Commentary: Remote Learning Highlights Inequities in Public Education. But A Premature Return to In-Person Learning Could Be Worse.

By Joshua Weishart, 100 Days in Appalachia

January 19, 2021

Defending plans to reopen schools at the deadliest, most infectious period of this pandemic yet, some officials have invoked the right to education in their state constitutions.

A West Virginia Department of Education spokesperson recently remarked that the inequities of remote learning are “a derogation of the right to a thorough and efficient education,” unwarranted absent “a health and safety justification,” before adding definitively, “schools are safe.”

In West Virginia and other states, education clauses have been invoked in lawsuits by parents, teacher unions and other interest groups seeking to either to reopen schools or keep them remote — clauses that guarantee an adequate and equitable education, according to most courts that have previously interpreted them.

This focus on educational disparities is necessary; the choice between in-person and remote learning is not.

The principal determinants of educational disparities and deprivations affecting most West Virginia children, at least, are poverty and unfair school funding. Simply returning children to in-person learning will do little to address those endemic forces of educational injustice.

Still, if remote learning is exacerbating these inequities, then surely it should be eliminated, right? That was the unanimous judgment of the West Virginia Board of Education this week, which voted to prohibit school districts from maintaining remote-only learning plans (excluding voluntarily-enrolled virtual platforms).