The buoyant announcements that many schools will reopen for in-person, in-class teaching has a definite ring of victory. Celebrations are certainly called for as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.

But it’s also very alarming to hear so many education officials gleefully dissing distance learning while pronouncing that in-person, in-class education is not just back to stay, it’s the only proper way to educate students.

Some states are even dumping the option of distance learning completely, forcing reluctant teachers and students back into the classroom.

Here are a few words of advice for schools, teachers and administrators in the Finger Lakes: Please don’t burn your educational lifeboats.

While it’s true COVID-19 seems to be fading in most U.S. locations, it would be a serious mistake to totally junk distance learning systems used during the pandemic.

Distance learning will have — and should have — a place in our educational systems in 2021 and beyond. They need to be kept ready in case COVID-19 produces a viral sequel that forces students out of the classrooms again and back to at-home instruction.

Distance learning variations across the nation were admittedly imperfect. That’s not surprising given the speed with which the virus emerged. There were scores of pedagogy, technical and social issues faced by students, teachers and parents.

Teachers had to learn on the fly how to use Zoom, Facetime and other electronic communication modalities. They were learning in warp speed what was effective and what was not. Students had to adjust to seeing their home computers as school and not just recreation. Parents had to juggle work lives and help with schoolwork that didn’t resemble their lessons from decades before..

In all that there were certainly positive lessons learned. More than a few schools and communities demonstrated distance learning has plenty of value.

A famous quote from British statesman Winston Churchill comes to mind.

“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

In this case, the U.S. and its schools need to be ready for not just a COVID-19 resurgence but also other emergencies that could make traditional education untenable.

Some years back, a strategic planning group at a California state university asked me to review a just-drafted blueprint for the next decade.

It was impressive.

There were lots of charts and graphs about growth. And all of them screamed “More! More!” More students. More faculty. More student fees. More state monies.

It detailed a rosy future and contained statistical evidence on charts and colored graphs. All the lines on the charts pointed toward exclusively good times ahead.

But having lived through several serious economic downturns in California, I opined that the plan had a serious omission. There was no strategy to address what to do if bad fiscal times arrived.

What would be the strategy, I asked, if there were less state money coming in, fewer students enrolled, fewer student fees collected, and faculty layoffs became imperative?

My comments were not received warmly. The committee members declined to even put my analysis into the final report, opting instead to go with a completely Pollyanna Plan.

Predictably, barely two years later, the university was clumsily scrambling to deal with a cataclysmic decline in state funding forced by a recession.

In the Finger Lakes, schools should be prudent and draft a strategic distance learning plan using the experiences of the last year. They should build an electronic education backup system that works, is flexible and ready to implement at a moment’s notice.

Just in case.

And please stop saying distance education has no value. That will only make it harder to re-implement if and when we face a similar emergency and suddenly schools have to close down again.

It could happen.

Fitzgerald has worked at six newspapers as a writer and editor, as well as a correspondent for two news services. He splits his time between Valois, N.Y., and Point Richmond, Calif. You can email him at and visit his website at

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