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Key Takeaways

  • K-12 schools and universities are moving to online instruction to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Seattle Public Schools announced today that it would close schools starting tomorrow for two weeks — but is not as yet shifting classes online.
  • Higher-ed is better positioned for the move as many colleges and universities have over the years been offering instruction online to complement existing courses or as distance learning.
  • Equity is one of the big considerations for online education, as some students don’t have access to computers or tablets, internet access, or a safe, supportive learning environment outside of school.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, K-12 schools are pushing for better hygiene, as seen on a Seattle school reader board. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

Updated at 12:45 p.m. with details of Seattle Public Schools closure.

As Americans struggle to control the spread of the coronavirus, Washington state, home to the first known U.S. infection and death due to COVID-19, has been in the forefront of taking the unprecedented step of closing schools and universities and moving to online instruction.

For the colleges and universities, which were already teaching some courses either partially or entirely online, basic technology infrastructure was in place when instructors were told to go digital.

But shifting K-12 education into the online realm is particularly difficult given kids’ unequal access to tech devices and internet connections, as well as the challenge of reimagining instruction and assignments in a remote setting, particularly for the youngest students.

Seattle Public Schools announced today that it would close schools for at least two weeks. The district has said it would not offer online learning, explaining that moving to digital instruction would exclude students lacking tech tools. The Northshore School District, located north of Seattle, was the first local district to shift all of its instruction online.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Globally, 16 countries have closed their schools nationwide, while an additional 16 including the U.S. have enforced localized closures, according to UNESCO. The United Nations organization recommends that educators implement digital learning to help prevent kids from falling behind academically, and the group has a list of education resources.

The University of Washington was the first large, public university in the U.S. to announce last week that it was moving to online-only instruction through at least the end of winter quarter, which concludes March 20. Washington State University’s five campuses will shift to distance learning beginning on March 23, after spring break ends.

Multiple public community and technical colleges are following suit. The higher-ed institutions had some experience with digital platforms as they’ve been working for years to expand their reach and make instruction more convenient through recorded or live online lectures and remote learning.

Panopto CEO Eric Burns. (Panopto Photo)

“These are trends that have been in place for a long time,” said Eric Burns, CEO of Seattle-based Panopto, a company supporting digital lectures and meetings. “We’ve been in this space for over 13 years. It’s been a long slow build up. This is a trigger that causes organizations to hit the gas.”

The UW, which serves 46,000 students across three Puget Sound-area campuses, provides instructors with three main tools for online instruction:

  • Every course is assigned a site with Canvas, an education platform, and all of the students are enrolled automatically. The tool can be used for mass communications, asking questions, collecting assignments and posting group projects.
  • A week ago, the UW purchased Zoom Pro accounts for all lecturers to use for live instruction (previously instructors could use free Zoom accounts, which had limitations).
  • Instructors use Panopto to capture and share lectures online, including adding live polls and quizzes to the presentations.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, about 40% of UW courses had at least some element of online learning, said Beth Kalikoff, director of the UW’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “We’re not starting entirely from scratch, and I’m so glad,” she said.

Beth Kalikoff. (UW Photo)

It’s still a massive, disruptive shift to move online in a matter of days. It takes finesse to create the same impact with a lecture delivered in person versus online, and some subjects don’t smoothly translate to the format (think chemistry labs or fine arts subjects like dance and painting). There’s the matter of creating and proctoring quizzes and tests in a way that prevents cheating, educators said.

And technology access issues are a serious challenge in higher education as well, potentially putting lower income students and others who perhaps need more support at an academic disadvantage. To help bridge the tech gap, the UW has laptops available for students to check out, and its libraries which remain open have computer stations. The university also has Wi-Fi open to students on campus.

But for schools serving younger students, going digital is even less straightforward.

In its announcement today, Seattle Public Schools wrote, “The decision to close the district was extremely difficult. We know that closing our schools will impact our most vulnerable families and we recognize that working families depend on the consistency and predictability of supports and services our schools offer. We are working with partners and the city to determine how to best mitigate the impact closing schools will have on working families.”

Numerous private elementary, middle and high schools in the Seattle area are turning to digital instruction, some planning to operate remotely into April and past the end of spring break. The state has a running list of closures.

Pre-coronavirus outbreak, “there is a big chunk of online learning in the state, but it’s still the exception to the rule,” said Rhett Nelson, director of the Alternative Learning Department at the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Most schools follow a traditional, in-person approach to teaching, he said, with digital learning more common in rural districts. The online learning available tends to be courses produced by a third party, as opposed to instructors creating their own digital lessons.

As districts weigh the option of moving online, the state urges caution. Leaders are particularly concerned about whether schools can meet the needs of all students in a virtual classroom. Educators should consider whether all students have access to computers or tablets, sufficient internet access and a safe, stable home environment plus parental support for learning.

“Our big push is the equity lens,” Nelson said. “It might be better to close your school and make up those days later,” than offering instruction that excludes some students, he said.

Public Health – Seattle & King County had earlier recommended that in most cases schools should not close. The health agency notes that children are “not known to get seriously ill from COVID-19;” that closing schools could just shift the congregation of kids to other locations; and that families may need to turn to older childcare providers such as grandparents, who face more significant risk from the disease.

Closing schools can also eliminate free meal programs that many families rely on. Seattle schools announced that it has an emergency food plan that will be putting in place beginning March 16.

Varsity Tutors, a digital, real-time tutoring platform with a Seattle office, is trying to figure out how it can support schools beyond its current teaching services. While the company’s focus is on individual instruction, last September it began piloting a free, test-prep course for college exams that serves bigger audiences.

“With the experience we had with the “Test Prep 4 All,” we feel uniquely suited to help if schools are closed for an extended period,” said Brian Galvin, chief academic officer for Varsity Tutors. “We feel an obligation.”

The company is considering hosting live, online instruction for high school-age students, but is moving slowly to make sure the content is useful to districts in different states, as well as taking basic classroom management issues into consideration.

“When it’s a 30-person class, with the principal’s office right down the hall, it’s easy to know what to do with the class clown,” Galvin said. Disruption in the digital realm requires a different strategy.

For educators taking their instruction live and online, Galvin had tips for successfully engaging with students:

  • Ask short-answer questions, which encourages easy engagement and creates a culture of participation; longer, open-ended answers create a hurdle to students raising a digital hand and can slow down a class
  • Use polls and emojis; these are tools that students are comfortable using in communication
  • Track and incentivize participation, perhaps by letting kids pick nicknames and publicly awarding virtual stars to students who engage

Online teaching takes practice and a rethinking of approaches but holds demonstrable promise, proponents said.

“You can recreate just about anything you do in-person online,” said the UW’s Kalikoff. The important thing is to stay focused on what you want the students to get out of a lecture or experience. “The question is, how do you keep those goals and just change the format?”

Editor’s Note: This story is being updated with breaking news.

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