The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.
Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.
Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.
But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.
We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!
Do you live in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania? I’m running for County Council in District 9
It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure.
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).”
What an improvement that would be!
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform…. We could just look at the score and vote accordingly.
But who would we get to make and grade the tests?
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners.
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests.
Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.
If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.
This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.
Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.
Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.
Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.
You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?
You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?
Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.
After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.
Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.
Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.
Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.
And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.
Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!
If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.
There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.
But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.
Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.
Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.
Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.
It didn’t have to be this way. We could have put humanity first. We could have taken every step possible to protect our children from a deadly virus whose full effects on the human body are unknown. We could have protected their teachers and teachers families who by all accounts are even more susceptible.
Instead, about 47% of students attend schools providing some kind of in-person instruction, according to a poll by Education Next. That’s about 19% of the districts in the country providing some kind of substandard hybrid program and 28% trying to run blindly as if the pandemic wasn’t happening. Moreover, those open to in-person instruction are most often located in communities with the highest Covid infection rates!
Let’s start with hybrid models. Most involve some kind of in-person instruction combined with remote learning. Partial groups of students come to the buildings certain days and stay remote on others. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the student body refuses to participate and remains remote entirely.
The result is inconsistent programs. Students switch from one method to another – either because of changes at home or schools rapidly going from one model to another. Kids get used to learning one way and then have to change to another. They have to keep track of elaborate schedules and often fall through the cracks.
No wonder grades are tanking. We’re asking students to do things that are simply too complicated for their ages. And parents who are struggling with their own Covid-inspired juggling acts are often just as confused.
As a parent, it’s hard to make sure your child attends in-person or remote learning sessions when you aren’t even sure when these sessions are. The result is a spike in student absences which can come as a surprise to both parents and students.
Critics of remote instruction complain that it exacerbates existent inequalities. However, the hybrid model does so to an even greater degree – all with the sanction of the school board. And once inequalities are no longer the result of federal or state legislators or lack of resources but come directly from decision makers in your hometown refusing to care about all students, you have a deep systemic problem that no amount of moving students around from place-to-place can fix.
Even when everyone is on the same page and in the school building for instruction, the normal benefits of having students in-person are outweighed by necessary mitigation factors in schools.
Teachers help students by observing their work and stepping in if students are making mistakes or need help. However, teachers who are attempting to stay outside of 6 feet of their students cannot help because they cannot adequately see what their students are doing.
Moreover, kids benefit by working with each other in small groups. But this cannot be easily accomplished when they have to stay 6 feet apart.
In fact, both situations are best remedied by some kind of remote instruction. Students can share work through devices with both teachers and other students. They can collaborate virtually and get help. Being in-person gives no benefit. In fact, it just obscures the real solution.
Either teachers burn themselves out trying to address the needs of two different groups with two different styles of instruction simultaneously, or they teach the entire group as if it were meeting remotely.
This results in one of two possibilities. One, teachers pay more attention to those in-person and mostly ignore those on-line. Two, they have to spend so much time dealing with technological issues that crop up or that they didn’t have time or training to anticipate that they end up ignoring in-person students.
This is a method that looks good on paper. It makes school boards seem like they are trying to meet the needs of all learners. But what they’re really doing is meeting the needs of none.
Academics can be consistent and schedules predictable. Problems can be anticipated, planned for and best solved. And the needs of the most students can be met. Districts can ensure everyone has the necessary technology and wi-fi. They can make sure teachers are trained and have help.
But too many decision makers see this as a defeat. We’re giving in to the virus instead of molding it to our will.
The sad fact is, if we want to defeat Covid, we need to defeat THE VIRUS. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not help anyone.
The short-sightedness of current academic plans that try to circumvent remote learning when infections are high will have lasting consequences on American education for years to come.
The same goes for larger government institutions like the President, Congress, the CDC and state legislatures. The Trump administration was a never ending dumpster fire. The hope was that a new administration would be better – and the Biden administration has been more efficient in many ways.
There could be thousands of Covid’s Kids who have to pay the rest of their lives for the recklessness of adults today.
Not to mention adults suffering from these conditions and having to leave the workforce immediately.
So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.
It robs kids of the best possible education given pandemic conditions. It increases racial and economic inequality. It erodes faith in government at all levels. And it gambles with the health and safety of everyone – adults and children – caught in the middle.
The best way to promote student learning isn’t to attack the very system providing it. Nor is it to endanger the lives of those who do the work and provide instruction.
The current crisis can be a temporary situation to survive with a minimum of risk and a maximum of support and caution.
Or we can recklessly pretend it isn’t happening and put the future of our children and the nation at large in unnecessary jeopardy.
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Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.
It really comes down to who controls the environment.
In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.
I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.
Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.
You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.
In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.
As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.
Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.
HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE
Then there’s the question of… well… questions.
In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.
The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.
Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.
I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.
However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.
In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.
These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.
Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.
Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.
Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.
There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.
On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.
So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.
He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.
So I moved on.
We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.
Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.
“Melanie?” I say.
“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”
She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.
But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?
My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?
Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.
The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.
I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.
It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.
For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.
That kind of thing happens all the time.
And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.
In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.
There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.
It’s okay if a few children die to start up the economy.
That is literally the opinion being offered by media influencers and policymakers as Coronavirus social distancing efforts continue passed the 30-day mark.
In the midst of a global pandemic, we’ve closed down all nonessential businesses while people self quarantine at home waiting for the curve of infection to plateau and then drop off. Medical experts tell us this is the only way to ensure there are enough ventilators and hospital beds for those who get sick.
Yet there is a concerted effort by the Trump Administration and plutocrats everywhere to get business back up and running. And to do that, they need the schools to reopen so parents can return to work.
They literally want to reopen schools as soon as possible – even if it isn’t 100% safe.
And if that means students, teachers and parents die, at least their sacrifices will have been worth it.
“I just saw a nice piece in [British medical journal] The Lancet arguing the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3%, in terms of total mortality. Any, you know, any life is a life lost, but … that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”
Dr. Oz walked back the comment after popular backlash, but I believed him the first time. Many people would find that acceptable.
Dr. Phil McGraw (who unlike Dr. Oz is not a licensed doctor) said the following on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle:
“The fact of the matter is, the longer this lockdown goes on, the more vulnerable people get. And it’s like there’s a tipping point. There’s a point at which people start having enough problems in lockdown that it will actually create more destruction and actually more deaths across time than the actual virus will itself.”
He then compared coronavirus deaths to deaths from smoking, swimming pools and car crashes – which critics pointed out result from mostly voluntary behavior.
Once again, Dr. Phil walked back his comments after public outrage. And once again, I saw where he was coming from – because it’s clear where these celebrity talking heads are getting their information.
You find the same opinion tucked into many otherwise informative articles about the virus and education.
Education Next published a piece by Walton Family Foundation advisor and American Enterprise Institute fellow John Bailey with this precious little nugget tucked in its middle:
“Currently, the public health benefits of school closures and home quarantining outweigh the costs. But at what point does that equation flip? When do the economic, societal, and educational costs outweigh the public health benefits of these aggressive social distancing actions?”
The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.
Children have a more difficult time with the constant hand washing and separating themselves at least 6 feet apart recommended by health experts. This is one of the justifications for closing schools in the first place. If we reopen schools too quickly, it could jumpstart another wave of infections.
In fact, that’s exactly what the Imperial College of London found in its own modeling study on likely U.S. and U.K. outcomes.
School closures can be effective to help suppress the transmission rates and flatten the curve, the report concluded, IF CONTINUED OVER FIVE MONTHS.
That’s a long time. But it gets worse.
In the absences of mass vaccinations – which may be as much as two years away – the study found the virus is likely to rebound for a second and third wave.
Despite the science, every state has a different date in mind for when schools will reopen.
Since the beginning of April,a total of 21 state departments of education (including Pennsylvania’s) have decided to keep schools closed for the remainder of the academic year until at least August or September. Six states plus Washington, D.C., still have plans to reopen their schools before the end of the month.
Beyond the question of WHEN to reopen schools is the even more complicated one of HOW or IF.
President and chief executive of the National Association of State Boards of Education Robert Hull said administrators across the country are asking not how – but if – schools will reopen in the fall.
“Everybody says we hope we return to normal,” Hull said. “It’s not going to return to normal anytime soon because the new normal is going to be different.”
Multiple possibilities are being considered.
A major factor will be how well districts can test incoming students for infection.
If US schools all had digital thermometers (as they do in Singapore), students temperatures could be taken before letting them in to the building. Anyone running a fever could be sent home.
Some policymakers are even considering spot checking students throughout the day with thermometers and using video cameras to trace the path of any students running a temperature to tell who they may have come into contact with before being identified. However, this seems pretty disruptive to me and – especially in the younger grades – might terrify students and make them conversely feel less safe in school because of the very efforts done to ensure their safety.
One thought provoking proposal is reducing class size to no more than 10 students.
This would also have educational benefits allowing teachers the ability to give more one-on-one instruction. However, most classes are double or triple this size now. Few school buildings are large enough to double or triple the number of classrooms needed at the same time.
One solution to this is that children could attend on alternate days or on a half day basis – one group in the morning, another in the afternoon. The drawback is that this would reduce the hours students are in class. Lessons would either have to be cut down to essentials or some part of assignments may have to go online.
Just ensuring that students aren’t all in the hallway at the same time would be a challenge. Class dismissals might be staggered or perhaps the teachers would move from room-to-room while the students stay put.
Moreover, the simple act of busing students to-and-from school is likewise complicated. If students sit further apart on the bus, that means each district needs either more buses at the same time or double the time to transport students at arrival and dismissal.
But without it, the economy cannot get back under way.
When schools closed in March, many districts switched to some kind of distance learning. Teachers put assignments on-line and even teach through Internet meeting sites like ZOOM. Continuing this in some form – for part or all of the day – is also being considered. However, it causes as many problems as it solves.
Parents need to be able to get back to work. Many can’t stay at home taking care of their children indefinitely. And they can’t leave their kids to their own devices while trying to learn via computer, device or app.
That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.
However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.
After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.
In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.
But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?
There-in lies a tale.
America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.
They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.
According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.
This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”
In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.
“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.
Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.
Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.
Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.
I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.
NEW YORK CITY
New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.
While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.
“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”
In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.
In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.
“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.
Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”
However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.
Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:
“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”
Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.
Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.
Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.
Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help. Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.
The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.
Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.
Only 14 people have been infected in the U.S., and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) writes on its Website that the “immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low” for the average American – especially those who have not traveled recently to Wuhan, the surrounding Hubei Province or elsewhere in mainland China.
However, this is certainly scary news for anyone – especially parents, teachers and students.
In fact, federal officials singled out schools at a press conference on Tuesday about possible responses to the disease if it gets worse on these shores.
No! We’re concerned mostly because KIDS MIGHT MISS SCHOOL!!!!
But, hey, no worries because the Trump administration figures this new and unpredictable disease which typically causes symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath can be circumvented with… cyber school?
Second, not all kids have Internet access at home. Many of our most underprivileged children need to go to a public place like a library to get online. So if we require students to submit assignments this way during a closure, we’re forcing them to increase their chances of infection at a public place or get behind in their work. Not exactly fair.
Sure, they can try to muddle through a computer program or do virtual work and submit it online. But how is that really different from the bad old days when the most checked out educators would disseminate a worksheet to the class and then hide behind a newspaper at their desks?
This is the kind of curriculum we used to criticize teachers for and that very few modern day educators could get away with in our modern public school system – UNLESS they do it behind a computer and/or software package.
This is not being “future ready” or “innovative.” It is the worst practices of the past repackaged so a bunch of suits at the corporate offices can cash in.
Much of this software asks for and saves student inputs which can be compromised or actively sold to third parties.
These are “adaptive, personalized learning experiences” or “administrative platforms for tracking academics, disciplinary issues, student information systems, and classroom management programs.”
Pedophiles could use this data to find and abduct children. Criminals could use it to blackmail them. It could even be sold to unscrupulous corporations or exploited by other children to bully and harass classmates.
And now the same disease has come to our shores on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election. You’ll forgive me for admiring what could be the most effective means of voter suppression in modern politics!
This may be an unlikely scenario – especially given the degree of secrecy and competence it would require – but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their power.
Beyond mere financial gain, some may hope that teleschooling in the wake of predictable disasters could dumb down our children’s education just enough to deprive them of that lesson, themselves.
The best way to stop skepticism is to undercut the education of the next generation.
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