New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wonders if physical classrooms are obsolete:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested today that remote learning could become a permanent part of life for New York students, even after the coronavirus pandemic ends.
“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” Cuomo said during a press briefing in New York City. “Why? With all the technology you have?” [Kevin Tampone, “Is Going to School in Person Obsolete? Cuomo Wonders Why ‘Old Model’ Persists,” Syracuse.com, 2020.05.05]
Cuomo is catching heck from numerous education advocates for that statement. Much of the criticism stems from Cuomo’s partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on technological alternatives to traditional teaching, but advocates are also contending that we cannot replace face-to-face teaching with remote learning:
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta released the following statement Tuesday regarding the governor’s comments about reimagining education in New York:
“NYSUT believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings….”
Jasmine Gripper, executive director of the public education advocacy organization Alliance for Quality Education, released the following statement:
“…At present, where available, technology is serving an essential purpose in providing some educational access for children to safely learn during this crisis, but we cannot allow online education to supplant efforts to get them back into schools with teachers once the crisis passes.
“Hurricane Katrina spelled the end of public schools in New Orleans, which never reopened after the storm. It is essential that New York has a plan to reopen our schools when this health crisis is over. The pandemic has proven just how vital our public schools are to communities, as hubs that provide everything from meals to child care for essential workers.
…“We need to reimagine schools with smaller class sizes, where children will be able to thrive in a classroom environment that is safe and nurturing. We should imagine schools where there are school psychologists and school counselors — services that will be even more essential as children process trauma and disruption resulting from the pandemic. Research study after research study has shown that funding and teachers are predictors of student success. Research also shows that children spending excessive amounts of time on screens is harmful to their development.
“Up-to-date technology is an essential classroom tool, but it will never replace the face-to-face interactions and relationships with caring teachers that form the bedrock of a child’s education. We must be on guard to ensure that measures to keep children safe during the pandemic do not reduce the quality of education our children are entitled to” [Diane Rutherford, “Teachers Union, Education Advocates Voice Concerns as Cuomo Looks to ‘Reimagine’ Education,” WWNY-TV, 2020.05.05].
Research rigorously comparing online to face-to-face learning in K-12 is thin and difficult, but the data available indicate that online classes feel harder to students and produce lower learning outcomes than traditional face-to-face classes. Part of that disadvantage could come from crummy online courses. We may watch our kids right now struggling with mountains of online homework in our necessary coronavirus isolation, but we should not take online courses thrown together in a week by teachers who had planned all year to carry out these lessons in traditional classrooms as exemplars of remote learning. This spring’s universal online courses are life rafts and driftwood, the stuff we grab in an emergency to stay afloat. We can build yachts and the Queen Mary (we can also build the Titanic and drive it into an iceberg), but we need time and research and well-trained teachers to steer those new ships of learning with new technology and new methods. (Among other things, we’re going to need a lot more bandwidth to beam live holographs of teachers and students to each other….)
Knowing that we won’t have coronavirus under control for several months, we may have to build those robust online classrooms to get us through the coming school year. I’d much rather be in the classroom speaking directly to students than communicating with them by webcam and keyboard, but exposing dozens of kids at a time in an enclosed space to my teacher voice and their own boisterous exclamations (and when I taught French, boisterous exclamations were our primary objective) could be an exceptionally risky public health risk. Loud voices—think about the “teacher voice” we associate with our educators, that room-filling enunciation teachers use to command the room and direct attention—can emit more cootie-carrying particles than coughing:
Despite their small size, however, these micron-scale particles are sufficiently large to carry a variety of respiratory pathogens such as measles virus (50–500 nm)22, influenza virus (100 nm–1 µm)23, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (1–3 µm)24. Indeed, recent work by Yan et al. has confirmed that significant amounts of influenza viral RNA are present in small particles (<5 μm) emitted by influenza-infected individuals during natural breathing, without coughing or sneezing25. These small particles are potentially more infectious than larger sneeze- or cough-generated droplets for several reasons. First, smaller particles persist in the air for longer time periods before setting by gravity, thus increasing the probability of inhalation by susceptible individuals26. Second, smaller particles have a larger probability of penetrating further into the respiratory tract of a susceptible individual to initiate a lower respiratory tract infection4. Third, and perhaps most importantly, speech can release dramatically larger numbers of particles compared to coughing. Early work by Papineni and Rosenthal16 and Loudon and Roberts19 reported that speaking (as exemplified by counting aloud) releases about 2–10 times as many total particles as a single cough. Similarly, Loudon and Roberts investigated the role of singing in the spread of tuberculosis and showed that the percentage of airborne droplet nuclei generated by singing is 6 times more than that emitted during normal talking and approximately equivalent to that released by coughing27. More recent work using advanced particle characterization techniques have yielded similar results21,28,29,30. Chao et al.28 used an interferometric imaging technique to obtain the size distribution of particles larger than 2 μm and found that counting aloud from 1 to 100 releases at least 6 times as many particles as an individual cough. Likewise, Morawska and coworkers21,29 reported that counting aloud for 10 seconds followed by 10 seconds of breathing, repeated over two minutes, releases half as many particles as 30 seconds of continual coughing, which in turn releases half as many particles as saying “aah” for 30 seconds [Sima Asadi, Anthony S. Wexler, Christopher D. Cappa, Santiago Barreda, Nicole M. Bouvier & William D. Ristenpart, “Aerosol Emission and Superemission During Human Speech Increase with Voice Loudness,” Scientific Reports, 2019.02.19].
I’ve always liked to think that my teacher voice could infect students with a passion for learning. Now my teacher voice could infect the entire room with coronavirus.
We already have to rethink classrooms (and auditoria, and lunch rooms, and locker rooms, and buses…) to give all students at least six feet of breathing space. (Hmm… if we have to cut the number of students in every classroom by half, will Governor Noem be ready to float emergency aid to the schools to double their teaching staff? No price is too high to save children’s lives, right, Kristi?). But how will we make room in a traditional classroom for teachers and their necessarily strong voices? Will we put cashier shields in front of the teachers’ lecterns and require that they not move from those shielded spots? Will we create mic’d isolation booths where anyone presenting to the class must speak? Will we let everyone assemble at school but require that everyone whisper (call it A Pretty Quiet Place, with smaller monsters)?
Or will we have to admit that, for all the challenges online learning poses, conducting the 2020–2021 school year entirely online, or at least spending the summer creating all the online activities and acquiring and distributing all the necessary Internet infrastructure and tools necessary to move courses seamlessly online the moment the second wave comes, may be cheaper, easier, and safer than any reconfiguration we make make of our public physical learning spaces.
I’m not prepared to go full Cuomo and consign physical classrooms to the dustbin of history. I still think I can teach French more effectively and accountably in a room full of aspiring speakers than from behind a computer screen. But mingling with respiring speakers in any enclosed space (hey, principals! at least let your teachers take the kids outside!) for the next several months is likely irresponsible.