Khan Academy founder explains how to keep kids learning even when schools are closed

The founder of the digital education nonprofit Khan Academy told CNBC on Monday that online instruction cannot fully replace in-person class — but said there are ways to maximize the benefit for students.

“We’re not going to be replicate school, even when the school is doing a perfect job so people shouldn’t expect that,” Sal Khan said on “Closing Bell” as districts across the country devise plans for fall classes during the coronavirus pandemic.  

But Khan dismissed the notion that remote instruction is a helpless exercise, contending there are clear strategies that should allow kids to continue learning, “especially in the core subjects of math, reading and writing, so they don’t atrophy their skills.”  

Khan explained for a school going online in the fall, a math class could be structured with two or three videoconference lessons per week. That way, instead of pre-recorded instruction videos, teachers can work with students at the same time, Khan said. 

“Ideally, it’s interactive. Teachers are asking students to answer questions, work with each other in the virtual breakout sessions,” said Khan, whose nonprofit is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “And also the teachers are there to answer any questions, help students set goals.” 

And then each day, students spend 30 to 40 minutes, depending on their age, working on their own through example programs using a digital learning tool such as the Khan Academy, which offers its services for free, he said. 

Whatever the online program is, Khan said it’s important that it gives teachers the ability to monitor students’ progress — how much time they’re spending on problems and what they’re getting right or wrong. 

Major U.S. public school districts have recently announced their plans for the fall as the nation’s Covid-19 outbreak accelerates in certain states. For example, the districts for San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles have all said they will be starting the fall with remote instruction.

New York City indicated earlier this month it plans to welcome most students to schools two to three days each week, employing a so-called hybrid or blending learning model that includes remote class on the other days.

In announcing the plans, Mayor Bill de Blasio said online learning was “not perfect,” but city officials argued the plan is necessary to allow for social distancing in classrooms. The nation’s largest public school system, with 1.1 million students, awaits approval from the state. 

President Donald Trump has been pushing districts to fully reopen, threatening to withhold federal funding from schools that fail to resume in-person classes this fall. Trump and others note that schools being open is important to the social development for children, as well as the U.S. economic recovery. 

“Schools have to open,” Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday on Fox News. “Young people have to go to school, and there’s problems when you don’t go to school, too.” 

Young people are less likely to become seriously ill if they are infected with the coronavirus. But a key piece to the debate about opening schools for in-person instruction is their role in contributing to the virus’ spread throughout the broader community. White House health advisor Dr. Deborah Birx has indicated more studies need to be done to determine transmission of the virus among children.