The American education system is under attack.
And just like at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, it’s an inside job.
At nearly every level of government – from Presidents to Congress to state legislatures all the way down to local school boards – decision makers have ignored science and sound policy to prioritize anything that will give the economy a quick boost.
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.
But that would mean socialism – giving everyday people survival checks so they can stay home and not go into unsafe work environments. That would mean providing money to parents so they could stay home with their own kids and ensure they were doing their best academically in remote learning.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of country. We have no problem spending $1.8 trillion on tax breaks for the ultra rich, but $2,000 a month for the working class is too extravagant.
Better to make us unnecessarily congregate at non-essential jobs and spread Covid-19 all over the place. No wonder we only have 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s Covid cases. No wonder we have about 20% of the world’s Covid fatalities.
And efforts at mitigating spread of the disease have been inadequate to lax to nonexistent.
Kids learn better in-person. So we should reopen schools to in-person instruction.
However, this kind of thinking is hypothetical to a fault. It ignores the specific facts of the situation and pretends they don’t exist.
In-person learning IS better under normal circumstances. But a global pandemic is not normal circumstances.
At so many levels, rushed, unsafe reopenings have already caused long-term academic deficits that will haunt our school system for decades if not longer.
In the short term, most academic programs being practiced during the pandemic are not as effective as alternative plans that would also safeguard student health and safety.
In the long term, factors such as faith in the school system, devastation of the teaching profession and potential lingering health effects of the virus may spell absolute disaster in the coming years even if Covid, itself, becomes nothing but a bad memory.
SHORT TERM EFFECTS
The kind of academics parents are accepting from their duly elected school directors is a national embarrassment.
It’s not that too many schools are providing instruction remotely. It’s that not enough are.
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.
And since only a portion of students remain remote – even if that portion is half or more of the total student body – their needs are usually ignored in favor of those willing to attend in person. Time and resources are prioritized for in-person students and taken away from remote students. This should be no surprise since students who remain on remote are much more likely to be poor and/or minorities while those attending in person are more likely to be wealthier and white.
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.
IN-PERSON AND REMOTE SIMULTANEOUSLY
This has been an absolute disaster.
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.
BENEFITS OF REMOTE
In the time of high infections, it’s best to keep all students remote. Not only is this the safest option for the health of everyone involved, it provides the best available education.
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.
When politicians and school boards promote reckless policies, it destroys public faith in self-governance. There are plenty of private corporations just chomping at the bit to take over our schools. How can we forestall them when our duly-elected representatives repeatedly show themselves to be unfit for the job? If parents lose their faith in school boards, the beneficiaries will most likely be private corporations.
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.
However, it is nearly as pro-corporate as the previous regime. The CDC under Trump commonly rewrote scientific guidance to agree with whatever mad dictate the idiot in the Oval Office just tweeted. Under Biden, the CDC has been more constrained, but it still ignores the world consensus on school closings and countless scientific studies.
Biden needs to rebuild faith in government. That won’t happen when his CDC issues official policy stating that teacher vaccinations are not necessary to reopen schools.
And that brings me to the teacher shortage.
First, it’s not a shortage. It’s an exodus. Highly trained professionals refuse to submit to ill treatment, loss of autonomy and lack of adequate wages and benefits.
This is not a new problem. Educators have been leaving the profession in droves long before Trump or Biden.
Few people are going to want to be teachers when they’re treated like this. Their health and safety is taken completely for granted. It isn’t even considered part of the equation or a certain amount of educator deaths are considered acceptable.
Teachers are expected to do multiple jobs at the same time in dangerous conditions at the drop of a hat and accept all the blame and none of the credit for what happens.
Ed tech companies have been waiting in the wings to take over the job of educating children. And the result will not be a superior education. It will be the complete dumbing down of American academics. Instruction will become a way corporations can sell products to students and families. It will not be centered on what is best for individual children.
As much as some people scream and foam at teachers who have the audacity to stand up for their own health and safety, they will miss us when we’re gone.
And finally, there’s the lingering health issues caused by ignoring safety protocols for students and staff.
The problem with Covid isn’t just the possibility that you’ll die. Even if you survive, the most common long term effects are fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.
However, other reported long-term symptoms include difficulty with thinking and concentration, depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.
Long-term complications can include cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological and/or psychiatric problems.
We don’t know how serious or widespread these issues will be. However, we could be dooming a generation of children to increased depression, anxiety, changes in mood, smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, or memory problems.
How will the job market be impacted by large numbers of young people on disability due to inflammation of the heart muscle, lung function abnormalities, acute kidney damage or even crippling rashes and hair loss?
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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