Newsroom Article

Coronavirus and Schools: Failing Virtual Learners


Posted on in Press Releases and Announcements

Have you given any guidance on what to do with students that are now failing because of online learning? I have some kids that are doing no work, not engaged, etc., no matter how much support and communication we are giving to them and their parents/caregivers.

We have recommended against making "continuity of education" a high stakes endeavor for any student, disabled or non-disabled. Thus, we have suggested that schools determine course completion and crediting based on student performance prior to March 13, 2020. A student should not fail a course he or she was otherwise passing prior to March 13 based on post-March 13 performance in the virtual environment. Our reasons for this recommendation are several:

  • First, although PDE has strongly urged schools to offer new instruction as part of their "continuity of education" plans, it has not suggested that schools require participation in, or demonstration of proficiency with, this new instruction--certainly not to determine course completion. Quite the contrary, under Act 13, the obligation to operate 180 days of mandated instruction was eliminated, and PDE is not requiring that schools count average daily membership or enforce compulsory attendance. All that schools are required to do is make a "good faith effort" to deliver "continuity of education for all students.


  • Second, virtual instruction is an novel experience for most teachers and most students. Its success depends not only on how well individual teachers and students adapt to this entirely new experience but also on issues of home environment, internet connectivity, and computer access. While these issues can affect school performance in the best of times, their influence is exaggerated under the current conditions. 


  • Third, imposing high stakes on participation and performance in virtual instruction will likely provoke a rash of "child find" claims based not on whether the child has a disability but rather on the failure of the child to respond adequately to instruction that is likely to be sub-standard, despite the best efforts of teachers to make it otherwise. It has always been the case--and it always will be--that special education is wrongly called upon to address both the needs of weak learners and the needs of weak curriculum and instruction. We should not allow the latter to occur when we have such poor control over the current instructional environment.


  • Fourth, the burden of imposing high stakes on participation and performance in virtual instruction will disproportionately fall on students with disabilities, many of whom require the structure and support of in-person instruction to access learning. 


  • Many schools are grading "continuity of education" coursework--typically on a "pass/fail" basis--but they are doing so largely to incentivize participation. Doing so with the intent of affecting a student's performance overall in a course is not a good idea.


Of course, students with disabilities who refuse to participate in virtual learning for reasons not directly related to their disabling conditions might ultimately be entitled to less "compensatory service" once school reopens, particularly if the school has made reasonable efforts--given the limitations--to assist the disengaged student.