But she still had some anxiety about Monday morning.
“I thought it was going to be a freak show,” Barrios said. “The computers are going to crash, the kids are not going to log in … “
That’s not what happened. Monday morning was “a little jagged,” she said, because some students experienced technical difficulties and couldn’t log in right on schedule at 8:30. But by 8:50, 90 percent of her students were in. “It was amazing,” she said.
Barrios and other teachers used Monday to get their students familiar with the new set up. Any glitches, like problems with Internet access, were minor, she said. Over the next few days, she and her students quickly cleared little hurdles, like students learning to keep their mics on mute until it was their time to speak, and how to use chat functions to indicate they had a question.
Barrios doesn’t think there’s a long-term substitute for the dynamics of an in-person classroom, where students, in her view, can more easily “bounce ideas off one another.” But as a next best thing, she said what her school is doing is far better than nothing, and not bad at all.
Fernandez-Castillo agreed, and pointed to other upsides. “Everybody’s thrilled with the way this has been done,” she said, referring to other parents. “I think it glued the (school) community together even more.”
Coronavirus is interrupting life in general and education specifically. As parents in the U.S. adjust to school closures and the potential for their K-12 child’s coursework to continue online, families should come to realize that they will be exposed to more of what their children are learning.
For some, this will be new.
Wall Street Journal editor Serena Ng wrote recently from Hong Kong, where schools have been closed since Feb. 3, that she now can “see every detail of every lesson.” Ng says, “I previously had only a vague idea about what they were learning in school.”
All parents should be able to know what their children are learning, and for those paying attention in the coming weeks, the virus offers a chance for them to do just that. Working parents who juggle jobs and their children’s school activities while managing a home haven’t been neglectful if they don’t know what happened in fourth-period math on a given day (try asking a teenager what happened in class). Some simply have relied on schools to decide on instruction.
For others, this focus on content has been there all along.
March 2-4, the Institute for Classical Education and the Great Hearts Foundation held the National Classical Education Symposium, an event featuring sessions on teaching the Great Books, from “The Confessions of St. Augustine” to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Great Hearts’ charter schools, which started in Arizona and have expanded to Texas, base their curriculum on these works. (You can find a complete list of the books students will be studying here.)
School districts are not always so transparent. As Matt Beienburg at the Goldwater Institute explained earlier this year, even if state law allows parents to review their child’s curriculum, they can do so only on school premises; in some cases and in some districts, there are limits set on when parents can see the material. Again, parents are not lazy if they don’t always know what is in their child’s syllabus.
When parents know what is being taught, they can effectively advocate for meaningful change. The reading wars over phonics versus whole language instruction are still with us today, while the Common Core debates over a national curriculum have simmered in time for everyone to scrutinize the New York Times’ 1619 Project.
The Project, a set of essays accompanied by K-12 curricular materials, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Slavery and the racism that followed are a blight on our nation’s past, but the Times has taken the idea too far according to many scholars. Pulitzer Prize-winning historians, leading intellectuals and even the Times’ own fact-checkers have criticized the essays, citing inaccuracies.
For thousands of parents, the initiative is not just a problem for someone else’s school. The Times and the Pulitzer Center have successfully advocated for integrating the material into some of the nation’s largest and most-high profile school systems, including Chicago, Newark, Buffalo and Washington, D.C. In Florida, Florida A&M University highlighted the Project in September 2019 and has hosted events on the topic with Florida State University.
Critically, the Times on March 11 issued a correction to a central premise of the essays, saying that not all colonial revolutionaries fought the British to protect the institution of slavery. If the Times heeds other warnings from experts, this modest correction should not be the last. Meanwhile, the Times already has disseminated the original curricular materials to schools.
Developments like these are among the many reasons why the next few weeks of school closures and online instruction are an important opportunity for parents to catch up on what is happening at their child’s school. When parents send children back to brick-and-mortar schools, they should do so ready to raise questions, prepared with more information.
Parents practicing “social distancing” in the coming weeks should use this period to get closer to their child’s school assignments.