Fandango’s Provocative Question this week is a topic being debated in the news lately. Our non-leader Orange Man wants all the kids to return to school and virus be damned. Many, if not most, districts have been saying that online learning has had mixed results so far. I can easily believe that. Fandango’s question is:
Do you believe that students should be required to return to school for the new school year? If you are a parent, are you at all concerned about sending your children to school? Or are you relieved to get the little rugrats out of your hair?
Fandango acknowledges this question is one of the most dire dilemmas in the countries where covid-19 is out of control, such as the United States by giving these stats:
He continues, “And with between 60,000 and 70,000 new cases each day and 1,000 or more deaths each day, the virus shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
“Donald Trump, the President of the United States, is trying to pretend that everything is fine and that we need to reopen the country and return to ‘normal.’ To that end, he is demanding that schools physically reopen in the fall, even as the coronavirus pandemic is surging through much of the country and is threatening to overwhelm many health care facilities in the hardest hit areas.“
Being an American, I am coming from this perspective. I am going to answer from the point of view of a former K-5 teacher, whose students were in the majority low income and whose first language was not English.
The question of whether or not to send kids back to school next month is really a dilemma and let me first say that I am very glad right now that I retired from teaching five years ago. “Distance learning” is OK, possibly even desirable, for college students and to some extent, high school students. Much of the debate we hear is geared toward high school when solutions are proposed, such as having the teachers rotate classrooms instead of the kids.
I say, YES, students should go back to school but with some major changes. Here are some things I foresee.
Masks: Uniform masks should be supplied to all students free of charge. They should be replaced every day. The first thing I thought of when mask wearing was proposed was all the wiggly, fidgety K-3 students I have dealt with over the years I spent teaching. I could visualize them playing with their masks – pulling on the elastic, putting their grubby little fingers all over the cloth surface, trading masks with other kids, or throwing them at other kids. I can see it even becoming a fad to have the “coolest” mask. The kind of thing that was so distracting that I had to ban certain fad items to keep the kids from fighting over them or showing them off, trading, playing with them, etc. I don’t know if little kids can really understand the importance of wearing a mask and some of them I am sure will not be able to get used to them. In a child’s cognitive development, empathy and the ability to think about something from someone else’s point of view do not really come into play until they are 8 or 9 years old.
Physical distancing: Students should be divided so that some go in the morning, some go in the afternoon, and if necessary, restrict the number of in-class days to 2 or 3. As for physical distancing, this too can be hard. Part of school is learning appropriate ways of interacting with other children. Plus, little kids are really into hugs – they LOVE to hug! Especially their teachers, but also their best friends or to comfort a crying classmate. Many, especially the youngest students, would find it unnatural and difficult to adjust to a strictly hands-off policy. But having fewer kids in the classroom at any one time would help.
Another proposal that could be included in this would be to expand the school year to year-round. There are already many schools that have year-round schedules, but this maybe could become the norm. This would make it more viable for the students to be in the classroom longer, because they could be rotated in this way too. So, for example, half the third graders in School X would have spring break in the third week of March, while the other half would have spring break in the fourth week of March. Of course, this will probably draw objections from teachers and from parents who have children in different grade levels with different schedules. These are problems that will have to be worked out by each individual institution or district.
“Virtual” classrooms: Some distance or virtual learning will be necessary, probably close to 50% of the students’ school time. Students will be required to participate in the distance learning activities and submit whatever work the teacher requires. Virtual school can only do so much. Some children don’t have access to computers at home, so they’d have to spend their day in a library, probably in close proximity to others doing the same thing. (And how would they get to the library if no one is home to take them?) Also, as I said before, face-to-face interaction is important especially when the students are young.
Entire curricula for online learning will have to be developed and designed; teachers will need extra inservice and professional development days to learn the programs and set up their virtual classrooms, and then to tweak the programs later on. I have no doubt there are plenty of educational supply companies that would love to find a new source of revenue designing, refining, and updating these curricula. The companies themselves might even be willing to train the teachers to use the programs, but probably not all the ongoing training and updating throughout the school year.
Where would the extra revenue come from? There would need to be funds spent on infrastructure (in some cases), equipment, staff (including an increase in the number of teachers), training, curricula, the expenses involved in keeping schools open for longer periods of time, etc. Would governments, however, be able and willing to spend a lot more on education than they currently do? How many referendums for increased school spending would be approved by voters? Because no matter what kind of solutions will be found and agreed to by school boards and parents, it is going to take MONEY, honey!! Beaucoup bucks! Mucho dinero! Too often, way too often, governments impose new requirements with good intentions, but do not provide funding for them. Schools and districts have to stretch their budgets to incorporate the new requirements.
First, they will have to supply every child with an iPad or laptop computer to use at home. (It will not work in the end if kids have to share their portable computer with siblings.) Sometimes these items will be abused, broken, lost or stolen. It should work pretty well in affluent suburbs, but what about in inner cities? If something happens to the iPad/laptop, whether or not it is the student’s fault, will (s)he be supplied with another one?
I see this as a necessity for any of the solutions being proposed. Even before covid-19, school districts were already making the decision to supply (or not) all students with iPads or laptops, because computers have become vital to all of our lives and kids need to know how to use them and learn on them, whether they have physical school or not. Poorer districts, of course, do not have the means to do as much of this. Inequality enhanced by access to technology will become a greater problem than it already is. And what about rural areas where internet connectivity is spotty? Is the federal government going to provide the infrastructure to correct that, so that every single citizen of this country has equal access to the internet? I’m not optimistic, no matter who is elected in November.
Increase in teaching & support staff: Placing the additional burden of both in class and distance learning on the current staff at any given school will cause more stress and higher rates of attrition. Therefore, creative solutions will have to be found.
Team teaching is one good solution, in my opinion. Perhaps new positions could also be created for tutors (who would help the struggling students at home, for example). But I guarantee, a commitment will have to be made to hire more teachers, so that the student-teacher ratio can become more like 15-1 than the current 25 to 30 students per teacher.
I know this is a long-winded answer, but I wanted to make it clear that I don’t agree with just sending students back to school without drastic modifications and a commitment to spending more on education. As a former teacher, I also wanted to lend my expertise to my answer. I know there are a lot of issues I didn’t cover or even think of. Thanks to everyone who read this entire post!