One day we will put on our virtual reality goggles to tell our grandchildren about the once-upon-a-time when we sat around a table, fought with relatives, and ate strange foods to celebrate Thanksgiving in real life. They will hardly believe tales of giant roasted birds, desserts made from gourds, and the snoring sleepers under the influence of tryptophan. There will even be some scary stories, and nothing is scarier than hearing Uncle Fred describe the differences between yams and sweet potatoes.
If you prefer a “real” Thanksgiving, don’t worry; it will not be canceled anytime soon. We Americans like eating too much to miss a meal, but after the pandemic, we certainly have grown comfortable with more virtual options. We now order food, check our doorbells, and even “zoom” for doctors’ appointments. The increased availability of virtual services has benefited many people, but I am not ready for virtual holidays, unless perhaps, I can mute Uncle Fred.
Virtual education, on the other hand, is here to stay. Of course, we know that virtual learning can be downright terrible when done wrong, but when it works, it works well, providing opportunity where none existed before. Literally millions of students now have unprecedented educational opportunities, which is why we should worry about a new rule under consideration by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OKSDE) to prohibit virtual education for alternative education students.
Alt-ed students, by definition, need alternatives, so eliminating virtual education – especially for alt-ed programs – makes no sense. Alt-ed students are not trouble-makers, as some may think. On the contrary, they are often the most creative and entrepreneurial people in school. They just do not “fit” in a traditional school structure for a variety of reasons: needing to work, medical needs, physical challenges, caring for family, or all of the above. These students are so motivated to graduate high school that they will work nights, weekends, or on a smartphone to get their diploma. They often do this while balancing adult responsibilities most teenagers cannot fathom. Alt-ed students are not always virtual, but without the virtual option, many would never graduate. Consequently, virtual instruction has been a life-changing option for them.
Sadly, the new rule only targets only alt-ed students. Yes, only Alt-ed students! Regular students will still have virtual options, but alt-ed students would be required to “be physically present, in person, and on site.” The plan justifies these proposed rules as an effort “to improve the quality of alternative education,” but that makes no sense because alt-ed kids already meet ALL the same graduation requirements as “regular” students. All the tests, all the courses, and all the other requirements. They just need some alternatives and flexibility, and sometimes, that includes virtual courses.
Sadly, many recent Oklahoma educational changes have been driven by good intentions but with ignorance of how kids work, so before we hastily launch or destroy another program, let’s understand the kid-level impact. Frankly, this rule change cannot be adequately justified by research, rigor, results, or reality. Alt-ed students are a small fraction of our students, but they are often our most motivated and innovative scholars, so this rule proposal makes no sense for Oklahoma students who need alternatives.
I prefer a traditional turkey day, even if it means Uncle Fred explaining that yams are stem tubers and sweet potatoes are root tubers. (No one gives a yam, Fred!) Nevertheless, I am thankful people now have a virtual option. Those who need a little flexibility, whether in regard to holidays or education, deserve alternatives. Please, Oklahoma, do not take away this choice for alternative education students. I hope and pray that educators, parents and community members weigh in on this. You may review and comment on these rules here at https://sde.ok.gov/administrative-rules. You may email your concerns at email@example.com.
Tom Deighan is an educator and author of “Restoring Sanity in Public Schools: Common Ground for Local Parents and Educators”. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org