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  • Writer's pictureJulia Cuneo

An Online Learning Bill of Rights

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

We’re not going back to school this year, let’s face that fact together. We’re not going back. Even if administrators do manage to force teachers and students to return, it’s clear that they will quickly be forced to shut down again as covid cases surge.

Maybe for you this is a terrible tragedy. Maybe it’s a huge relief. Everyone is different, everyone’s family and home life is unique. Some students are experiencing abuse at home, others are experiencing the first safe learning environment of their lifetime. School administrators aren’t wrong that students want to return to school - a lot of teachers do too. Online learning is hard, and the transition last spring was traumatic for many.

Regardless of circumstances, educators, parents, and students need a set of standards for online schooling. We need to agree that we will not allow schools to abuse their power the way they did in March. Too many administrators want us to replicate face-to-face, 40 hours a week instruction. They believe they can copy-paste the 2019 curriculum into 2020, and that’s not going to work. Students will fail classes or they will simply become so overwhelmed and stressed that they will not attend.


"We need to agree that we will not allow schools to abuse their power."


Parents cannot be expected to support students at that pace and teachers who are parents themselves cannot sustain it either. In my daily conversations with students I am hearing everything from dread to outright depression surfacing as they face the looming, chaotic, exhausting prospect of school.

With the assistance of students and teachers, I have drafted a set of expectations for school districts in their transition to online. However, there is nothing about this list that ends if the coronavirus magically disappears. This is a good time to begin these practices, because you have to if you want to engage students in any meaningful learning this year. But they do not end when you return to classrooms. Our learning has been transformed, and it is time for schools to transform with us.

  1. Students have a right to be comfortable while learning. They should be able to eat when they need to, wear what they feel comfortable in, take breaks, and turn off their camera and microphone as needed. Schools should be mindful of “digital fatigue” and limit time spent on computers to no more than 4 hours a day with generous breaks and block scheduling. Cities should also create wireless “hubs” for students to work online anywhere - schools, community centers, cafes, etc - without requiring uniforms, barring food, or otherwise creating unnecessary barriers to learning.

  2. Students have a right to privacy. Their computers should not record their searches or block non-academic sites. Their computers should not monitor their presence or require them to be reachable online all day. Teachers should not police students' clothing, language, eating, or any other behavior in their own homes. School districts should end their contracts with “School Resource Officers” permanently and use those funds to provide students with one-on-one and group counseling services.

  3. Students have a right to a break from standardized assessment. All ACT, SAT and state-mandated standardized tests should be canceled indefinitely and all summer work should be excused. This way teachers and students can collaborate on learning at a personal pace that acknowledges the ongoing trauma of students surviving a pandemic. Students who have experienced loss, depression, and anxiety should not be forced to worry that their future will be harmed further by academic testing.

  4. Students have a right to anti-racist and culturally sustaining curriculum. Students should be leading their education through inquiry and relationship building. Their community’s experiences, languages, resilience strategies, and identities should be recognized as rich learning material in a way that feels empowering and relevant to them. Students' daily lives, needs, and passions should be the basis for curriculum development and teachers should be given the freedom and agency to develop these curriculums as needed.

  5. Students have a right to certified, qualified teachers. Schools should not attempt to outsource online classes to virtual learning academies staffed by untrained adults. In addition, schools should not cut vital elective classes such as music, art, and gym. Teachers in these subjects (and all subjects) should be allowed to find creative solutions for teaching their subject matter. Schools should pay teachers a living wage that is able to cover the additional costs of childcare and virtual teaching. Qualified teachers are the best option to pull this off.

We must hold our school administrators, school boards, and elected officials accountable to these basic expectations. School is not the most important thing in students’ lives. They are surviving a pandemic that will impact all of us for generations. They are also living through a news cycle filled with racist police violence and political uprisings. Adults must learn to respect that before we make unnecessary demands on their time and energy.

School, especially in this moment, should be enriching and empowering. It should be about adding value to a difficult, stressful time. Instead, many schools are compounding the difficulty and stress by behaving like police and prisons. Young people are demanding an education fit for their time. Will we deliver?

To show your support for the Online Learning Bill of Rights, please sign our petition here and share the link with your local school administration and board of education.

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