Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Why Johnny Can’t Learn Digitally—A Clarification

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on my column from a few weeks ago about the challenges our students are facing as online learners—and that feedback has not been positive. School counselors and administrators alike are saying they feel as if I have thrown them under the bus, and that I have no idea how hard they have worked to make sure the transition to online learning has been as smooth as possible. They also cite the increased level of counseling services students need during this time of COVID, saying that the mental health needs of the students are more than taking up their time. One writer said that, now that I have returned to life as an independent counselor, I’ve already become out of touch with the needs of school counselors.

It seems I have some explaining to do.

First, believe me when I tell you I understand how hard it is to be a school counselor, teacher, and administrator in the time of COVID. Everything you have experienced with your students, I have experienced with mine—and since I’m still a school counselor until late next week, I continue to experience it every day.

The mental health, academic, social-emotional, fiscal, and employment challenges all of our students are experiencing are heart breaking. So is that feeling we all have when the school day is over, and the number of students we could help far exceeds the number of hours in not just the school day, but in the whole day. Not a day goes by when I feel like I could do more, if only I had a little help.

This leads to the reason I wrote the column. Knowing local educators were working like mad—last spring, over the summer, right now—to find a way to make this work, I tried to sort out just what was missing. Sure, some tasks just can’t be accomplished no matter how hard you try. But this one felt, and feels, different. There’s a voice that’s missing in this chorus of student support, and I wanted to figure out which one it was.

I didn’t have to look far. Every effort to help kids make the most out of the online learning experience was coming from local resources and local experts. These fiercely dedicated folks were throwing everything they had in to making this effort work, and many of them said they’d like to do more, if they just had a little more money, a little more time, and a little more expertise…

…in other words, a little more national money, a little more national time, a little more national expertise.

It would have been wonderful if the US Department of Education could have been counted on to gather themselves and offer Blue Ribbon workshops on best online practices. Couple that with some federal dollars for states to use as they see fit—including universal online access—and those local efforts would have been enhanced immensely. If only.

To be frank, it came as no surprise that ED did not pursue this strategy. Education veterans will tell you that the Department of Education has rarely taken the lead in curriculum development or best teaching practices in the entire history of its existence. It would have been hugely helpful and inspiring, but it wasn’t expected to happen, and it didn’t, and that had brought us to where we are.

That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the column—to call out ED, and let them know they can still do better.

But ED is not the only national leader who could turn up the support for local efforts to strengthen distance learning. If you stopped and wrote down ten companies or organizations that influenced national education policy, there’s a good chance ED wouldn’t even be on your list—but what about the others? All of them have the clout, money, and expertise to put together the same kind of national campaign of support ED can, and it’s likely many of them would, if they could sell it to local school districts. But charging for this kind of help would just be grotesque, so to them, the choice is either to develop it and give it away, or hope for the best. One mobile phone company promoted an eight-figure effort to make sure every student had Internet access—the rest have largely looked at their shoes.

A national effort to make a difference in the online education switch could have made all the difference, and it hasn’t happened. It still can. 

That list of ten national educational influencers you just made up? They have community relations departments, all of them. Phone calls and emails from educators saying “Hey, where you been?” will go a long way to move them forward, since you are their customers. They are viewed as leaders in the field because they meet our needs. Those departments know better than to incur the wrath of educators…

…and thanks to those of you who have written in the last two weeks, so do I.

Local educators have worked like crazy to make things work during the time of COVID, and that was the reason I wrote the column—you’ve done your share, and now it’s time for others to step up. 

If the column was missing that acknowledgement—or worse, suggested you’ve spent too much time at the beach this year—I could not be more sorry. I’ll do better in the future to make my assumptions more clear; this time around, that assumption is that you are moving heaven and earth to make things work for your students, and, as usual, it is appreciated beyond description.

Now, about your calls to those nine national leaders…


  1. The government cannot bail out the entire education community in time for us to get through this. We must rely on ourselves and our own school leaders to work with teachers and staff to directly and swiftly address the needs of their own schools and students. It is naive to think that the government can solve this issue in a timely but more importantly, effective manner, just look at the post office and the election for goodness sake. Be realistic and stop waiting to be taken care of - the Federal Government isn't the answer to our issues - relying on them to provide the answer is the problem.

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  3. Must admit that the only thing I recall from any of my "Teacher Educator" courses was the phrase, "Education is a function of the state." Call me crazy but that makes a national DOE useless and seems they lived up to the billing during this crisis. Unfortunately, they were not alone.

    This marks my 33rd year in public education and district policies, during covid, verified what I feared...a quest for educational excellence is dead. While districts were enacting policies that gave grades to students, I personally witnessed a small private school, with a spartan budget, rise to the challenge and offer their students a quality education. Please spare me the argument regarding internet access. My district utilized district busses to run their routes and deliver food. Explain why adapted lessons could not have been included?

    No, the public school districts ran up the white flag faster than a district worker can fill out a federal grant. You will have to forgive me if I feel somewhat nauseous as these same districts now crow about their graduation rates. Only those inside the system are aware of this charade.