As the academic year returns, COVID-19 has placed an unprecedented strain on schools and exposed a growing gap between what families want and what the system can provide. The more that education officials can mix an openness to innovative solutions with a willingness to take decisive action, the more they can close that crucial gap.
Local public school officials are finishing their reopening plans before releasing them for approval and public disclosure. As word about those plans begins to go public, we are seeing that most districts are calling for fully remote learning. Teachers unions have expressed concerns that some districts may compel educators into unsafe situations, hinting even that strikes may be necessary in some situations. Preserving the health of educators is important, but as one elementary teacher recently said of her employer, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, we “owe our community that works, that are essential workers … that choice of face-to-face.”
Detroit is not alone in offering families options that include in-person learning. For example, elementary students in Vicksburg can return to classrooms, while older students have the option of four days on campus and one day of online learning each week. Saginaw plans to divide students who don’t select virtual learning into two groups. Each will spend at least two days in class each week, with a third day every other week.
The push to offer access to in-person learning is driven by a recognition that children benefit from healthy routines of social interaction. That doesn’t mean, though, that returning to a traditional classroom setting, even with temperature checks and social distancing, offers a perfect guarantee of safety.
But one of the state’s leading pediatric infectious disease specialists told the Detroit Free Press it’s “certainly worth a try” because it’s “extremely rare” for children to be seriously affected by the novel coronavirus. Parents and teachers, she added, should be able to assess their own risks. A few schools with unconventional calendars, including one in Jackson, have already given the new academic year a promising start.
Some parents, dissatisfied with their options, are taking their children’s learning into their own hands. Interest in online charter schools and homeschooling is on the rise. Some families with financial means are coming together to combine resources, hiring teachers who will instruct their children in a home or local public setting. The potential benefits of this modern one-room schoolhouse approach are clear. It helps kids continue their learning in an engaging, structured format while assuaging fears about spreading the virus.
Unfortunately, one nationally prominent school district in northern Virginia is inflicting guilt on families whose options are already limited to remote learning. Fairfax County officials announced that school buildings were closed, but then chastised parents who were forming private tutoring groups, arguing that doing so “may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students.” In other words, some families can’t do this, so no one should.
The chair of Michigan’s Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee has offered an appealing way out of this apparent conundrum. Sen. Lana Theis is encouraging districts to sponsor what she calls “learning pads,” small groups of families who work with a public school teacher who is paid by the local district. These arrangements would make it easier to ensure that at-risk students who cannot access in-class instruction can meet with qualified teachers. Embracing such a plan may require adopting a flexible mindset, cutting through some state-level and union bargaining red tape, and shifting district resources away from non-instructional functions, but it could benefit many students.
Going further, what if learning pads were paired with high-quality remote instruction? Education policy expert Matt Ladner makes a compelling case for adding in Success Academy’s approach to remote pandemic learning. At the highly effective New York charter network, a lecturer delivers the instruction remotely to a large group of students, while other teachers, paired with smaller numbers of students, lead virtual discussions and small-group projects.
Applying this model to teachers in a learning pad could prove even more beneficial. Such an approach could work for both Michigan charters and conventional districts.
If public schools can’t or won’t sponsor enough local learning pads, parents and their elected officials may push for other changes. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has proposed converting federal education dollars into direct grants to families who need financial support for at-home learning or hiring their own tutors. A more effective solution could be offered at the state level, because states provides a far greater share of K-12 funding.
Should districts refuse to bend and embrace creative methods to meet students’ learning needs, they might just lose their grip on the public support needed to sustain their current status.
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