A total of 44 states and the District of Columbia had announced by late last week that public schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecticut was not one of them – yet.
Schools are still closed until further notice pending an announcement on May 20, per Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order, but it’s highly unlikely that students and teachers will see the inside of classrooms before next school year.
Connecticut Education Association President Jeff Leake, for one, urges caution regarding the re-opening, whenever it happens: “Before we send students, teachers, and staff back to school, the state must develop and implement new procedures and protocols to keep them safe. Schools by their very nature are not conducive to social distancing, and special accommodations must be made to change that.”
Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona plainly stated during a CEA-sponsored webinar last Wednesday that “it’s highly unlikely we’ll come back in June and resume classes.”
Clearly, very little intrigue surrounds the probable announcement that Connecticut schools will remain shuttered through June.
What is intriguing, however, are the discussions about the long-term effects of the current shutdown on schools themselves. As Dr. Cardona told teachers during the webinar, they should not anticipate going back to the “old model” next fall: “Education will never be the same.”
Put simply, the remote-learning model currently in place, coupled with lingering safety questions, has sparked a flurry of predictions about how public education might look once schools re-open. Among the forecasts:
• Smaller Classes and Staggered Schedules: Social-distancing practices will require additional space in classrooms, so schools will split student bodies in half and put them on some sort of alternating schedule. “One group of kids might attend school on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one week, then Tuesday and Thursday the following week,” according to an NPR report. “Others have discussed morning and afternoon shifts.”
• Continued Distance Learning: Adults have been earning online degrees for years now. Many public schools had already been experimenting with “blended learning” in which physical class sessions are reduced in number, supplemented by online lessons. COVID-19 has made such internet-dependent education a necessity – and this mode of teaching will not go away even when the virus does.
Education writer Emily Freitag explains that remote learning via computer goes hand-in-hand with the potential alternating school schedules: “Schools may have to go back to distance learning or reimagine a more complex hybrid model, with a portion of students in school and another portion at home for extended periods of time.”
• Additional Support Services: If COVID-19 has revealed anything about education, it’s that schools have become much more than just schools over the years. Public schools in America provide meals, mental-health counseling, social-emotional support, and many other necessities in addition to education.
“Now schools need to become a service, not a place,” writes Freitag. “Educators are rapidly trying to build grab-and-go social service programs for basic needs, connect with students and families virtually, and steward distance-learning experiences.”
Adds the NPR report, such services will have an even higher priority once kids return to school buildings due to the added stress of a new schedule and a new mode of learning, all in the midst of a public-health crisis. In short, “ameliorating this trauma will be at the core of [a school’s] mission.”
• Additional Changes: Other changes involve large-group events such as band concerts, assemblies, and athletic contests that might become small-group events or be canceled outright. Also, schools could have later starting times. And as the CEA’s Leake suggests, mandated protocols should require “the continual cleaning of classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms, as well as commonly shared areas and equipment.”
No doubt, change is on the way. But questions remain: How probable are these changes? How effective will they be? Indeed, will certain changes create more problems than they solve?
I’ve seen a few changes in 29 years of teaching, which I’ve described previously as “the pendulum effect” – an “innovation to improve education” is initiated, it goes away, and it comes back again at some point. Change for the sake of change, you might say.
The radical changes being discussed now are different; they’re not change for the sake of change. Still, we must view these proposals with circumspection before adopting them, whole hog.
For all of distance learning’s innovation and novelty, for instance, it’s no panacea. If anything, it can exacerbate education’s pre-existing challenges. Many families lack the technological resources, knowledge, or time to effectively support their children’s at-home schooling. Many students have special needs that simply cannot be met without consistent face-to-face interaction. And many students simply disappear when not required to show up personally in a school building. I’ve seen that phenomenon firsthand during the current remote-learning scenario.
This is not to say that these problems are insurmountable and that change is futile – especially when children’s well-being and safety are at stake. However, we must approach major modifications with caution and we must seek feedback.
That means proposals should be debated openly and honestly. For instance, parents, kids, and teachers should be directly involved in the education subcommittee of the governor’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group. Failing that, we run the risk of creating a Frankenstein monster, turning schools into a patchwork of untested, conflicting initiatives. And that would indeed create more problems than are solved.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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