Lisa Gray: Every school, every student must be ready to take next step with on-line learning

This spring Ohio’s educators quickly pivoted from in-person to online instruction in response to the public health needs of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some cases, educators stood up entirely new learning technologies in a matter of days, mastered the technology and then introduced it to students and parents. Nothing goes exactly as planned in such situations, but it is a testament to the dedication of our state’s educators, parents and students that they made such dramatic changes in teaching and learning in a short amount of time.

Despite these efforts, some significant learning roadblocks remained. We would all be remiss if we failed to acknowledge that online learning wasn’t equitable for all students across the state. Unacceptable disparities in access to technology, especially broadband internet, deprived too many students from receiving the education they need and deserve. We cannot ignore this reality, and we must prepare for the results.

The question now is, “What happens next year?”

It is hard to predict what the pandemic has in store for education, and there very well could be periods during which students cannot meet in person or when some students and educators must remain at home for health reasons. Given all the unknowns, every school should be prepared to use online learning resources again next year, and they must ensure that every student has access to high-quality instruction and robust learning, regardless of where they are educated.

Summer is the time for education leaders to learn from the lessons of last year and improve online learning for all students. Ohio Excels, a coalition of business leaders committed to high-quality education and training for all students, has made it a priority to support improvements to online learning for the coming school year. The key is planning now for what is likely to come.

In the conversations that Ohio Excels has had with key education stakeholders about the upcoming school year, considerable attention has focused on the logistical issues related to restarting schools – social distancing requirements for buses and classrooms, masks vs. no masks, etc. Just as much attention, however, must go into the planning for quality and equity of the online learning experience if students are to keep moving forward.

Fortunately, education champions in Ohio are pushing to make sure that happens.

Strong, pro-education legislators — led by Senator Matt Huffman, R-Lima; Senator Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering; Senator Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, and state Representative Donald Jones, R-Freeport — championed legislation recently that provides a blueprint for how districts can start planning now for next year’s likely online learning needs. The legislation was passed in a bipartisan manner by the Ohio General Assembly and signed by Governor Mike DeWine.

The legislation calls on schools to create learning plans that describe how they will determine instructional needs, competency and credit for students; how they will track and document student attendance; how they will ensure equitable access to quality instruction; and how they will prepare educators themselves for online teaching. These learning plans will provide for local flexibility, continuity and transparency for students, families and educators about what will be expected and allow them to better prepare for the fall.

While local flexibility is needed, these plans are critical and should be expected of all districts. Ohio Department of Education (ODE) Superintendent Paolo DeMaria and his team are identifying key questions and issues that need to be addressed this fall. It is critical for ODE, local school boards and superintendents to ensure these plans are developed quickly. Families and communities need to know what to expect. These public plans will help equip the department with additional ideas and solutions that can be shared with educators across the state so that all students and districts can benefit from them. This only further drives the equity we all value.

Ohio’s long-term needs related to broadband availability and access were recently addressed by bipartisan legislation introduced by Rep. Rick Carfagna and Rep. Michael O’Brien. House Bill 13, recently passed in the Ohio House, helps by expanding high-speed broadband internet service to some of the nearly 300,000 Ohio households without it. Grants will help offset construction cost hurdles to make sure unserved Ohioans have access to this essential service. This is especially important for online learning. High-quality instruction means little if students cannot access it. House Bill 13 provides critical resources to address this important equity issue.

The phrase, “We’re all in this together,” applies as much to our efforts against COVID-19 right now as it does in educating our students. Ensuring that all children across our state—regardless of where they live—have access to high-quality online learning is essential. At a time when our national and state economies and our families are facing unprecedented economic pressures, Ohioans cannot afford to lose ground on something as important as education. Nor can we afford to let a lost generation of our students be created that perpetually struggle with a shortcoming of critical skills and knowledge.

With the planning and sharing of innovative solutions, new resources for broadband, and commitments from our educators and their partners such as business leaders, all of our students can be prepared for success and Ohio can avoid losing ground to other states. In the face of all the challenges we face right now, that’s a welcome ray of hope.

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By Lisa Gray

Guest Column

Lisa Gray is president of Ohio Excels, a nonpartisan coalition of business leaders committed to improving education for every Ohio student.