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NM students’ learning is on the line

The traditional school year is over. Canceling the remainder was a formality – under consideration in almost every state for weeks. Kansas and Virginia had already done it, and the remaining states will follow suit. It was not much of a choice; it is a vital measure to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As school buildings close, however, student learning in New Mexico must reboot. The distance learning revolution must begin.

It has gained momentum elsewhere over the past decade, but had several false starts here, from a mostly defunct statewide platform mandated by 2007 state law to a flailing virtual statewide public charter school.

This global pandemic has changed everything though, and necessity is the mother of re-invention. The stakes are high for students – particularly those from low-income backgrounds who already experience a “summer slide” loss of learning every year. Not only must school systems meet basic needs, prioritizing health and well-being, they must also propel a tectonic shift in how our students learn so that the summer slide is not elongated or cemented.

Hopefully Albuquerque Public Schools is not amongst the laggards – it serves one in four children statewide. Last week, the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) in Seattle published a database www.crpe.org/content/covid-19-school-closures of how America’s largest districts are responding to COVID-19. APS is prominently featured, but only due to its position at the top of the alphabet. The district’s initial posture from its website is troubling: “Due to issues of equity and access, APS cannot provide digital learning opportunities in place of in-classroom instruction. The New Mexico Public Education Department has made it clear that instruction shouldn’t be provided for just some students.”

But many school systems have already forged ahead with new approaches in the very name of equity and access. They recognized that families from higher socio-economic status will take advantage of “optional resources” being provided by districts, or available on the open-market, at greater rates. Inequity, exacerbated. They recognized that private schools will double-down on distance learning to ensure students have greater access to colleges and careers. Furthermore, they recognized that providing structure could have positive benefits on our children’s physical and emotional safety, also critical issues of equity and access.

An accompanying article by CRPE aptly titled “No Time To Lose” details how “three much-admired school networks in Indianapolis didn’t skip a beat in going virtual.” D.C. Public Schools began remote learning last week – teachers are expected to hold remote office hours for at least four hours a day. Other systems, like the Permian’s Ector County, are seizing an hour a day of public television airwaves. KIPP and Success Academies, large school systems within New York City serving mostly low-income students, are doing whatever it takes to go virtual. Charlotte-Mecklenburg is providing students in grades four through 12 with Chromebooks; they quickly raised $1 million to provide hotspots and connectivity, tackling equity and access head-on. And Rocketship Public Schools, serving low-income students in California’s Bay Area and elsewhere, released an inspiring video summary, vimeo.com/399306482, of what has already occurred during their first week of distance learning.

APS has put together a website chalk-full of resources. Let’s trust it is updating it daily by scanning national education publications – from EdWeek to The74Million – and calling colleagues at respected resource hubs such as CRPE, Digital Promise and The Education Trust. But simple dissemination of a laundry list of links is no substitute for what great schools and teachers facilitate. School systems must exercise emergency clauses to adapt so that educators can assume new roles and responsibilities throughout the crisis. Publishing a hodgepodge or distributing worksheets, as Monday’s ABQJournal article described, is a humble beginning.

Who will now lead the distance learning revolution in New Mexico? Who is already? Stories of educational hope must also be told during this trying time. Our students, ready to learn in new ways and look beyond the horizon, are awaiting this revolution.

Christopher N. Ruszkowski worked on President Barack Obama’s signature education initiative under Gov. Jack Markell (D) in Delaware. He lives in Santa Fe.

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