Connected Devices 'Like Textbooks Of Last Century': Arizona School Districts Planning For Remote Learning
MARK BRODIE: Some Valley school districts have announced they'll start the year with remote learning: Mesa Public Schools and the Phoenix Union High School District are among those that have made that decision. Last week, Gov. Ducey referred to Aug. 17 as an "aspirational" date for reopening schools for students in person. He'd previously pushed that date back into August from July. Meanwhile, more than 60 school board members from districts across Arizona are asking the governor to hold off on enforcing classes until at least October. So as distance learning looks like it's becoming more and more of a possibility for a large number of students next month, I spoke with State Rep. Aaron Lieberman about this. The Paradise Valley Democrat sits on the House Education Committee, and I asked him about some of the things policymakers, teachers and schools should be thinking about in terms of making that as effective a tool as possible.
AARON LIEBERMAN: I think the most important thing for schools and everyone else to realize is that there is an art and science to online virtual instruction. And all of our schools, everyone has to figure out how to pair up with those folks who really have that expertise to make sure that our students can be learning in the highest quality possible way.
BRODIE: How much of that is curriculum? How much of that is technology, and how much of that, frankly, just comes down to money and districts having the ability to do what they want to be able to do?
LIEBERMAN: I think there are two big challenges. You know, the first and foremost is the know-how and just the ability. It's not the same as teaching in a classroom when you're teaching online. So there's a whole set of skills and attributes that all of our teachers got a crash course in last spring. And there's still certainly more, more room to go there, more to learn. There is also a huge access question. Making sure that particularly our low-income learners have access in their homes has emerged as a huge and important barrier to overcome.
BRODIE: Let me ask you about the experience that a lot of teachers and schools and students had at the end of this past school year. You referenced it as a crash course, and that's probably apt because it just kind of happened and, you know, students and teachers were kind of thrown into it. What lessons do you think we learned in terms of things that worked and maybe things that didn't?
LIEBERMAN: Well, I think it gets back to, you know, everyone did the best possible job they could. No one would have moved the entire state to distance learning on a three-day time period. What we didn't have time to do was the professional development in terms of how do you make online instruction engaging? How do you work this problem in a way that helps all of the students learn? And I think the second point is related to that access question, which is how do you make sure that students have access? The big difference is whether the students can all be there online at the same time, real-time engagement with the teacher, or if they have to have a log-in asynchronously, in which case it's a whole different kind of instructional path that you have to go down.
BRODIE: Let me ask you first off about the training issue, and we'll get to the money in just a moment. Do you get the sense, have you heard from teachers that they have been getting training over the summer to help them enhance their distance learning teaching abilities?
LIEBERMAN: I haven't spoken with teachers specifically on that topic. You know, usually teachers are off for the summer; that's their kind of one break in the year. And I think that that's one of the concerns as we approach the fall, is that teachers are going to come back to school. In a normal year, they get the boxes out of storage, they set up the classroom — everybody knows how to do that. This looks increasingly like it might be a very different year. And we really want to make sure that when teachers get back, if at all possible —and a lot of districts are working on this — they can jump right into that professional development that will help them support the distance learning options that they're likely going to have to be providing.
BRODIE: So you referenced especially low-income districts and low-income schools needing money for technology. And we saw, for example, some districts setting up school buses with mobile Wi-Fi hotspots so students could log in. What are some of the biggest needs that schools and districts need to make sure that their students can do online remote learning?
LIEBERMAN: I think there's really two critical areas from a technology perspective. The first is the device themselves, and Scottsdale Unified just announced every kid is going to get a Chromebook, and many districts rallied last time. I know Washington Elementary and others provided a Chromebook to every child who, who wanted one or needed one. So first there's got to be a device. That turned out to be the slightly easier piece of the problem to solve, because second, there's got to be high-speed access at home. And while many, many families have it, too many still don't. And often the only Internet access at the home is in the mom or dad's pocket that goes off to work with them when they take their cell phone. So figuring out — Cox has some great programs, we've been talking down at the legislature with other providers about what we can do. But figuring out how to get that high-speed Internet access for every single kid paired with the device is the incredibly important challenge we have to take on right now. I think going forward, Internet access and devices are going to be quite like the textbooks of the last century that schools have to figure out how every last kid has one, because that's how kids increasingly are going to be learning.
BRODIE: What are you hearing right now from families as you're out and about in the community in terms of how comfortable they are sending their kids back to school, what their needs are in terms of maybe the parents need to work, they need a place for their kids to go, that kind of thing?
LIEBERMAN: You know, there, there is a wide array of, of how people are feeling out there. And it kind of gets to how they're feeling about the coronavirus itself, and that's even changing. But I consistently hear from a group of parents who want an all-online option. They are not comfortable sending their child. And if anything, that might have been growing as we've been dealing with community spread. I think there are a lot of parents kind of in the middle who are kind of open to seeing what's going to happen and how it's going to play out. The school districts increasingly — almost all that have made an announcement — are saying they'll offer an all in-person, a hybrid of some in-person and some remote. And then there are some parents who are ready for school open, to send their kids to school. And feeling like that's an important part of this process, and they feel like if the school is doing a good job managing the health risks, they're comfortable. So I've really heard from all three. And I think that's why it's so important that our districts are offering those options increasingly because it's going to be a wide variety of what parents want.
BRODIE: And presumably, I would imagine the districts are going to have to be nimble about this and be ready, as we saw last March or so, to change on a dime again, right?
LIEBERMAN: I think that's exactly right. And that's where it just gets down to we've got to plan for a situation in which there's all online and then hope that we're in a situation that's better than that and allows for in-person instruction and either goes hybrid or all-in-person models. I think that's just the reality of where we are. Again, districts are going down that path right now in terms of looking at these three different options. We've got to make sure that they get the technical support and the knowledge and the know-how to be able to teach effectively online.
BRODIE: All right. That is state Rep. Aaron Lieberman. Rep. Lieberman, thanks for your time. I appreciate it, be well.
LIEBERMAN: Thanks a bunch, Mark.