After a chaotic school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, teacher unions who pressed the governor to keep schools closed are now concerned virtual learning could become more common during non-emergency situations.
A bill forwarded by the legislature’s Education Committee to the Appropriations Committee would establish uniform standards and training for virtual learning, but the Connecticut Education Association believes the bill “implies virtual learning settings will not be limited to emergencies like a pandemic.”
CEA President Jeff Leake urged Connecticut to continue remote learning and keep in-person schools closed for the fall semester and after the holiday break in January.
Public testimony submitted by teachers and posted on CEA’s website labeled remote learning as a “life-line” during the pandemic but a “vastly systematically inferior” and “a poor substitute” for in-person learning.
“I honestly can’t believe that the legislature is considering making it a permanent option,” wrote Joel Barlow High School teacher Andrea Rowland. “If Connecticut is committed to excellence in education, then the legislature needs to encourage all students to return to the classroom once the pandemic is no longer a threat.”
Part of the concern among teachers and the teachers’ union is that teachers may be required to simultaneously teach virtually and in-person, and that teachers would be required to undergo professional development training in virtual learning.
“We need to stop adding to the list of mandated professional development,” the CEA wrote on their website regarding SB 977. “Training in virtual learning should be led by teachers trained as distance learning coaches and specific to the circumstances that have resulted in emergency virtual teaching. But PD, no matter how good, can’t make virtual learning an adequate substitute for in-person learning.”
But, for some, virtual learning presents a permanent life-line and an opportunity that is currently available in other states like Massachusetts and Florida but not yet in Connecticut.
During an April 9 Facebook Live discussion on virtual learning hosted by Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, a mother and daughter with a rare genetic condition that made them highly susceptible to COVID-19 said that as schools returned to in-classroom learning, they looked for alternatives due to their high-risk factors.
“We realized that Massachusetts has an online public school and we thought that would be a wonderful option for families like us to have in Connecticut,” said Jenny, the mother, who was able to enroll two of her daughters in the Connections Academy by Pearson.
The Connections Academy is an online education program and has been in operation for 20 years and is currently in 29 states where online learning is allowed, including Massachusetts. Connections currently serves 105,000 students, according to Tom Kennelly, a Connecticut resident and executive director of strategic partnerships for Pearson Online and Blended Learning.
“One of the things we really like about the online public school in Massachusetts, is it doesn’t matter what part of the state you live in, everyone has the same equal opportunity for an education that’s online with teachers who are online, friends who are online, clubs and all sorts of activities,” said Jenny’s daughter, Sammy.
Kennelly said parents may want to enroll their children in online learning for a variety of reasons including medical reasons, in-school bullying, special needs, struggling or gifted students or even as a resource for home schooling families.
Teachers for Connections Academy are state-certified and have a desire to teach online, Kennelly said. The Academy boasts high parent satisfaction results over 90 percent for quality and learning outcomes.
Dr. Donna Hutchinson, vice president of Pearson Online and Blended Learning, says the program can be funded in a variety of ways and that different states do it differently. One option is allowing open enrollment in which education money would follow the child for online learning, a second option is establishing an online statewide charter school.
“In Massachusetts, the state Department of Ed. created the school, created the opportunity through two pilot programs and they’re then able to structure it so that the money is there for those students,” Hutchinson said. “I think they set a state rate for that.”
There are face-to-face opportunities for online students involving field trips and required standardized testing, Hutchinson said.
Anwar’s discussion included the co-chairs of the Education Committee, Sen. Douglas McCrory, D-Hartford, and Rep. Robert Sanchez, D-New Britain.
McCrory said the state should “definitely” study the possibility of an online public school option in Connecticut.
Nationally, teachers’ unions during the pandemic pushed heavily for schools to remain closed and for students to continue learning online.
However, after pushing for virtual learning throughout 2020 and into 2021, the prospect of a virtual learning alternative to traditional public schools that would allow more school choice for students, could leave the unions – who have traditionally been opposed to school choice – flip-flopping on the idea.
The Oregon Education Association moved to block additional students from transferring to virtual charter schools during the pandemic, and the National Education Association – Alaska opposed Alaska implementing a state virtual school.
Distance learning during the pandemic was hastily and quickly put together in states like Connecticut in response to the pandemic and the results have, by and large, not been great for student attendance or overall education satisfaction.
Low attendance, particularly in troubled education districts, led to increased pressure to keep schools open or to push for them to open if they hadn’t already.
But after Connecticut was unwillingly forced to dive into the waters of online learning in 2020, the possibilities moving forward in a studied and measured way are now presenting themselves.
The bill to develop uniform virtual learning standards in Connecticut received support from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and even the American Federation of Teachers.
AFT Divisional Vice President Mary Yordon wrote in testimony that the virtual learning bill “will set the stage for the next fifty years of education in Connecticut,” but warned that it should be done by “dedicated teachers of virtual learning” rather than by teachers trying to balance both in-person and virtual learning simultaneously.
“I was a bit surprised that Connecticut doesn’t already offer a full-time public option for parents,” Kennally said. “I don’t mean that as a slight, but as a proud citizen who highly respects the commitment the state has for educating our children and families.”
“We love it, and the girls are thriving and we’re really hopeful that all the families in this state can get what we’ve been privileged to get,” Jenny said of her daughters’ online school. “It’s a new world.”