Lessons that COULD be learned from a year in a pandemic

For better or worse the past year has been a giant natural experiment in education. Some schools have been closed for in-person learning for more than a year while others have opened in some form. Some have provided the neediest students back on campus while leaving the more “self-sufficient” students to make do with ZOOM or other virtual learning tool. Teachers have worked exhausting hours trying to make virtual, hybrid and even pen and paper work for students. They should be applauded.

This year also has taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t:

  1. The value of in-person learning: for years there has been a large push by some education reformers to move from in-person learning to technology. Often touted as “personalized learning,” reformers argue that students can easily learn everything they need sitting on a computer all day. If it was unclear before, it is no longer. Even with live interaction with teachers and other students, students struggled through a long year of online learning. Teachers have expressed strong feelings about the negative effects of online all the time including learning loss both academically and socially. A recent study from the Center for Disease Control found that online learning can be damaging to children’s emotional and mental health. Additionally, virtual learning is not universal. It does not necessarily mean live interaction with teachers. A U.S. Department of Education survey from March 2021 found that “10% of eighth-graders, and 5% of fourth-graders, are getting no live instruction at all when learning remotely.” They are essentially being given homework packets.
  2. Virtual Learning has its place, but it’s a small one: one discovery is that online can work when absolutely necessary. For example, inclement weather in many parts of the country can close schools. Now schools may consider making a snow day into a zoom day rather than disrupt the school schedule. Having said that there is a still a gap in access to the internet. The schools have made a major effort to connect all students, but it isn’t there yet. Furthermore, several studies point to a disparate impact of the online learning environment particularly for blacks and Latinos who have had less access to internet than their white peers: “he October US Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey shows that 91 percent of households with K–12 students always or usually have access to a device for learning and internet access. Although gaps have narrowed since the spring, Black and Hispanic households are still three to four percentage points less likely than white households to have reliable access to devices, and three to six percentage points less likely to have reliable access to the internet. “
  3. Hybrid learning is worse than virtual: having some students in the classroom and some online is not only a logistical nightmare but also in many ways worse than virtual learning. Teachers can’t fully take advantage of the in-person setting without leaving the virtual learners out. Often teachers found that regardless of having students in the classroom, the easiest was just to treat it like everyone was virtual learning. So, in essence students just sat in their teachers’ classroom doing virtual learning rather than at home. The value for students on campus was some interaction during breaks, but it is difficult to argue that the academic experience was better.
  4. Infrastructure continues to be ignored: even before the pandemic, there were classrooms without proper venting, heating, or space. You may recall the story of students sitting in Baltimore classrooms wrapped in their coats trying to learn in the winter cold. Guidelines for school reopening required spreading out students in already overcrowded classrooms. The only way to do this is to leave some students at home (although more than one policy maker demonstrating their lack of awareness of schools, teaching, and students suggested that schools just move outside.) Even if schools could get students inside, many of them did not meet the guidelines for ventilation. School infrastructure has been neglected for years. Mountain View Union School District, a relatively small and wealthy K-8 district in California, announced early in the 2020-21 school year that it would take them until at least January 2021 to prepare get the school venting up to the required standards (the district opened with limited capacity in mid-March 2021). The crisis shed additional light on the crumbling schools in this country. It is unclear whether the crisis will be enough to prompt the expenditure of funds to fix the schools.
  5. Disparity between socioeconomic status widely apparent in schools: Access to in-person learning heavily favored upper middle class and middle class white children. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control, Black and Latino parents were more concerned about school re-openings and less likely to send their students to in-person learning during the pandemic. Lawsuits to reopen schools came largely from white and middle class parents. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education released in March found that “68% of Asian, 58% of Black and 56% of Hispanic fourth graders were learning entirely remotely, while just 27% of White students were.” Resourced parents are stretching themselves to the limit to put their kids in private school primarily because private schools were able to open for in-person learning five days a week.
  6. Schools are also daycare: As much as we would like to glorify schools as being all about education, the reality is that we have grown a society that needs them to be regular daycare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics “among married-couple families with children…64.2 percent had both parents employed.”  Parents are highly dependent on schools to provide childcare. When school went online, parents juggled what they could, but many ended up having to become one-income households. Women left the workforce by the millions to watch their children, help with school work, and get students online. Women’s workforce participation has dropped to 57%, a level not seen since 1988. Without schools and viable alternatives, children were put first. And while traditionalists may applaud the stay at home mom, ultimately it hurts women to lose opportunities. Furthermore, many households depend on being dual-income to survive. The impact on families is likely to be felt for years to come.

Even after a year of virtual learning and additional knowledge about its negative effects, many school districts plan to continue virtual learning, according to a recent RAND study. So, perhaps we as a society have learned very little from a global pandemic. I hope not, but hope may be all I have until our policymakers wake up to the realities of the educational needs of our community.

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