When people who haven’t set foot in a high school for thirty years tell me the schools have to open, a lot of what’s in this article, “We Cannot Return to Campus This Fall,” goes through my mind: the reality of the constant, sustained, unavoidable contact with hundreds (in my high school building, more than a thousand) people a day.
I teach in one of the larger school districts on Long Island, serving more than 10,000 K-12 students every day. In a large school district, if you really want all the kids to physically return to the buildings this fall, you have to accept that social distancing, disinfecting, masking — everything that science says will keep this incredibly infectious disease at bay — is all out the window (unless there’s an enormous, infeasible influx of cash for more buses, teachers, one to one Chromebooks, and so much more). Some parents might be okay with a trade off of increased COVID-19 risk if their child could go back to school, but we don’t live in a bubble, we live in a community, and our choices inevitably affect everyone around us.
If I had any input into how my district would manage transitioning back to school this fall, I would prioritize Life Skills (our population of intellectually disabled students), special education, and elementary students for an in person return in the fall. I would spread them across all buildings in a district. I would keep them in static pods of no more than ten (probably no more than five with Life Skills kids), in the same room all day. If a student or teacher in one of the “pods” became ill, just that pod would need to quarantine for two weeks, not the entire population. And I would allow all parents the option of keeping their kids at home, where students could continue with distance learning if they chose. Yet even this relatively modest plan would cost so much money (more teachers and intensive cleaning as the big cost).
I am both a mom to newly minted 6th and 3rd graders, and a teacher. I understand why so many parents want their kids, all kids, back in school ASAP, especially elementary school students (and again, I think this is the population we need to focus on getting back to physical school first). And even if I don’t agree, I understand why some people think having their children in school is far healthier overall than learning from home.
But when it comes to academics, next year my in person lessons will be barely distinguishable from my online lessons. Why? Because, as this article touches on, the group projects, debates, Socratic Seminars, the acting exercises, the movement in my classroom, the shared supplies, shared computer…that’s all out for next year. Any type of collaboration we do will be no different than what we would do on a computer, because of social distancing requirements. While I would love to go back to teaching in the hands on, interactive style that I believe most helps my students learn and grow, the coronavirus demands that my classroom look far different. We have to face that one way or the other, our classrooms will not and can not function as they have in the past. Rather than bemoaning what we can not change, perhaps it is better, in this moment, to train teachers how to leverage some truly amazing educational technology and teach us research based practices for designing effective, engaging online lessons, rather than to focus on a murky, perhaps mythical fall return.
But there’s also another truth to consider when it comes to comparing “in-person” schooling with the online experience. I know what the teenagers I teach really miss about school, and it doesn’t have much to do with academics: they miss the socialization, the casual conversations, the camaraderie, the belonging to something, sports, theater, school traditions, dumb jokes with friends. And of course they miss these essential elements of the high school experience, rightfully so. The loss of their social world is enormous. When parents of high schoolers say “online school isn’t working,” at base, a central (though certainly not sole) reason is the loss of this social learning and experience.
So while I don’t believe going back to physical school will make a large difference academically, what going back to school will allow is the social aspects of school (many of which will either violate social distancing or be severely curtailed by social distancing). I do not think online learning is superior to or the same as in person learning in general, but in a classroom scenario that will have to involve strict social distancing, constant disinfecting between classes, etc, we are not talking about a traditional classroom experience for next year one way or the other. When you consider what the reality of in person high school would look like for next year, the academic differences between remote and in person seem small and relatively manageable. So do we send high school students back into these large buildings, where hundreds if not thousands freely and in close quarters mix, chiefly so they can socialize? Do we accept that this will require almost surely violating all of the principles that the world’s top epidemiologists agree will keep us (relatively) safe?
Here’s a quick reality check about even the most basic aspect of what we will need to follow safe disease mitigation strategies in high school buildings: masks. Even some adults can’t manage this seemingly simple step–do we honestly believe teenagers, who are notoriously bad at managing risk, will regularly wear masks in a school building? Peer pressure, and not the positive kind, will be a major factor here. For example, in mid-April, at the high point of the coronavirus pandemic here in New York, in one of the largest hot spots in the entire world at the time, my twenty-something year old neighbor had a backyard beer pong party with all of his maskless friends. I saw one young man roll up, case of beer in his hand, mask on his face. I knew what would happen as soon as he saw his other friends…and I was right. Rather than being the only kid with a mask on, he took it right off and quietly slipped it into his pocket. Multiply this scene hundreds of times in high schools across America. Even kids with the best intentions will easily be won over by their natural desire to fit on, whatever the risks. And ultimately, this will lead to increased case numbers and involuntary school closures anyway.
If we are remote next year, parents who wanted their kids back (which seems to be many/most and I understand why), I think the socialization your child is missing is the big issue. If that is more important to you than social distancing and you have friends that feel the same way, well that’s the path to a personal solution anyway. Academically, push your districts for what your kid needs in an online environment. Small group or one on one live time with a teacher? Daily comprehension check in? Use your voice to advocate for your child. Districts are doing their best and want to be as responsive as they can to their communities and the needs of the children in their charge.
I don’t mean to minimize any concerns and I know what’s true for my fairly affluent district is a world away from the issues facing other districts. I know that some kids are in unsafe homes and for them school, even if it’s a vector for disease, is a safer space. There are heaps of enormously difficult questions and problems around this issue and no one solution that effectively addresses them all. This is a situation in which we have to balance risk and reward, as well as responsibility to our individual families and the larger community. The hope is we can move forward with a flexible and fair middle ground, that addresses the areas of biggest concern for all perspectives concerned.
And when an effective vaccine or treatment is found? We aim to come back better. We remember that kids didn’t miss standardized tests, or almost anything that can be measured quantitatively. What matters most to our kids are the “soft,” social, human aspects of teaching and learning that have been shunted aside for far too long. Kids need meaningful relationships with caring adults, friends, opportunities to play instruments, to run track, to try on identities in a safe and nurturing environment, none of which can be plotted as data points on a graph. If we remember these lessons, perhaps this will not have all been in vain, and we can give our children back more, and then some, of what they will have lost during this time.
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