We are in the midst of a serious recession that could have repercussions for generations to come. This isn’t an economic recession but rather a learning recession that deserves the same attention and innovation as economic issues on Wall Street.

Stanford University found that American students lost on average one year of math and reading during the 2019-2020 school year due to COVID-19. Utah students fared slightly better losing 155 days of reading and 307 days of math. These losses are staggering and will likely be compounded by another anticipated learning deficit this year.

These challenges provide a unique opportunity to disrupt our current education system — a system that has been around for 150 years and was developed as a one-size-fits-all solution. We have known for decades that this system does not serve all students well. In fact, charter schools were developed to fill a gap and offer students options to better fit their individual learning styles and needs.

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Currently, Utah decision-makers are grappling with what school will look like in 2021-2022. Unfortunately, much of the discussion centers around how online school compares to in-person learning and whether we should go back to the pre-pandemic status quo. The deficit numbers above are often used to argue how poorly online school served students. But, crisis schooling, which is what the majority of students and teachers in Utah had thrust on them during the pandemic, is very different from intentional digital education, which is offered at online charter schools such as Mountain Heights Academy.

Crisis schooling was implemented very quickly, without proper resources, processes and training because it was not expected to be a long-term solution. Intentional digital education, in contrast, is the deliberate, thoughtful, well-designed use of technology to maximize student learning. And Utah’s charter schools have been leaders in developing digital learning processes — following MIT and other universities — and creating open-source curricula used in countries around the world.

One of the questions we should be asking is how can we leverage the benefits of technology to improve education post pandemic?

Students in Utah and across the country would benefit from a hybrid approach where they can take classes in-person and online to allow students to organize their schedules to better fit their individual needs.

The good news is this hybrid learning solution is already available in Utah. High school students at any brick-and-mortar school can take several credits online each semester for free from an accredited Statewide Online Education Program (SOEP) provider, such as Mountain Heights.

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For example, Jake is a high school senior who suffers with migraines and often struggles to get up early after a rough night. He replaced two of his morning classes with online courses that are accessible any time. He feels healthier and is on track to graduate in June. Kate and Luke have taken math courses online through SOEP because they can pause or rewind the lessons, and schedule individual appointments with their teacher to make sure they understand everything. Their math grades have increased significantly. And dozens of students across Utah are signing up for online classes this summer to reduce the learning deficit from the past two school years.

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It’s also important to note this hybrid approach is a trend we’re seeing in the workforce in many professions — the ability to work from home as well as the office. Digital learning tools teach students important “portable skills” that transfer into adult life and the workplace like time management, prioritization, written communication and the ability to leverage technology for efficiency.

While there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to this learning recession, parents, students and administrators should consider a hybrid approach that will not only help bridge the learning gap and reduce the deficit, but more importantly prepare Utah’s children for the post-pandemic workforce.

Dr. DeLaina Tonks is principal of Mountain Heights Academy, a Utah online public charter school for grades 7-12, and is a frequent local, national and global presenter on open education resources, intentional online learning and best practices in digital teaching and learning. 

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