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Remote Learning Could Help Level the Playing Field for Students. Why isn’t it?

By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center

The challenges and negative consequences of remote learning are real.

Families and teachers alike don’t have sufficient access to the internet. Some environments are often crowded and not conducive to quiet, focused remote learning. Without a school building in which children spend daytime hours, families struggle to secure child care. And many educational services – such as occupational and physical therapy – are extremely difficult to provide remotely.

But for all of its negative attributes, there is great potential for it to actually expand access to education, in conjunction with in-person instruction.

For all of the harmful impacts on students caused by the pandemic – including social isolation, emotional devastation, academic regression, and a myriad of economic, housing, and health circumstances families are facing – at least remote learning could eliminate some of the reasons why students can’t access their education.

Among other things, it could remove the need for school transportation, allow students to access new services and supports, and make class schedules more flexible.

Unfortunately, six months into our remote learning reality, school districts are placing a greater emphasis on enforcing rules that deny students an education, rather than working to broaden their opportunities. This comes after the pandemic already caused students to miss weeks of school when it hit during the last academic year.

Strict and invasive virtual classroom rules, harsh disciplinary consequences, and inflexible immunization requirements are recreating the restrictions on education that existed pre-COVID and disconnecting students from their schools.

Students have told us that Francis Lewis High School in Queens, for example, requires students to have their cameras turned on and to stay visible in the camera frame during live remote instruction. Even the slightest lapse in visibility can result in an absence.

We need to move away from the premise that education can be taken away from students as punishment.

In other schools, teachers are requiring students to sit up straight at a desk, to find “quiet spaces” to learn, and to avoid interruptions.

Camera-on rules and strict virtual participation requirements create new constraints on learning and can cause anxiety for students who are self-conscious about appearing on camera. They also have privacy implications for students who don’t want their home life exposed, and can further marginalize homeless students and those who share space with family members or other housemates.

Worse still, strict remote learning rules often carry disciplinary consequences. They can result in suspensions, a loss of access to email and online platforms, and even juvenile detention. Students as young as 9 years-old have been banned from remote instruction.

These bans threaten to re-impose the types of harsh disciplinary policies that plagued in-person school.

Pre-pandemic, too many students were suspended, often for long periods of time and frequently for minor misbehavior. Across the country and throughout New York State, Black and Latinx students are much more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for similar behavior.

Beyond attendance and suspensions, mandatory vaccination requirements – even for students who will not enter a school building – have become another barrier to education.

While the world has been on pause, making it increasingly difficult to get medical care for non-medical emergencies, New York State has said students must have up-to-date vaccination records within 14 days of the start of school, and school districts are already cracking down on families – kicking students out of school for not completing this mandate.

These immunization policies have shut out students from their classes and blocked them from online learning. They also fail to account for the fact that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color already lacked access to health care before COVID made it harder, in some cases, to see a doctor.

The path we’re on threatens to recreate existing practices that deny students the right to an education and further entrench inequities. We need to move away from the premise that education can be taken away from students as punishment.

For all of its flaws so far, remote learning could provide many opportunities to help level the playing field. For example, it could eliminate the need for transportation to-and-from school. It could prevent students from missing school because of snow or extreme weather. It could be used to connect students to social and emotional support services or enrichment classes not available at their home school. It could give students the flexibility to learn at a time that fits their family’s needs or at their own pace.

But so far, we’ve seen government officials engage in too many efforts that run counter to the goal of increasing access to education. Instead, school districts are infusing remote learning with the same elements of punishment, exclusion, and discrimination that plagued our pre-COVID education system.

If you are experiencing barriers to remote learning, or if you know of issues in your school or district, please email

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