The teenaged boys at Red Wing juvenile detention center are accustomed to six hours of school a day. They typically gather in classrooms to learn social studies, math, science and language arts from teachers who work at the corrections facility, located about 50 miles down the Mississippi River from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Educating the 70 or so students poses challenges even on the best of school days. About 70 percent of residents at Red Wing qualify for special education services. They arrive with disparate academic histories, so some of them need to earn biology credits, for example, while others don’t.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the difficulty of teaching each teenager has only increased.
“It’s a moving target,” says Patty Popp, director of special education for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “It changes by the day, sometimes by the hour.”
With schools and colleges across the U.S. closed to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, many students and instructors are grappling for the first time with questions about how to sustain learning when they can’t meet face to face.
That’s not a new problem for educators who work with jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers, where access to learning is often limited by security concerns, technology constraints and facilities designed for incarcerating—not teaching—people.
“Prison education is the ultimate distance learning model in many ways,” says Arti Finn, co-founder of American Prison Data Systems, a company that produces tablet computers used in prison education programs.
Pandemic conditions have introduced novel challenges for corrections education, however. Since the virus threatens the health and safety of people who live and work inside detention facilities, many sites are operating under new policies intended to prevent contagion. These new rules can interfere with learning programs that may have already been tenuous to begin with.
Although juvenile facilities are required by law to educate residents, adult jails and prisons are not, with some exceptions, says Susan Roberts, president of the Correctional Education Association. That means the leaders of prison facilities for adults largely have leeway to adapt or pause education programs as they see fit.
During the pandemic, the association has been holding weekly calls with state directors of correctional education, and these conversations have revealed a continuum of responses.
Access to libraries has been reduced at many facilities. At some, educators are no longer allowed inside, although they may be able to deliver paper materials for students to complete in their cells. At others, class sizes have been cut to limit exposure, so that students used to attending two daily school sessions now only participate in one, or only go three days a week instead of five.
“They’re totally shutting down, to trying to do things virtually if there’s a digital option,” Roberts says. “At most correctional facilities, that option isn’t available.”
A jail in Washington, D.C. is one facility that does have digital tools at its disposal. The detention center has had to modify its face-to-face classes to encourage social distancing, says deputy director Amy Lopez, but some incarcerated adult students are still able to continue their personalized learning plans by taking classes via tablet computer. The jail is working with leaders of programs that typically meet in person to try to develop online versions.
“So our for-credit students are still earning credits, and some of our partners, like the Pulitzer Center, have created and sent us lessons that are normally web-based to be loaded onto the tablets as well. For our students who don't have tablets, we've been taking them paper-based lessons,” Lopez said in an email interview. “We also reserved some tablets, and when we had to quarantine some residents for observation, we've been providing them with tablets, too.”
At Red Wing, educators have tried to balance the need to reduce students’ exposure to other people with the reality that teenagers don’t take well to being cooped up.
“Especially with juveniles, to expect them to stay within their cottages all day is pretty tough,” Popp says.
A new rotating schedule allows half of a unit’s residents to travel to a classroom for face-to-face instruction while the other half stays put and teachers come to them. In-person instruction time has decreased, and to make up for lost hours, students now have more access to online curricular tools via tablets, which since last summer have been slowly introduced for classroom use.
“We went from that to ‘Everybody gets a tablet,’” Popp says. “It’s been a whirlwind for our teachers.”
Red Wing educators who are sick or at high risk of infection are staying home. Like their counterparts at traditional schools outside the world of corrections, they’re figuring out how to do their jobs remotely via technology.
“There’s one teacher who is out who is still teaching her course,” Popp says. “Another teacher is out for COVID leave who is overseeing all the oversight of the tablets, working with an assistant on-site to make sure the tablets are running. There’s a multitude of functions she’s able to do from home.”
As prison facilities and systems improvise, the Correctional Education Association awaits guidance from the U.S. Department of Education about the best ways to sustain learning behind bars during the pandemic. Doing so is a priority not only for students, but also for wardens and prison administrators who appreciate the role education plays in rehabilitating incarcerated people, Roberts says.
Unfortunately, though, as the health crisis worsens, “whether or not you get special education services might not necessarily be the No. 1 priority. No. 1 might be to keep the virus from spreading in the population,” Roberts says. “We want you to be alive.”